Most people would never associate the two words, but they are closely related. Ben Franklin wrote “in wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom and in water, only bacteria.”
In the 1700s, water came from wells, lakes, streams and rivers as it does today. However, it wasn’t purified so whatever organisms were in the water went into your body. At the time, drinking water was considered unhealthy.
If you were on a merchant or naval ship, water was put in wooden casks and very quickly it went, to use the word of the day, foul. Still, it was used to make oatmeal for breakfast and cook dried vegetables in which the process – boiling – killed most if not all of the bacteria. At the time, science and medicine hadn’t discovered that boiling water purified it or how to make water fit and safe to drink.
Beer, its cousin ale and ciders made from mashed and fermented fruits were the beverages of choice in the 1700s. At the time, some farmers distilled their own whiskeys from leftover crops but for the most part, they were not widely distributed. Rum was also available in taverns.
By, the American Revolution, the brewing industry was well established. As early as 1637, the Massachusetts Colony legislature met to fix the price of beer. It established that no one could charge more than a penny a quart. Right after George Washington took command of the Continental Army, he ordered a quart of beer be included in every soldier’s daily ration.
Many Founding Fathers – Patrick Henry, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Washington to name a few- were brewmasters. Throughout the Thirteen Colonies, beer was distilled in homes because there were no liquor or grocery stores down the street where one could go buy a six pack.
The beer situation for Washington’s army became critical in 1778 and Colonists met at Fraunces Tavern In New York to plot a second Tea Party to capture the British beer supply. The raid was never carried out because the large stash of beer was kept on heavily guarded ships anchored in the Hudson River.
At the time of the American Revolution, the term “small beer” referred to the brew that people made in their homes for their own consumption. The ingredients were the same as we know today except that many added molasses and sassafras to the mix. The alcohol content was about two percent. “Strong beer” was commercially made and much stronger with an alcohol content of about six percent.
Wines were imported from France and Spain and the cost was often out of reach of the average citizen. Rum came from the sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
Beer, ale and rum were readily available and served to young and old alike at home and in taverns. Like it is today, beer, wine, rum and spirits were taxed by state and ultimately the Federal government and the only difference was there was no minimum drinking age.