Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Give Thanks for Beer

On Thursday, in households across America, as well as in expat hangouts around the world, Thanksgiving will be celebrated. According to tradition, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the immigrants of the Plymouth Colony in 1621, though the first harvest festival is likely to have been marked by the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1607.

According to Mourt's Relation, the first Plymouth harvest Thanksgiving was an occasion of great celebration:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labour. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
One thing that is perhaps often overlooked in the modern Thanksgiving celebration is the role that beer played in the early days of English settlement in the New World. Indeed, were it not for their beer supplies running low, the Plymouth Colony might well have ended up some where else. The writer of Mourt's Relation, Edward Winslow, commented that:
after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution, to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially, our beer, and it being now the 19 of December.
Throughout the Colonial era, and beyond, beer was central to life in the New World. People simply didn't trust water, mainly because the water supplies back in Europe were so tainted and polluted that you would die from drinking it, whereas the boiling required for beer killed off potentially harmful microbes. Often one of the first buildings the immigrants would erect was a brewery so they could get their life sustaining libation as soon as possible.

One thing I find interesting about Winslow's account is the use of the word 'beer', which in 17th century England was a hopped malt liquor as opposed to ale, which was unhopped. Only in the 18th Century did ale come to mean a malt liquor which was less hopped than beer. I wonder what the beer that they brought with them from the Old World to the New would have been like? What kind of beer was being brewed on the south coast of England, where the Pilgrims restocked the Mayflower after selling the Speedwell?

Clearly for a journey across the Altantic, the Pilgrims would have brought with them 'Keeping Beer' rather than 'Small Beer', the latter being for immediate consumption rather than storing. The Pilgrims finally left England's shores in mid September 1620, which would suggest to me, assuming that the Keeping Beers listed on Ron Pattison's blog from the early 18th century were broadly similar to those from a century prior, that their beer was likely March Beer, brewed at the end of the 1619-20 brewing season.

As for the beer itself, it was either pale or brown, though pale here would be more akin to an amber than modern pale. Assuming they stocked up on March Beer, it would have had a starting gravity north of 1.100, giving it a healthy ABV in excess of 10%, and being an English beer the hops would have been, well I have to admit I don't know. Goldings are first grown commercially in the 1780s and Fuggles only comes into the picture in 1875, though I would hazard a guess that they would have been fairly similar.

I think the closest to this kind of brew in my cellar is North Coast's wonderful Old Stock Ale, which might just get a comparative tasting this year as I have bottles of the 2010 and 2012 knocking about.


  1. What's the likelihood the beer was Dutch? The pilgrims had lived in Holland and the stop in England was only to secure the means to go to the New World?

  2. I think it is highly unlikely that they were carrying Dutch beer on the Mayflower, for the following reasons:

    1. the travellers that came from Holland to England were on the Speedwell, the smaller of the vessels. They met up with the Mayflower, and additional colonists, at Southampton in August 1620.

    2. William Bradford commented that the ship was 'victuled' for the journey in Southampton, suggesting they would have stocked up on their beer there rather than bringing it with them in the smaller boat from Holland.


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