24 Nov Beer and the First Thanksgiving: Just Another Reason to be Annoyed with Anheuser-Busch
first published 11/19/18
Lots of turkey, lots of relatives (sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart), and lots of football – Thanksgiving is a day that just screams out for some good craft beer. Even if not for medicinal or calming reasons, good beer enhances the Thanksgiving dinner and makes it all that much tastier. There’s no doubt that if the Pilgrims had access to beer, they would have had a heck of a bottle share with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. It makes sense from the health, social, and historical perspectives. Or does it?
It is true that hard cider and beer were staple drinks in the 1600s, especially out in the wilds or on the seas. Just like hospitals were avoided in earlier days because they were cesspools of disease and microorganisms, drinking water was often the last thing common people wanted to drink. Water sources contained lots of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, though no one knew it at the time. Anton van Leeuwenhoek wouldn’t start peering at water with his crude microscope until the 1670s, demonstrating the small animalcules living in a world parallel, yet unseen, by ours.
Nevertheless, generations of people had put together the idea that most drinking water made people sick with typhoid, cholera, and dysentery – especially drinking water that they weren’t used to, so alcohol was the drink of choice for a healthy life. Ale (fermented malted barley without hops) and beer (ale with hops), wine, and hard cider from apples were staples of the seaman’s and pioneer’s life because they contained enough alcohol and polyphenols to slow down the growth of microorganisms, even if the folks of that time didn’t know exactly alcoholic drinks they were safer than water. In America, it took more than a couple hundred years before water even came close to matching hard cider in consumption, and beer was always running neck and neck with cider.
Therefore, it makes sense that the Pilgrims of the Mayflower drank beer and cider on their voyage over to America in 1620, and that they continued the tradition once they got here. There is even a well-known story that a lack of beer on the ship was the reason for landing at Cape Cod, premature since they were actually headed to Virginia. According to author DJ Spiess in a Fermentarium article (here), the Pilgrims probably drank a style of English bitter, since the pale ale wouldn’t be developed for another 100 years yet. The Mayflower set sail with a lot of beer, and had half of it was left when they left America for England in April, 1621, a full five months after arriving in late November. Despite the tall tale, the Pilgrims weren’t abandoned on Plymouth Rock because they were out of beer, nor did they build a brewery as soon as they landed to replenish their beer stocks.
So if they had beer when they landed, certainly they had beer for the first Thanksgiving in 1623 when more people and supplies arrived, so beer is obviously a staple of those first Thanksgivings – right? Not so fast. The dinner with the Wampanoag was in Oct.-Nov. 1621, but was mostly provided by the Indians, the Pilgrims hadn’t had much of a harvest and they still didn’t have enough barley for beer. Only 45-55 of the original 102 settlers survived that first winter, but it wasn’t because of a lack of beer. They probably did make some cider, but mostly what they tried to do was build shelter against the harsh weather after they selected Plymouth Rock in mid-December. It’s unlikely that a brewery was one of their first constructions – heck, they didn’t have any malted barley that first winter even if they had built a brewery.
Spiess states that they probably did plant some barley the first growing season, but not enough for beer, and it wasn’t considered one of their staple crops. In fact, the first record of a license for a brewery being built in Massachusetts dates to 1637, a full 17 years after the Pilgrims landed. Along with trying to build some shelter, the Pilgrims had some clean water and plenty of game to eat, so beer as a necessity for hydration and nutrition wasn’t as crucial as in some other places at other times. Perhaps some fermented drinks were made from pumpkins or corn and most probably apples (from the Indians), but there is no recorded evidence for them at the first Thanksgivings. If they did ferment drinks, it was probably new to the Wampanoag; Eastern North American Indians didn’t drink alcohol, although native Americans from the Southwest and Mexico certainly did.
There were breweries in America before the Pilgrims arrived, they just weren’t anywhere near the Plymouth, MA. It was opened in 1612 in what is now Manhattan, with barley for it mostly imported to the Americas until the early 1630s. The Pilgrims did learn how to grow barley by the late 1620s and were producing some beer in their homes, and by the early 1630s Boston was a bustling town which took possession of a shipment of hops and barley by the ton. The Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature set the price of beer in 1637 to no more than a penny for a quart. Heck, Harvard University is named for a tavern keeper’s son, John Harvard, who was an avid brewer, but all of this was years after that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, and some 35 miles to the north of the original Pilgrim settlement.
The question then becomes, how did beer come to be known as an American staple – as American as Thanksgiving? The tale of beer at the first Thanksgiving was commonly believed by the 1920s -1960s, making it the most American of all drinks and a revered part of our culture. Somebody had to have spread the story, and probably for their own benefit. The answer is none other than one of my favorite whipping boys…. Budweiser and Anheuser-Busch.
In the early 1900s, the temperance movement was gaining ground. Carrie Nation was arrested some 30 times between 1900 and 1910 for taking her hatchet to the kegs of local taverns, and it was apparent that, sooner or later, there was going to be some sort of Prohibition. In an effort “temper” this temperance movement and build the reputation of beer as a part of American culture, the United Brewers Industrial Foundation (led by AB) started a series of advertising campaigns that revolved around how beer is “the drink of the great” and that America was great in part because of beer, according to Spiess. Another ad in the campaign which debuted as early as 1908 stated that “the Pilgrims drank beer.” (see picture at left)
The ad campaign didn’t stop Prohibition from coming, but it did ingrain in the American memory (erroneously) that the Pilgrims had been big beer drinkers at that first Thanksgiving. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, beer needed a popular rebranding. According to the book Lies, Damned Lies, and History by Graeme Donald, the brewers went back to this well worn lie. The United States Brewers Association used a campaign that said, “It was beer, not turkey, that lured the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock.” This worked to again make beer a staple of American culture and perpetuate both the fallacy that beer was at the first Thanksgiving and that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they were out of beer.
Strangely enough, if they had just gone with the idea that beer was an important part of early American life they would have gotten their point across and they would have been historically accurate. Big beer just had to take it that one step further and try to get away with a lie. And they’ve been doing it every since – my gosh, they’re still try to convince people that AB-InBev mega-products are actually beer and that their purchased faux-craft breweries are still “craft.” Just be grateful we now have good beer readily available for our modern day Thanksgivings.
banner image credit: American Craft Beer