As a lover of Virginia wine history and colonial history, seeing a book on the history of beer in Virginia’s “early years” was compelling. I was at a conference in Colonial Williamsburg and came across Gregg Smith’s book, Beer In America: The Early Years—1587-1840, Beer’s Role in the Settling of America and the Birth of a Nation, and I just had to buy it.
My initial reaction to the book was “bravo” to Smith for putting this research together and sharing. You can tell he put a lot of time and dedication in to the primary source research to support his point that beer was central in early America. He used tavern construction and placement in colonial settlement, laws involving the homebrewer and beer regulations, toasts, and the tavern setting as the center of political conversation in his work. Many of the chapters began with a personalized story to draw the reader back in time and introduce them to the subject about to be covered. For example, imagine being a farm wife at home working on her family’s homebrew…malting the grain, soaking the mash, boiling the water, adding the hops… having no timer to ensure she’s boiled and brewed for just enough time. The uncorking of the finished product and holding her breath… will it be good? (225-226)
Smith gave an insightful look at the evolution of the homebrewer to the tavern and development of commercial breweries. I personally enjoyed the look at early breweries established in the 1800s — the successes and downfall of many of these breweries with prohibition. Popular locations known today for their beers were highlighted, including Boston and Milwaukee. You may recognize a brewery or two, such as Yuengling, in this chapter. For the homebrewer today, you may enjoy the chapter on “Beer Drinks” featuring recipes used and some remedies for ailments the different brews aided in, such as easing hiccups and coughs. (222)
While the book was being sold in the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop, I did find a couple of typos and unnecessary details inserted that irked me. For example, on page 227 he called Landon Carter “London” Carter. (Shocking for a Virginia Northern Neck resident!) I am also a little confused on why Henry Lee was included with James Madison and John Marshall as a “leader” in approving the Constitution. One example of a side comment inserted I felt was unnecessary can be found on page 141 about New York. He made a statement on the “possible misuse of funds” followed by a parenthetical comments: “How very like New York!” These tidbits were distracting and unnecessary. They did not add anything to the reading but irrelevance. However distracting, I brushed over these and simply made my personal “pencil-edit” in the book to correct Landon Carter’s name.
My last couple of comments: the book ended with no conclusion or wrap-up, which I would have appreciated as a historian. The last chapter was on technology with the final discussion around lager. I would have appreciated a brief wrap-up summarizing the significance of the tavern and homebrews in colonial settlement and daily life and how this contributed to revolutionary conversations and transformed to the establishment of regulations, breweries, and an emerging industry by the mid-1800s. I thought this was the purpose of the book to share in beer’s contributions to the establishment of America and would have liked to revisit this thesis for closure. However, I very much liked the appendix at the end of the book. In particular, the timeline of beer in America beginning in the 1500s with significant milestones covered throughout the book. This was a great addition.
Overall, this was an informative and fast read. I think this book may be of particular interest to the homebrewer and colonial historian interested in the settlement and establishment of the tavern setting.
Cheers and happy reading!