The Remarkable History of Beer – Part 2

Beer in the Americas

The Native Americans as early as 800 years ago brewed their own kind of beer, not with hops or barley, but with corn. This was far before the Spanish arrived and began colonizing the Americas.

The whole world had beer before world-wide trade even started. That’s just how natural beer-making is to humanity! No matter where you go on the planet, and no matter what time period, you’ll always come across beer of some sort.

What’s great is that you can actually drink Native American corn beer to this day. There are a number of Native American run beer breweries that use their heritage to create unique corn beers that have been around long before Christopher Columbus and Samuel Adams.

With the arrival of the colonists came new beer preferences. Since the colonists were coming from northern Europe, they had a preference for cereal based ales, but once their beer from home ran out, they quickly learned what the Native Americans had to offer and started brewing their own corn beer.

Besides drinking corn beer, the colonists still had a longing for their old beers, so they experimented with what they had to try and create a more familiar beer taste. They tried spruce, ivy, persimmons, molasses, and even pumpkin as a replacement for the grains that they weren’t yet able to grow.

Just like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians that came before them, the settlers would bake their ingredients into bread first, then ground the bread up and mix it in with water to let it ferment. The process of beer making never really changes, as you can see, but the flavors definitely do.

Besides some spruce beers, none of these experimental flavors seemed to stick around for long.

Beer in United States History

One of the first orders made by George Washington when he became president was that American troops would be given a quart of beer along with their daily rations. Why did Washington feel so strongly about troops having beer every day? We’re not entirely sure, but it might have something to do with the fact that he was a beer brewer himself and had a passion for the stuff. You can even check out his own beer recipe at the New York Public Library. His beer was made using hops and molasses -- something pretty common for the time. It wasn’t only George Washington who promoted beer drinking, but many of our other Founding Fathers did, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams. By this time in history, the early Americans drank about three times as much beer as modern Americans do.
If you’ve ever been to a college town, you’re probably just as surprised as I am. Now let’s fast forward a few decades to when the Industrial Revolution was really kicking off. The Industrial Revolution started in Europe with the creation of the steam engine in the early 1800s, which led to the construction of thousands of new factories, mills, and urban settings. The Industrial Revolution was the start of what we are so familiar with today -- mass production. Germany was one of the first countries to mass produce beer, and once they started, the rest of Europe and the United States followed suit. It was around this time that real ‘American’ beers were starting to be created. Before this time, most beers, besides the Native American corn beers, were based on European ales and lagers. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that large American beer companies started popping up all over the country. San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Pottsville, Buffalo, and Milwaukee were all beer hotspots. By the year 1810, there were already 132 breweries in the country producing 185,000 barrels of beer a year collectively. While that’s nothing compared to today’s numbers, that’s quite a lot for a country whose population was only 7 million.

The American Temperance Society and Prohibition

In 1826, the American Temperance Society, ATS, was founded in Boston. Their purpose was to inspire people to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages. When we think about temperance today, we might roll our eyes and call the ATS a buzz-kill (literally) and with good reason -- there’s nothing wrong with drinking. Well… there’s nothing wrong with drinking in moderation! If you were to go back about 150 years, you’d see that people then didn’t know what moderation was. Americans drank practically all day. Alcoholism was through the roof. Just look at song books from the time and you’ll easily find a song about drunk men and fathers skimping on their duties because they won’t stop drinking. And in the later years of the 1800s, when the women’s movement and the anti-slave movement were picking up momentum, morality was becoming a bigger topic of discussion. All this eventually led up to the Prohibition -- probably one of the more controversial topics in history. It began in 1920, and lasted until 1933. That’s 13 years without beer! Well, not exactly… During this time, even though beer production, importation, transportation, and sales were banned, plenty of people still did what they could to get their buzz for the day. Plenty of beer companies were able to stay afloat by producing non alcoholic drinks like sodas or juices, but people still protested the ban. This was the time of speakeasies and bootleggers. If you owned a bar before prohibition, you basically only had two choices. Either let your bar go out of business, or open up a secret bar, or speakeasy, in your basement or back room. Speakeasies were not always the nicest places to enjoy a cold one, but they had to do. And the alcohol that was served was not top quality either. Alcohol had to be bought from pharmacists who sold it for medicinal purposes, or from clergymen who used it in religious services. And if those options weren’t available, beer had to be bought from bootleggers, but this was a dangerous transaction. You never knew where the beer came from, or if the cops would be on your back after you bought it, but people were willing to take the risk. This no-alcohol experiment had proven to be a pretty big failure. Gang violence had escalated exponentially, people were dying from drinking homemade booze, and beer was still being sold, even though it was prohibited. The country proved to itself that beer couldn’t be shunned. People needed their alcohol and they were willing to break the law to get it. That’s just how much we humans need our buzz.
The End of Prohibition and Beer in Today’s World
After prohibition was officially over, the competition for beer companies was nonexistent. This was a perfect time to start your own beer company and make it rich. Picture the California Gold Rush, but for beer. That’s basically what it was. And by 1940, just 7 years after prohibition ended, beer production was at a high. The amount of beer being produced in the country matched that of pre prohibition times, but with only half the number of beer breweries! Beer during this time was good enough, but it wasn’t the best. Beer companies knew that people wanted beer, and they also knew that they barely had any competition, so they sort of cut corners and preferred to be quick and make money than be artisans and make craft beers. It wasn’t until 1978 that these big beer companies finally got more competition. President Jimmy Carter signed a law allowing people at home to make their own beer. This law allowed all the people at home who weren’t happy with the dull taste of their store-bought beers to get creative and craft their own. It was the start of new, more flavorful beers that quickly gained popularity, and was the start of the ever growing number of homebrewers and small craft breweries in the US. In 2011, there were a little over 2,000 craft breweries in the US, and in 2016, just five years later, that number had skyrocketed to over 5,200! That number is increasing every year. And thanks to Jimmy Carter, you, the person reading this, can open your own brewery and experiment with flavors and brewing techniques. Now, with the whole of beer history in your belt, you have a perspective on beer that most people don’t have. The next time you’re out drinking beer with friends, enlighten them with a little factoid on beer history. Maybe you can even convince them to veer off from their usual beer choices and try something a bit more ‘strange.’ Beer making is experimental. We live in a time of history where beer is always available to us, and beer brewing can practically be done by anybody. After 9,000 years of beer making, we’re still experimenting with flavors and crafting beers with new, never been used ingredients. Beer is one of those things that will never go out of style. As long as there are humans on the Earth, there will be beer.
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