Some Beer History

Our brewmaster Rob Mullin researched colonial brewing and the history of pumpkin beers many years ago. He received this very informative reply from Bly Straube, the curator at Jamestown Rediscovery. Cheers!

As early as 1609, the Virginia Company of London is advertising for brewers to go to Virginia. In 1623, they recommend that all new colonists bring a supply of malt so they can brew their own beer “thus making it unnecessary to drink the water of Virginia until the body had become hardened to the climate.” The general consensus held by many at the time was that one of the principal causes of the high mortality rate was that the colonists had no beer to drink. Instead they had to consume water which was often filthy and brackish. Back home in England, the colonists were not accustomed to drinking water. The principal drink was ale or beer, which was consumed by men, women, and children at all times of the day. The children would drink “small beer” which was not as strong. John Smith, writing in 1629, says that the Jamestown colonists “have two brew-houses, but they finde the Indian corne so much better than ours, they beginne to leave sowing it.” In their words, the Jamestown colonists found that corn made a better beer than the wheat they were bringing from England. For drinke, some malt the Indian corne, others barley, of which they make good Ale, both strong and small, and such plentie thereof few of the upper Planters drinke any water: but the better sort are well furnished with Sacke, Aquavitae, and good English Beere (John Smith 1625). A lot of the colonists were brewing their own beer, which led to the consumption of large quantities of corn that were needed for foodstuffs. In 1620/21 a law was passed that no private person should “brewe anie beere or ale.” The beer/ale was to be produced by the Common Brewer.

The value of beer appears to have increased through the 17th century in Virginia. In 1639 it commanded 12 pence a gallon and in 1671 it was worth twice as much at 2 shillings a gallon. According to Virginian Robert Beverly, writing in the early 18th century, the poorest class of people had many substitutions for the expensive malt. They used dried Indian corn, green corn stalks, bran, molasses, persimmons, potatoes, pumpkins, etc.

Structure 110 on Jamestown Island has 3 brick fireboxes and is believed to have been a brewhouse. According to the achaeologist who did the work in the 1950s, John Cotter, the artifacts date the structure to ca.1630-50.