The following article is an excerpt from The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer, out now in paperback.
Early America was a scary place, and beer helped. But it wasn’t just a luxury, or a comforting sign of civilization. Beer was, to the first settlers, right up there with food, shelter and a family bible: necessary. What were the settlers to do? Thomas Studly complained from Jamestown that, “there remained neither taverne, beer house, nor place of relief.” Another Virginia Company official wrote home that, “there are 300 men there, more or less, and the majority sick and badly treated, because they have nothing but bread of maize with fish; nor to drink anything but water.” Of the 20,000 settlers who landed in Virginia during the colony’s first decades, three-quarters died — a death rate as bad as Europe’s at the height of the Plague. Send brewers, the survivors begged.
Captain Thomas Walduck, a traveler and military man stationed in British Barbados, wrote in a letter to his nephew that while the Spanish tame the wilderness with religion, and the Dutch with force, building churches and forts, “the first thing ye English do, be it in the most remote part of ye world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is to set up a tavern or drinking house.” Indeed, one Mayflower legend has Samoset, the first native the Pilgrims met, greeting the awestruck arrivals by asking for a glass of beer — their reputation, apparently, preceded them.
In one of the first reports of homegrown American beer, Thomas Hariot wrote from Virginia that his thirsty crew malted some Indian corn, “whereof was brued as good ale as was to be desired.” In other words, at least it works.
Landon Carter, Virginian planter and buddy of Thomas Jefferson, liked his personal brew extra sour — kind of a pumpkin shrub. He called it “pumperkin.”
Hariot’s crew set the tone for an American-grown style. Frontier-living how-to books like Mackenzie’s “Five Thousand Receipts” and the “New England Farrier and Family Physician” had recipes for bay-leaf-and-molasses “treacle beer,” for beer made from spruce tips and maple sap. For beer from pea shells, beer from bran, beer flavored with sage and chicory. Molasses-and-ginger “Brattleboro Beer,” fermented “at the temperature of new milk, is reported to be wholesome and agreeable,” one book half-heartedly promised. A recipe from Providence, Rhode Island called for senna, chicory, a mildly analgesic flower called celandine, and a handful of red sage boiled with wheat bran, molasses, and malt. This slop was, the recipe claimed, “famous throughout the countryside.”
Thomas Jefferson, for one, had no need for recipes. “I have no receipt for brewing,” he wrote, “and I doubt if the operations of malting and brewing can be successfully performed from a receipt.” The beer he made and advocated for was closer to Nordic grog, those mixed fermentations of cloudberries, honey and grain, than to the pure pales and porters his former countrymen were enjoying in England.
A 17th-century poem captured the prevailing attitude: “If barley be wanting to make into malt / we must be content and think it no fault / for we can make liquor to sweeten our lips / of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.”
Trees? Why not. Boston minister Jeremy Belknap was so proud of his spruce beer recipe, he sent it to physician to the stars Benjamin Rush. “The most superlatively excellent beer in the world,” Belknap wrote. “I know of no other liquor in the universe that can match it.” Ben Franklin tried his hand at spruce beer too, after tasting a French version, or “bière d’épinette,” while stationed in Paris, flavored with spruce oil. In his American recreation, Franklin had to resort to using twigs and molasses.
Pumpkins were a popular choice, mainly because they grew like weeds. “When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin,” wrote Cindy Ott in her history of the plant. One settler recounted a legend of one single seed, “without any Care or Cultivation” sprouting an eight-inch-thick vine on which grew 260 gourds.
“We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon,” a 1630s ditty ran. “If it was not for pumpkin we should be undone.” Settlers practically lived on the things: Pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup (“very windy,” one recipe warned), and, of course, pumpkin beer, made from gourds “beaten in a Trough as Apples” and mixed with whatever was on hand. The Pilgrims added persimmons and maple syrup. Landon Carter, Virginian planter and buddy of Thomas Jefferson, liked his personal brew extra sour — kind of a pumpkin shrub. He called it “pumperkin.”
And so while today’s pumpkin beers might not even have any pumpkin in them (though the infamous latte now does), the addition of spices and other flavorings to mask the questionable taste of the gourd alone isn’t too distant from their colonial ancestors. The pumpkin doesn’t fall far from the vine, apparently. You might not be able to stomach a bottle or six of the stuff, but drink up: it beats wheat bran and walnut chips, and definitely beats no beer at all.