Five Urban Legends of American Beer History

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"Brewing trade organizations of the Repeal-era 'enhanced' beer's history to stimulate its sales," says beer historian.

so that the sailors might have more beer

Bob Skilnik, author of the recently-released Beer & Food: An American History (ISBN 0977808610, Jefferson Press, Hardcover, $24.95), argues that industry embellishments and poor research have distorted much of the history of U.S. beer. While his latest work traces the centuries-long courtship and ultimate marriage of beer and food in American kitchens, it also details popular misconceptions about beer that linger on.

"As the exuberance surrounding legal beer began to fade in the mid-1930s, so did the sale of beer. The United States Brewers Association commissioned a separate arm, the United Brewers Industrial Foundation, to propagandize beer's importance in American society," says Skilnik. "The U.B.I.F.'s efforts were reflected in an informational campaign of print ads extolling the tax revenue benefits of a now highly-regulated industry, pamphlets that demonstrated beer's use in the kitchen as a tasty food staple and condiment, and as a catalyst that helped shape early American history. While some of the industry's early efforts to get beer into American households were often clumsy and heavy-handed, it was the beginning of one of the longest and most successful advertising campaigns ever. It was sometimes served up, however, with a frothy head of white lies."

  • The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer.

Fact: While this makes for a great story, the Pilgrims were more concerned about running out of food. With months of cold weather ahead until the growing season, it's ludicrous to believe that there was a frat-boy mentality onboard that drove them ashore simply because they were out of beer. In actuality, there was plenty of beer still on board for crew members who had to make the return passage to England. The crewmen hurried them off the Mayflower "so that the sailors might have more beer," admits William Bradford in his writings about the early settlement.

  • George Washington was a brewer.

Fact: So were the heads of households of most families during the colonial era. In addition, the lowliest settler, as well as Washington, additionally brewed up perry from pears, cider from apples, and even took on the task of distilling whiskey. The brewing efforts of Washington or other Founding Fathers were no different or unique than those of the average colonial Joe-Sixpack.

  • Early American brewers used adjuncts like corn to lessen the cost of their beer and increase their profits.

Fact: From the moment the earliest settlers landed in America, corn was used in the making of their beers. It was an abundant grain. Good quality malted barley was scarce, and even when available, the malt was stretched in the brewing kettle with additional fermentables such as persimmons, Jerusalem artichokes, molasses, or wheat germ.

  • There was no American brewing industry until the arrival of lager beer in the 1840s, brewed by German immigrants.

Fact: Although it would take years after the Revolutionary War for the diverse elements of an indigenous brewing industry to come together, the Eastern Seaboard was teeming with an active ale brewing industry, decades before the introduction of lager beer. Early nineteenth century Philadelphia and New York in particular were thriving brewing centers.

  • National Prohibition irrevocably changed the taste and character of American beer.

Fact: As Beer & Food: An American History details, beer in this country has gone through a plethora of changes, long before Prohibition and long after. To point to one episode of American history as the defining turning point in American beer quality is to ignore the impact of food control legislation, wars, trade embargoes, and even the effects of technology. There are many notes in the symphony of American beer history. Prohibition is just one of them.

About the Author

Bob Skilnik is an alumnus of Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brewing school in the U.S.; a former associate editor for the American Breweriana Journal; and a contributor to trade journals, magazines, and newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune's "Good Eating" section. He has appeared on ABC's The View, the Fox News Channel, ESPN2 and Chicago's WTTW.

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