Beer, Pilgrims & Thanksgiving

Beer, Pilgrims & Thanksgiving

We celebrate Thanksgiving this month, and it is interesting to learn how beer played a role in this favorite of holidays. The English settlers were beer drinking people, as wine was affordable mostly to the aristocracy, who imported it from Europe. While they were accustomed to making certain country wines, they mostly partook of ale and other beers, which were safer than many plain water supplies, especially in cities. Young’s “Chronicles of the Pilgrims” quotes Mayflower second mate Robert Coppin’s diary entry: “We had yet some beer, butter, flesh and other victuals left, which would quickly be all gone, and then we should have nothing to comfort us…so in the morning after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution to go presently ashore again and to take a better view of two places which we thought most fitting for us; for we could not take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December.”

Again: “Monday the 25th, 1620, being Christmas Day, we began to drink water aboard. But at night, the master caused us to have some beer; so on board we had, divers (sic) times now and then, some beer, but on shore none at all.” Another entry talks of pursuing some natives and lamenting that no beer was brought from the ship. In “Of Plimoth Plantation”, Governor Bradford remembered” “We were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have more beer.” The Pilgrims did not immediately plant barley for brewing, as they had to survive a very difficult winter in early 1621. They learned to plant corn from the native people, and after that first horrible winter, which wiped out almost half the colonists, hopes brightened in the summer of 1621. The corn harvest looked good, and Governor Bradford decreed that a three day feast be held. The natives brought wild turkey, venison, bear steaks, geese, duck, fish, and shellfish. The Pilgrims contributed roasts, pumpkins, squash, journey cakes, corn meal bread with nuts, succotash, and pigeon (probably passenger pigeon, one the most plentiful bird in North America, but now extinct). It is not known whether beer was served with the feast, as the English relied heavily on being supplied from Britain. They had developed beers using Indian corn, as barley was difficult to cultivate successfully. Hops grew wild, but had to be found by dangerous searches in the woods. As time went by, they developed other “beers” made from what was available: pumpkin, spruce, birch, root, ginger and ground ivy, just to name a few. There was a time in this country, before the lager beer revolution, that ginger beer actually outsold hopped beer.

The Puritans had a song, handed down through generations, which seems to indicate their ability to improvise when it came to fermentation:

“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, parsnips & walnut tree chips.”

One of the Pilgrims, after the Thanksgiving feast, wrote to a friend in England: “Let your casks for beer be iron bound!” It is not known if they received their beer, however among those that came to Plymouth in 1623, was John Jenney, a brewer by trade, the first to be mentioned in the Colonies, and he became proprietor of a corn mill. It is not known if he brewed for the colonists, but one can suppose that he did.

These examples illustrate how much beer played a role in the Pilgrims landing and staying at Cape Cod, which changed the course of history.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and hoist a home brew to the Pilgrim forefathers, who were true beer lovers!