When Did Beer Get Its Start in North America?

by: HorstDornbusch on 05-16-2004
Well, because we have no records of Native American fermented beverages, beer probably did not start flowing in North America until the Europeans arrived. In chronological order, the Vikings, French, Spanish, and English came to the New World to colonize it, but who amongst them was the first New World brewer?

As best we know, the first Europeans to reach the New World were the Vikings. After a long passage from Greenland, they arrived in their dragon-headed longboats from Greenland, around the year 1000, and founded a colony in what is now L'Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The Vikings were accomplished ale brewers and they may have had a few casks on board their ships. But if they brewed in North America, it is not known. The Vikings got into trouble immediately with the local Eskimos and a few years later abandoned the site.

In 1535, the French explorer Jacques Cartier started a settlement at what is now Quebec City, which would end eight years later in misery and starvation. There was hardly enough to eat in the colony, and survival rather than making beer from the precious grain was the main order of business.

Next came the Spanish. Their settlement at Saint Augustine in Florida, started in 1565, was to become the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America, but it is doubtful that the Spanish ever made beer there.

The same appears to be true of the short-lived and mysteriously "lost" first English colony in North America, the settlement of Roanoke in North Carolina. Founded in 1584, its inhabitants simply disappeared one winter, never to be seen again.

Chronologically, the next colony of note was Jamestown, established in Virginia in 1607. It became the first lasting English settlement. We know that there wasn't a single brewer among the first group of settlers, but within two years, the Jamestown folk did something about that. They planted a field of barley and simultaneously put an ad in a London paper asking for two brewers to come over. By they time the brewers arrived, barley was already waiting for them to be turned into beer. This fixes the beginning of brewing in North America to the year 1609, at Jamestown.

Eleven years later, in 1620, a group of Pilgrims set off from Plymouth England in a ship called Mayflower to start another colony in Virginia. Because they ran low on ale aboard the Mayflower, however, the Pilgrims decided to cut their voyage short and land at a place now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, instead. There, in their "Plimouth Plantation", the Puritan colonists set up in short order a church and a brewery - both great testaments to their priorities - so that they could satisfy their most urgent needs ... to pray and to drink.

That same year also saw the beginning of beer-making among the French up north in Catholic Quebec. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, mostly as a fur trading outpost, Quebec was the first permanent French settlement in North America. By 1615, the first Jesuit missionaries of the Recollet order had arrived - sent into the wilderness by King Louis XIV to convert heathen Indians to the faith of the king. These pious friars, however, had obviously more on their minds than just the salvation of savage souls, because by 1620, they were already setting up a brewery. In 1646, the missionaries got really serious about their thirst: They moved their brewery to Sillery right outside Quebec, and they kept all the beer they produced just for themselves. Preaching charity and brotherly love was one thing, but sharing your brew was clearly quite another. The ordinary colonists had to be content with mere cognac imported from France!

By 1670, the population of Quebec had grown to about 5,000, and it became ever more difficult and expensive for the authorities to keep that many bodies in cognac. Jean Talon, the intendant who ran the province of New France for the king in Old France, therefore, decided to give himself a secular brew monopoly, plant hops, brew beer for the people, and sell it at a controlled price. His official justification for the money-making scheme was to cut public drunkenness. His brewery was on what is now St. Vallier Street in Quebec City. There he made about 4,000 casks of beer a year, aged in cellars made of eight-foot thick walls.

Talon left office in 1672, and his brewery closed three years later, but strangely the same site became a brewery again, 180 years later. The now-defunct Boswell Brewery operated on the site between 1852 and 1971. The brewery vaults of Jean Talon's original brewery, however, are still preserved to this day. They now house a museum of 17th-century guns and furniture.
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