Brewing in America began long before European settlers ever set foot on our shores.  Native Americans developed brewing techniques like almost all other civilizations around the world.  Tribes in the American Southwest and Mexico created a beverage call tiswin, a corn-based fermented drink.  They also produced a wine using the saguaro cactus called nawai.  Legend even has it that the reason Geronimo left the reservation to return to his people’s land was the lack of tiswin available.  Tribes in the east also brewed with corn (maize) but included other ingredients like birch sap according to renowned beer historian and critic Michael Jackson (not that one!).

The first evidence of non-native brewing occurred in 1587 when Virginian colonists brewed a corn-based beer, also according to beer’s MJ.  This would mean that brewing took place at the Roanoke Colony in southeastern Virginia, better known as the Lost Colony.  The year 1587 is interesting as most of the colonists returned to England in 1586 with Sir Francis Drake and the colony was re-colonized in 1587 by Simon Fernandez.  The year 1587 seems to present a gap in time but in all likelihood, the colonists who returned to England (introducing maize, tobacco, and potatoes to Britain) that year would have discussed their life within the colony, of which brewing would be a part.  Growing up in Williamsburg, VA I have a certain attachment to the history of the area but I digress.

America’s first commercial brewery was started by the Dutch West India Company on lower Manhattan in 1632.  The first beers in the colonies were British-style ales: stouts, bitters, and pale ales.  In the 1770s, British brewers began brewing a new style of ale called a porter.  This is significant in American brewing history as our first president was a very big fan, insisting that there be porter regularly stocked at Mount Vernon (


Recipe for Small Beer (left) and George Washington (right)
Photo from Gawker

George Washington also brewed his own beer at Mount Vernon.  The New York Public Library discovered and published a recipe for homemade beer from Washington’s “Notebook as a Virginia Colonel.”  The recipe is:

“To Make Small Beer

Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran Hops to your Taste. Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall[ons] into a cooler put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the Beer is Scalding hot or rather draw the Melasses (sic) into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask–leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working–Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.”

Other Founding Fathers were known to brew as well.  Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, would brew 15 gallons every two weeks to supply Monticello.  James Madison wanted to create a national brewery and appoint a Secretary of Beer.  Benjamin Franklin imbibed spruce beer but surprisingly, given his other exploits, thought that his conspirators drank too much (Serious Eats).  George Washington helped many American brewers with his “Buy American” policy- encouraging Americans to buy products made in the colonies and not import British goods.  There are many breweries today that pay homage to Washington’s love of beer and porter.  My personal favorite is Alewerks’ Washington’s Porter from Williamsburg, VA.  Not a clone of George’s own recipe but a delicious tribute to our first president.


Alewerks Brewing Company- brewer of Washington’s Porter

Beer in America undertook a great change in the mid-1800s with the great influx of German immigrants who brought their own brewing traditions.  The oldest operating American brewery, D.G. Yuengling and Son, was opened in 1829 by German immigrants.  Originally known as Eagle Brewing, it changed its name in for good in 1873.  The German brewers, like Yuengling, brewed lagers rather than ale.  Lager lasted longer, was easier to produce on a large scale, and began to overtake ales as the preferred American beer.

The 1840s saw the beginnings of large scale beer production in Milwaukee, WI.  The Best Brewing Company was the first but was soon followed by Blatz, Schlitz, and Miller Brewing Companies.  These breweries used rail to ship their products to hubs in Chicago and Saint Louis where it could be further distributed.  Meanwhile in Saint Louis a German soap maker named Eberhard Anheuser bought a struggling brewery which would eventually be run by his son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, and renamed Anheuser-Busch.  Adolphus began brewing a style of beer popular in Europe, Bohemian Lager.  Named for the city of Budweis, A-B started brewing Budweiser in 1876.  A-B was the first American brewer to utilize refrigerated railcars to distribute beer.  That led to Budweiser becoming the first national brand of beer.

The first American style of beer was actually a hybrid of ale and lager called Steam beer.  Now called California Common beer, it was brewed in San Francisco during the Gold Rush.  The beer is brewed by fermenting lager yeast at higher temperatures.  When first invented, it was considered a cheap and low-quality beer.

The American Dark Ages began on January 16th, 1919 with the ratification of the 18th Amendment- Prohibition.  The Temperance Movement caused many smaller breweries to close before Prohibition was enacted.  The larger breweries began brewing “near-beer” and flavored sodas like root beer and ginger ale to get by.  Beer became less common during the 20s as it was much easier to make decent liquor than decent beer and liquor sold for more money.  Beer was made legal again before the repeal of the 18th Amendment with the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act which redefined the Volstead Act (the law that enforced the 18th Amendment).  The Cullen-Harrison Act allowed beer under 3.2% alcohol to be produced.  The 18th Amendment prohibited “intoxicating liquors” and beer with 3.2% alcohol was declared not intoxicating and thus legal under the Cullen-Harrison Act which was strongly supported by President Roosevelt.


Prohibition Protest

Prohibition was finally repealed on December 5th, 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment (remember- you can drink at 21 but not 18).  The 21st Amendment offered a general repeal of Prohibition but left much up to the states.  With so many “dry” counties brewing was hardly resurgent after the repeal but the invention of the beer can in 1936 certainly helped.  By 1940 beer production finally reached pre-Prohibition levels but with half as many breweries as there were in 1910.  During WWII breweries were required to allocate 15% of their production for military use.  The national grain supply was not enough to support the war effort and many smaller breweries closed due to the high cost of brewing.  Beer production grew by over 40% during WWII by using adjuncts like rice and corn to supplement the lack of grain.  The companies that were able to keep up with demand and the rising costs positioned themselves to take over the market in post-war America.  There were 407 breweries in operation in 1950 but that dwindled to 140 by 1961.

The 1960s brought us the aluminum beer can (invented by Coors) and the pull-tab can.  Canned beer outperformed bottled beer for the first time in 1969.  The Sixties also saw Fritz Maytag (of washing machine fame) buy Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, CA.  He began brewing a higher quality beer for the non-mainstream crowd.  In 1977 Jack McAuliffe opened New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, CA.  New Albion was a short lived venture but is seen as the first micro- or craft brewery.  The following year President Carter removed the federal excise tax on personal brewing, effectively legalizing Americans to brew beer in their homes once more.

Perfect Segue! Sierra Nevada cans waiting to be filled. photo from

Perfect Segue! Sierra Nevada cans waiting to be filled.
photo from

The Eighties began with the all-time American low of 80 operational breweries (owned by only 51 companies) in 1983.  Breweries like Sierra Nevada (1980) and Samuel Adams (1984) were started early in the decade and continue today.  Brewing, specifically craftbrewing, began to boom in the late 1990s.  As of July 2012 there were 2,126 breweries in the United States.  It is a great time in history to be a fan of beer.  Our choices are greater than ever before so get out there and try something new!



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