George Washington, Our Porter-Pounding Founding Father

(In a continuing effort to transition the content from my old website fermentingrevolution.com to this blog, I offer you this piece I wrote about George Washington, a version of which appears in my book.)

George Washington“Porter was imported into America, though not in impressive quantities, during the latter half of the [eighteenth] century, but it was not widely manufactured until after the revolution. Certain individuals were partial to this type of beer. George Washington, for example, was one.” (Baron, Brewed in America)

The United States of America owes its political birth to George Washington. Although I suppose you already knew that. But did you know that G.W. was also responsible for kick-starting the growth of a domestic beer industry?

At the heart of the Colonists’ revolutionary gripes was a discontentment with Britain’s unfair taxation policies. Though they tried conventional diplomacy, the colonists had little success in affecting long-lasting and significant change in the unbalanced trading relationship between England and America. The Colonials grew alienated and disgruntled.

Angry Beer Activists Take Action
Their discontent eventually erupted into acts of civil disobedience. In the early stages, it wasn’t so much a desire to break from the Empire, indeed many considered themselves good ale-drinking Brits – they just wanted to be accorded the same rights as every other good ale-drinking Brit.

As relations became increasingly confrontational, and the Revolution began to foment, Americans realized they must begin to ferment as well. As America’s colonial days were grinding to an abrupt halt, the country was heavily dependent on imported supplies of ale.

The Ultimate Sacrifice
Washington, who had a great thirst for English porter, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. In 1774, he supported a bill drafted by fellow patriot Samuel Adams, called the non-consumption agreement. The agreement encouraged the colonial population to abstain from imported goods such as tea, madeira, and port wine, and likewise encouraged the consumption of American-brewed beer, so as to curtail imports. Boycotting English imports, including ale, was a promising strategy, if somewhat hard to swallow for beer drinking colonists like George Washington and his fellow Founding Fathers.

Washington’s perturbations over unfair taxes eventually lead to his dismissal from the Virginia House of Burgesses. For, in a show of solidarity with Massachusetts, Washington, along with his fellow legislators Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson, declared June 1, 1774, the day the Port Act sealed off Boston in a commercial blockade, to be a day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” In an angry response, the Virginia Governor, a loyalist, promptly dissolved the Assembly.

Boycotting Imported Ale
In due haste, George and his mates regrouped at the Raleigh Tavern, where over beers they composed a proclamation declaring that:

“An attack on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America. That we will not hereafter, directly or indirectly import, or cause to be imported, from great Britain, and of the goods hereafter enumerated, either for sale or for our own use . . . beer, ale, porter, malt.”

Once the Revolution had begun in earnest and Washington was Commander of the American forces, he for a time made his headquarters in the home of George Emlen just outside of Philadelphia. Given Washington’s penchant for porter, one must wonder whether it was pure coincidence that Emlen was a commercial brewer and descendant of one of Philadelphia’s earliest brewing families.

A Well-Supped Army
Washington also made sure that soldiers were well supped under his command. According to a 1775 pronouncement, every soldier in the new Continental army would receive a ration of “1 quart of spruce beer or cyder per man per day.”

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Jefferson’s brewery
Thomas Jefferson also brewed beer. These are the design plans for his brewhouse at Monticello.
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Eventually, after the successful revolution, Washington made sure to never be short of porter again by supporting the growth of the local brewing industry. He grew barley himself, and harvested ice from his ponds to be used, most likely, for beer related cooling.

He described his post-war efforts to boost local brewing as follows:

“We have already been too long subject to British Prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family, but that which is made in America: both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.”

According to numerous records, a certain Robert Hare, brewer of porter in Philadelphia, had the fortune to be Washington’s regular beer supplier.

“In the years preceding his assumption to the Presidency, Washington was a steady customer of Robert Hare. Son of a porter brewer in Limehouse, Hare had emigrated to Philadelphia in 1773 with a gift from his father of £1,500. . . in 1774 he started brewing porter – probably the first ever made in this country. (Baron, Brewed In America, p. 114)

George to Voters: “My Treat”
Another noteworthy bit regarding Washington’s relationship with beer appears in Mark Lender and James Martin’s book Drinking in America. The custom of ‘treating’ citizens to drinks at public gatherings was apparently common among America’s early politicians. As Lender and Martin explain:

“One did not seek office at any level without ‘treating’ the electorate during the campaign. Polling places themselves were rarely dry: there was only one poll per county and after making the long trek to do his citizen’s duty, the voter expected some tangible reward. He usually got it. This meant that to count as a Founding Father, George Washington . . . must have provided many a drink for the multitude. (Lender & Martin, Drinking in America, p10)

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George Washington’s Beer Recipe

To Make Small Beer:
Take a large siffer full of bran hops to your taste-boil these 3 hours. Then strain our 30 gall[o]n into a cooler put in 3 gall[o]n molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather draw the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot, let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of ye[a]st if the weather is very cold cover it over with a blank[et] let it work in the cask-Leave the bung open till it is almost done working-Bottle it that day week it was brewed.”
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One Ballot, One Beer
Given the dismal voter turnout levels in contemporary American elections, perhaps this is a strategy that we might consider rediscovering. One ballot, one beer. Imagine the increase in voter participation.

Whiskey Rebels
Unfortunately, there is at least one spot which mars the first President’s record on alcohol and taxation: the Whiskey Rebellion. The new American central government found itself in the uncomfortable situation of needing to emulate the very British behavior which sparked the Revolution.

The budding American government needed cash to fund its activities. As the British well knew, alcohol was a veritable tax revenue jackpot, and so Washington followed their example and imposed a whiskey tax. Frontiersmen making their new lives across the Appalachian range in places like Western Pennsylvania were outraged by what they probably rightly perceived as an unfair tax by a faraway government. These frontiersmen were grain and whiskey rich, but cash poor, making a cash tax a particular hardship.

In addition to homebrewing, Washington was also a voluminous whiskey distiller. It may have been that Washington’s private interests in the commercial whiskey market clouded his commitment to public service in this matter. Multitudes of home distillers producing tax-free whiskey could surely have been seen as competition for Washington’s own distillery, not to mention the many other politician-distillers comprising his first government.

When Pennsylvanians near Pittsburgh rebelled openly and violently against this tax, Washington responded by crushing them with a hastily assembled national army. And so the long tradition of bathtub moonshine and tax evasion began.

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Walter Straib
Walter Staib, proprietor and chef at Philadelphia’s City Tavern, commissioned the Yards Brewing Co. to brew George Washington’s ale recipe.
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The Revolution Lives On
However, Washington’s efforts to encourage a domestic brewing industry were indeed quite successful. By 1873, America boasted 4,131 commercial breweries, plus countless private home breweries. Unfortunately, the country went through a bad hangover after prohibition and combined with corporate brewery consolidation reduced America’s total number of breweries to fewer than fifty by the 1970s.

But the revolution lives on in the modern revival of craft brewing. Today America can again boast as many as 1,440 craft breweries. Visit one today and join the revolution.

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18 Responses to George Washington, Our Porter-Pounding Founding Father

  1. Baylen says:

    Greetings. I’m a law student in DC and am writing an article about today’s food and alcohol bans (and lesser regulations) in light of early colonial laws and activities. I look forward to reading your book.

  2. beeractivist says:

    Baylen,

    Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy the book. Feel free to get in touch if you ever want to discuss. I’ve got a fairly developed analysis of prohibition.

    Chris

  3. John says:

    Greatings from Payson, AZ and from a new brew club. This is a very small town but have over 40 brewers. Not all brew every month. Changes are coming. Your article is very interesting. I once stumbled on a site that showed an artist showing that George Washington eventually had a small brewery on his own property. Can you confirm this ?

  4. beeractivist says:

    Hi John – yep, Washington did brew his own beer (as indicated by his recipe above). Likely that servants/slaves really did the work but it was definitely done on his property. He also distilled.

  5. Mike says:

    I need to try Mr. Washington’s beer… Porter is my favorite brew!

  6. This was a great read! As a student of history and beer, I find it quite interesting to learn about.

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  9. Bill says:

    Do you know if anyone has tried to repeat the GW Porter? I wander what similar ingredients are available today. any thoughts?

  10. [...] to keep good records), we are lucky enough to have their recipes. George Washington famously boycotted his beloved imported British porters just before war broke out—he lent his support to a bill that called for the avoidance of [...]

  11. [...] to keep good records), we are lucky enough to have their recipes. George Washington famously boycotted his beloved imported British porters just before war broke out—he lent his support to a bill that called for the avoidance of [...]

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