by Joshua H. Liberatore
In Beer in America: The Early Years, 1587-1840, Gregg Smith delights historians and beer enthusiasts alike with a compelling account of beer’s critical function in the early life of the United States. Through nearly two hundred and fifty years of American history – from early voyages to the New World, through colonization, the tumultuous years of revolution, and on into nineteenth century industrial American society – beer becomes a metaphor for a special American destiny. Backed by exhaustive research, wit, and imagination, Smith paints a rich portrait of early American life, which places the tavern at the center of social, political, and cultural activity.
Smith’s nonspecialist readers may be pleasantly surprised to discover just how important beer was for early settlers to what became the United States, and by the extent to which beer’s unique history intersects with the major personalities of American cultural heritage, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, all fervent patriots and avid beer-drinkers. Beer seems to be part of every important event and decision that eventually set those men on the path to overthrowing a world imperial power and creating one of the modern world’s first great democratic republics. And although Beer in America reveals a number of little-known beer facts (such as the propensity for Constitutional Convention delegates to discuss the finer points of the still-infant constitution over pints of stout in the barrooms of Philadelphia), Smith’s story never devolves into a mere collection of beer trivia. On the contrary, beer becomes a thread with which Smith weaves a colorful fabric of an emerging American character.
Inherent in that emerging distinctiveness was a survival impulse that spurred early settlers to endure countless hardships and work to forge a workable life in an uncharted and often harsh frontier. As Smith notes, beer figures into a discussion of bare survival for the simple reason that beer provided early New Englanders with a safe source of drinking water. Although the wooded hills of the Massachusetts Bay area were abundantly endowed with fresh water streams, widespread distrust of contamination kept settlers from drinking local water directly. Instead they used it to brew beer, which was a time-honored way of converting suspect water into a viable beverage. Beer also became a reliable and nutritious source of caloric sustenance as colonists were adjusting to a dramatically new diet and negotiating the hardships of developing a native agriculture.
Smith does well to point out that the history of beer in America, like the history of the nation itself, is a story of diversity and cultural blending. Through tracing beer’s introduction into a developing American culture, we notice that a wide variety of peoples and cultures are responsible for beer’s rich legacy. Just as the English, Dutch, German, Irish, and Bohemian immigrants who settled in America in various periods brought with them skills and knowledge that gave American industry and development a particular competitive edge, each group also brought a different appreciation and tradition of beer drinking. As a functional nation of immigrants, the United States developed its traditions and tastes from Old World influences and customs, combining many different cultures to form an original blend. Beer production was one of the main beneficiaries of this cultural melting pot, and the distinctly American recipes that resulted were something at once original and packed with tradition.
Interestingly, beer also figures into the religious climate of early America, dominated as it was by Puritanical values and strict codes of behavior. Smith points out that many local leaders in colonial America viewed beer as a “temperance drink,” and it therefore constituted a respectable alternative to hard alcohol varieties like whiskey and rum, which brought out the devil in men and hindered productivity. Beer, on the other hand, was mild in its effects and could be enjoyed even during work hours without debilitating those seeking refreshment. Beer would continually reemerge in this diplomatic capacity: as a way of soothing the regular tension between institutional (religious or government) authority and the rights of the individual, which quickly became a familiar trope in American history and remains so today. In this way, the promotion of beer as an alternative to spirits became an early example of the flexibility and spirit of compromise that would later contribute greatly to the success of the American republican experiment.
Beer also helps to tell the story of an inventive, entrepreneurial spirit that came to characterize the budding American character. Smith draws on several accounts of creativity and resourcefulness among beer brewers. Due to shortages of hops and other key ingredients, beer brewers were often forced to come up with creative, indigenous substitutes, such as pine needles or Indian corn. These innovations not only gave their product a distinctive flavor, but also asserted a sense of economic independence from the mother country, well before political independence was a flicker in the light bulbs of revolutionary leaders. And when revolution finally did envelop the colonial consciousness and indeed seemed a political necessity, resourcefulness of this kind helped to strengthen the resolve of Americans in defying their English masters. Various agreements that involved some degree of nonconsumption or outright boycott of British imports required the American imagination to develop alternative modes of livelihood, often encouraging the use of local substitutes for the familiar, basic items on which the colonists relied. The same truculence that beer brewers showed in using local produce to weather temporary shortages of necessary ingredients became a motif of wider significance in the American Revolution and all subsequent periods of instability in American history.
Smith’s account of beer’s role in American history thus taps into the core matter of the American character: a character based on the necessity of survival, a melting pot of cultures and traditions, the powerful tool of compromise, and an innovative spirit that transcends what is best about American culture. Embedded in the history of beer in the United States is the stalwart belief that order comes from within and cannot be imposed from without. Smith sums up this quintessential American attribute splendidly in his discussion of the government’s occasional temptation to tax beer consumption due to the beverage’s nearly universal appeal:
Administrators in the colonies were in a position identical to that of everyone who has ever placed a tax on beer. They were completely out of touch with public sentiments. Resistance, protest, and ultimately rebellion resulted because the taxes were exceedingly regressive. Taxes on beer struck people where it hurt most. It hit them with a fee on what they viewed as a necessity, never as a luxury (192).
It was a basic lesson that would profoundly influence all aspects of American political culture: the drafting of the Constitution, the federalist structure of the national government, and the introduction of new laws for the next two hundred and fifty years. When something deemed a necessity was unfairly taxed, there was outrage and often violence.
In Smith’s account of beer’s unique place in the American conscience, we see that beer, just as any of the conventional list of “unalienable rights,” becomes much more than a refreshing beverage, but is fundamentally intertwined with the destiny of the fledgling democratic enterprise. Beer in America, then, ultimately becomes a testament to the values of freedom and self-determination that we hold most dear as a body politic.