The first documented beer in America was in 1587 in the ill-fated colony of Roanoke, Virginia, as recorded by Thomas Harriot. The colony did not survive, and it was 20 years before the English returned to North American shores.
In 1607, Jamestown Colony was founded and the colonists brought their own supplies from England to make beer in America. The colony survived (barely), and was saved from starvation when a supply convoy arrived in 1610. Presumably, it carried beer as well as food.
About this time, the ever-enterprising Dutch were exploring what is now New York City. One of the explorers, Adrian Block, decided he could make a fortune back in Holland with furs from North America. He encamped near what is now the site of the World Trade Center about 1612 to make his fortune. Unfortunately, his ship caught fire and left him stranded. He decided to build another ship, and while he was in a building mood, he also built a brewery. Hey, if you’re going to be stranded….
Which brings us to the Pilgrims. You know, those dour stalwarts who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 in quest of religious freedom (or at least the freedom to oppress other religious beliefs). But why did the Pilgrims, who wanted to go Virginia, actually settle in Massachusetts? Expedition head William Bradford explained in his “History of Plimouth Plantation” [sic], “We could not now take the time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.”
To put in perspective just how important beer was to them, beer consumption was regulated by law for the Puritans. They were allowed two quarts per person – and that was just for breakfast!
Importing beer in quantity from Europe was impractical because it often spoiled during the voyage. Barley and hops, vital brewing ingredients, did not grow well in the harsh New England climate. Early settlers tried alternatives. This verse from 1630 indicates their level of desperation:
If barley be wanting to make into mault,
We must be content and think no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips and walnut tree chips.
The results of this brewing technique may be responsible for a growth in early America of stronger drinks, such as hard cider and corn whiskey.
The Puritans responded to this threat by encouraging establishment of breweries and the importation of barley. Beer was regarded as a drink of moderation, especially when compared to hard cider. The original temperance movement did not preach abstinence – it preached beer.
With the backing of both church and Colonial government, the domestic brewing industry flourished. It soon permeated every aspect of Colonial life from the clergy to college. When John Harvard established his college in 1636, he also planned a brew house. All those students, not to mention faculty, were a thirsty lot, even in the days before frat parties.
Beer was instrumental in the founding of other educational institutions besides Harvard. James Vassar’s Eagle Brewery was founded in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the late 1790s. James’ son, Matthew, became a partner in 1810. But Matthew’s big dream was establishing a college for women. The Vassar fortune made this possible in 1861 when Vassar Female College (renamed Vassar College in 1867) was founded. To this day, the institution acknowledges in song:
And so you see, for old V.C.
Our love shall never fail.
Full well we know
That all we owe
To Matthew Vassar’s Ale!
The brewery closed in 1896, but the college built on beer survives.