Actually, the title of this article is misleading because the article explains how the Founding Fathers couldn’t possibly get drunk on the beer they brewed. Most of them, anyway. That’s because most of them brewed “small beer.”
Small beer didn’t come in short glasses and it didn’t have anything to do with people being shorter in “the old days.”After all, George Washington was six-two. And though small beer was lower in alcohol content and therefore lower in calories, small beer was not brewed because the Founding Fathers wanted that “tastes great, less filling” alternative.
George Washington and others brewed small beer as a common household drink for servants, children, and anyone who was thirsty. It was a safe alternative to water which may or may not have been contaminated. And it wasn’t the alcohol that killed the germs, it was the process of boiling the water. Most small beer probably had little more than 1% alcohol content.
Washington’s recipe for small beer, written in his diary while he was serving in the Virginia Militia, is probably the most famous. After boiling hops in water for three hours, the brewer adds three gallons of molasses and then some yeast. And that’s it. Doesn’t sound much like beer as we know it.
And that’s because it isn’t.
Beer is typically made from malted barley or wheat, water and hops. But barley did not initially grow well in American soil, malted grains were not plentiful in the American colonies and the process of malting was not something easily accomplished on the kitchen table at home. So Americans made beer out of other things unless they could afford to import barley or set up a malthouse. A malthouse is a facility for malting grain, which has to be dried, soaked, sprouted and quickly dried again before it can be used to brew beer. Incidentally, Samuel Adams, who has his pictures on more varieties of beer than all other colonial Americans combined, was made a partner in his father’s malthouse after he used up all the money he’d been given to start his own business. There’s no evidence that he actually brewed beer.
Washington may have brewed beer, but as noted earlier, it was used more like Gatorade than Budweiser. However, our first president ordered great quantities of beer for Mount Vernon from Philadelphia and was especially fond of a porter made by English immigrant Robert Hare. He typically ordered “a gross” of bottles at a time which is equal to twelve cases. When he became president, his staff started ordering three gross at a time for Washington to enjoy while Congress was in recess. Porter is a very dark, rich beer made from brown malt. It was marketed in various strengths from “plain” to “stout.” The “stout” variety remains popular today in beers such as Guiness, but most brewers today use a black malt rather than a brown malt that was used in Washington’s time.
Thomas Jefferson was also fond of beer but he took his interest further. In his retirement years, he planned and built a malthouse and brewhouse at Monticello. Not surprisingly, he researched and experimented extensively. The resulting ale he produced was good enough that his friends and neighbors were soon begging for “the recipe.” But he claimed somewhat disdainfully that he used no recipe and doubted that anyone could learn to malt and brew just by reading about it. He did offer to let his friends send a servant to watch the brewing process and return as needed “to perfect himself.”
Because beer was so difficult to brew well at home and expensive to import, many early Americans turned to a “lower class,” easier alternative: hard cider. And that’s what we will look at next.
It’s now time for me to do some taste test-research… (See the photo above. “Deep Six” porter by Heavy Seas Brewery. Research is a demanding business.)