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Beer in the New England Colonies

NEHSSpotSmBannerFrom the first days of the New England colonies right up through today New Englanders have loved their beer. In 2012, Mainers consumed more beer per capita than residents of any other state, and New Hampshire and Vermont are in the top 10. The stuff is brewed into our history. The Mayflower probably wouldn’t have even landed in Plymouth if it weren’t running out of beer and its crew afraid that supplies would not last long enough to make the run to Virginia (the intended destination) before the ship ran out.

And if the Pilgrim’s had pressed on to Virginia, then what? Today we’d all be speaking French and in a region known as South Quebec? It wasn’t to be. Faced with the prospect of a sober trip to Virginia, the Pilgrims off-loaded in Massachusetts. Imagine their surprise when they hopped ashore, dangerously low on beer, and found that not only were no packies open . . . they hadn’t even been invented yet. But it wouldn't be long before the resourceful residents of the New England colonies got their beer on.

The story of that first year of the Mayflower colonists, plagued by disease and forced to live on their ship, is made even more painful by their limited beer supplies. Though the colonists’ beer was generally weaker than what we have today, they were accustomed to drinking it by the gallon. Is it any wonder, then, that once they got their feet under them, the New England colonies viewed beer – its production, availability, potency and purity, and pricing – as matters of great importance?

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In November 1620 there were two ways to obtain beer in New England – drink the remainders of what had come over from England, wait for more to arrive or make your own. From the start, the tradition of homebrewing took hold. At the same time, however, the New England colonies were developing beer-making as professions and crafts. And it would not be long before the nascent beer industry got a foothold, first as an offshoot of bakeries and then as breweries, competing for market share.

Beer making was an appealing profession in the New England colonies, offering both good wages and a position of respect. Many wealthy and prominent American colonists started out as brewers, or, as in the case of Sam Adams, maltsters.

The following article, Economic Condition of Beer Brewing in Colonial New England, was written by Ethelbert Stewart of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and originally published in the American Brewer’s Review in 1903. It is not a comprehensive review of colonial era brewing, but offers an engaging portrait of the industry that will most likely wet your whistle and leave you thirsty for more information about this slice of our history.

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