Colonial Beer

Wiki Commons picture: “Mayflower in the fog.”

From Nat Shapira’s four part series (as of now) for

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Authoritative accounts of the voyage of the Mayflower to the New World note that the original destination of both ship and passengers was Virginia, and that either bad navigation or stormy seas, or both in combination, caused the Mayflower’s crew, fearing insufficient beer on the return trip to England, to put the Pilgrims ashore at Plymouth, 600 miles from their intended destination.

As much as rare roast beef, beer was considered to be the Englishman’s food, and beer was regarded as an Englishman’s due. Beer was a healthier drink than water and was consumed from morning to night by everyone in all classes of society, from babes in arms to the elders seated by the kitchen fireplace.

New England’s climate and soil was not conducive to growing the grains necessary for the making of beer, but was ideal for growing apples, orchards of which supplied the makings of cider, a widely-drunk beverage. Until such time as farming increased and transportation improved, beer ingredients were initially mostly imported.

“And until the middle of the 19th century,” Wikipedia notes, “ales dominated American brewing. This changed when the lager styles, brought by German immigrants, turned out to be more profitable for large-scale manufacturing and shipping.”

Because brewing beer was very much related to baking bread, the chore of mixing and preparing the ingredients was considered to be “women’s work,” and no doubt most of the housewives of Bridgewater were good at this endeavor, whether the beer was for family consumption or, in the case of the tavern trade, prepared for the customers.

There were exceptions, as one foreign observer some years later noted after a trip to colonial America, where he was a guest in various houses:

“Beare is indeed in some places constantly drunken, while other places serve nothing but Water and Milk, and Water or Beveridge (usually a combination of water and cider), and that is where the good-wives (if I may so call them) are negligent and idle, for it is not want of Corn to make malt into, for the Country affords enough, but because they are slothful and careless, and I hope this Item will shame them out of these humours, that they will be adjudged by their drinks, what kind of Housewives they are.”

While the male inhabitants of the Bridgewaters were hard at work, madly burning calories cutting forests, clearing land, raising cattle, farming and fishing, the students at Harvard College in the 1630s were demanding good beer.

The supply shortage was soon rectified, and by 1654, according to “Colonial Women of Affairs,” one Sister Bradish made her mark in the lore of Boston brewing.

“Thomas Dudley, a founder and overseer at Harvard College, hearing a complaint, commended Sister Bradish, a Cambridge brewer and baker, for ‘her art, way and skill with beer,’ while defending her from charges of leading students astray with her good cooking, and further, that she was not responsible ‘for harbouring students unreasonably spending their time and parents’ estate.’”

A century later, as Brockton historian Robert Kane noted in his article, “Satucket to North Bridgewater,” the population of North Bridgewater (later to become Brockton) was “perhaps 300. In 1764, there were but 120 houses and a population of 833,” certainly enough people to justify home-brewing, not to mention supplying customers to the three taverns extant in the town.

The Colonial era, broadly speaking, lasted from 1620 to 1776. During that period, immigration, trade, industry and communications improved greatly.

In 1649, the General Court legislated the establishment of “ordinaries,” or inns, to furnish food, drink and comfort to travelers, and in 1789, recognizing the importance and benefits to be derived there from, Massachusetts passed a law encouraging the manufacture and consumption of beer and ale.

Production of beer kept pace with the increase in population, but as with one of the “laws” figured out by the famous scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, the action of brewing alcoholic beverages produced the opposite reaction – with its attendant concern about drunkenness – and caused the Temperance movement to get under way in earnest in 1826.

During the 19th century, there were on-again/off-again attempts by some of the states to ban the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. By 1919, however, prohibition became the law of the land, and the big brewing industry came to a close. In the years following repeal in 1933, major changes in the structure of the industry occurred, so that now there are only a few national and regional breweries as well as the local or micro-breweries to satisfy demand.

As for Brockton, the Centennial booklet, “Brockton, 1881-1981” notes that as the 1900’s began, “There was not a saloon in the city.”

Well, closing time approaches, and as they say in the English pubs, “Time, gentlemen, please.” As the owner of the “Bull & Trout,” thank you for your custom. We hope you were entertained and informed with glimpses of the Brockton region as it was many years ago, along with some insights into an important aspect of the social history of that time and place.

So, please raise your glass with me and repeat a toast of the ancient Egyptians:

“Here’s to your ghost!”


Nat Shapira was born in Brockton in 1933 and lived in the city until 1955. He is retired and living in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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