Beer Drinking in the 18th Century

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Vanessa Smiley

“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

Benjamin Franklin was one of many 18th century beer lovers.
(Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, c. 1785)

During the 18th century, Colonial society held three common beliefs about beer drinking:

  1. Drinking beer was healthier than drinking water
  2. Beer and its ingredients were a healthy supplement to the entire family’s diet
  3. It was an accepted way to promote social discourse

A little different from today’s society, except for beer connoisseurs (such as the Emerging Revolutionary War folks), these beliefs were formed from the circumstances of the time.

Though a generation away from understanding the connection between boiling water and sanitation, most folks understood that water could make you deathly ill. And yet, ale and beer drinkers did not seem to have that same risk. They did not know it at the time, but the boiling process to make these alternative drinking options neutralized much of any tainted water’s ill effects. Therefore, many substituted beer, ale, and other alternatives such as hard cider over water, making these a major dietary staple in the colonies.

Who did most of the brewing? While commercial breweries would pop up later in the 18th century, most of the beer consumed by colonists was homemade. The basics of making beer are essential the same as they are today. Raw materials for beer are timeless: grain, water, hops, and yeast. Initially, many brewing supplies and ingredients were imported from England. For example, malted barley was often the preferred grain but this hard to come by in the colonies. Until methods and strains for producing American barley were developed, it was imported.

But brewers also got creative and used ingredients to make their wares from what they had on hand: ingredients like pumpkin, molasses, and spruce and pine. Other alternatives included apples for making hard cider. Once apple trees were introduced as a crop and flourished, it became a favorite among families with its naturally sweeter flavor, and it would remain so into the 19th century.

Speaking of flavor, what did beer and ale taste like in the 18th century? Similar to any homebrewing done today, flavors varied greatly from batch to batch and depending on the ingredients used. There was one ingredient, though, that was readily available that provides a hint to the primary flavor of 18th century beer: hops.

Hop (Humulus lupulus) illustration from Medical Botany (1836) by John Stephenson and James Morss Churchill.

Hops grew in the wild in colonial America, mostly in wooded areas, and its perennial nature meant it grew year after year. Since only the flower of the hops is used, brewers realized they could cultivate and nurture hops plants in their gardens to have a ready and steady supply right in their backyards every year. Hops also had other uses than for making beer, primarily medicinal, which often made it a staple in 18th century gardens. Because of hops’ prevalence, it’s likely that beer then was fairly bitter, much in the same way as India Pale Ales are today.

Now how about that social discourse believe mentioned at the beginning of this article? As the 18th century progressed, taverns became a fixture in colonial communities as the place to “hang out” (quotations not from historical context reference but rather a modern colloquialism). Taverns were the place to socialize, discuss the news and politics of the day, and enjoy a drink or two. Though homebrewing was popular, it often paled in comparison to the more standardized beer produced using those imported ingredients from England. As the later part of the 18th century began, however, tensions were on the rise and discussions in taverns became more heated as politics divided neighbors and communities and the ideas of a revolution spread.

Settling the Affairs of the Nation, 1766-1799; Published by: Carington Bowles biography; Print made by: Richard Purcell

As the Revolutionary War broke out, homebrewing saw a resurgence. Those alternative and creative ingredients mentioned earlier in the article were relied on more and more as war-related supply shortages affected their home brews. Once the war ended, a distaste for English things like English beer grew. This was great economic news for American brewers. Brewing industries in older cities like Philadelphia and New York leapt on the American beer craze and created the beginnings of the beer industry we still enjoy today.

Interested in trying an 18th century home brew recipe? One of the most popular was spruce beer, and Benjamin Franklin readily shared his favorite recipe:

“For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one Pot of Essence [of Spruce] and 13 pounds of Molasses.- or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water; Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.”

Have a beer-related topic you want to know more about? Let me know and I’ll happily hunt for the information, beer in hand. Cheers!

4 thoughts on “Beer Drinking in the 18th Century

  1. Pingback: The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 4 | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

  2. Great article, thank you. I do have some questions – needed for a novel I am writing set in 1813, in Britian. Would a rural alehouse have brewed its own beer, and how wouls this be served? Would the casks have been tapped? I am struggling to find out. Any help much appreciated!


    1. vsmiley

      Oh that’s a good question. I’d have to look into my research notes, but my main focus was on Colonial America so Britain in the early 18th century is a little outside my wheelhouse. But if I were to take an educated guess, I would say that it’s highly possible that a rural alehouse at that time *would* have likely brewed its own beer. If the proprietor didn’t have a small garden to grow or area access to what was needed, they’d probably have connections with local farms to supply it (hops, grain, etc,). The local farms could even potentially supply it if they had a large enough operation.

      In terms of how it would be served, casks were one option, but not just those large ones you might always envision. Smaller several gallon casks were common as were large ceramic or glass jugs as another option.


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