Bottles at Virginia Beer Company
Virginia Beer Company
Alewerks Brewing Company sign
Alewerks Brewing Company
Williamsburg Winery bottle
Williamsburg Winery

America Runs on Beer

With the boom in microbreweries nationwide, it's important to look back on where the brewing of beer began: Jamestown, Virginia.

Though some have tried, you can’t live on beer. It will keep you alive long enough to get scurvy, which will then kill you. Unfortunate. Still, without beer, there's a good chance America would not have survived long enough to be here. America started in Jamestown, Virginia, and so did the brewing and drinking of beer.

What They Didn't Teach You In School

There's no evidence that Native Americans made beer. The Vikings brought beer with them in the year 1000 (yes, before Columbus, who never actually landed in what’s now North America – just in case they did tell you that in school), but after some run-ins with the local Eskimos (First Nations) in what is now Canada, they packed up their kegs and left.

The French, under Cartier in 1535, settled what is now Quebec City, but they didn’t have time to brew beer given that they were starving.

Next up to the potential brewers batting box were the Spanish. They did settle St. Augustine in what is now Florida in 1565 and survive. But there's no evidence they brewed beer.

Then you have Roanoke in 1584. They simply disappeared one winter, never to be seen again. No trace of beer was found, either.

Next up is Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 – the first English settlement to survive, and the origin of America as we know it today. After two years of really hard work and one year of no women, they needed (and deserved) a pint (or whatever they lifted) of beer.

They planted a field of barley, put an ad in a London paper asking for two brewers to come over, and in 1609 finally brewed and pounded down some beer. As a matter of fact, the remnants of the very first “brewery” in America can be seen at Historic Jamestowne – just a proverbial stone's throw away from the modern Budweiser Brewery now producing “America” beer this summer.

We didn't forget about the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims arrived in 1620 on the good ship Mayflower, headed for Virginia (it was a popular spot, even back then) but they ran low on ale (kind of like beer) and cut their voyage short, basically saying “Hang a right and get to land." And land they did at Plymouth Rock in what is now Massachusetts. What we do know, even if the rock story is a bit questionable, is that they did two things and had two priorities: The Puritans almost immediately built a church and started to brew beer.

Now, many Colonial Americans believed alcohol could do wonders such as cure you, give you strength, make you live longer and just make the world a better place. They tippled, toasted, sipped, slurped, quaffed and guzzled from dawn to dark. And we are talking everyone: young, old, men, women, pregnant ... everyone. Hey, if life expectancy was 35, then middle age was just after 17.5 – time’s fleeting, best get with it.

In 1790, U.S. government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over 15 amounted to 34 gallons of beer and cider. Today we average about 20 gallons per person in the U.S.

Why Not Water?

Though the New World had plenty of fresh, unspoiled water, incautious Americans sickened and sometimes died by drinking from polluted sources. Jamestown gentleman George Percy, relating the troubles of the settlement's early days, wrote that the colonists' drink was "cold water taken out of the River, which was at a floud verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men." In other words, it was brackish (had salt in it – not good), and wells became even more brackish over time.

In Europe, where polluted waterways were a bigger problem, people substituted alcohol. It was an easy example for the colonists to follow.

But back to Williamsburg and Jamestown – the people who started it all are still at it with all those new pubs, wineries, distilleries and meaderies they are opening.

You most likely went to visit Williamsburg as a kid to see all the historical stuff, take a photo in the stocks (come on, everyone has that photo) and visit the statue of Pocahontas.

What your parents didn’t tell or show you is that this is where America learned to drink. Maybe it’s time to visit Greater Williamsburg without your parents, or if you now have kids and are parents, come back and see what adult Greater Williamsburg is like. Cheers!

Here’s A Cheat Sheet:

Silver Hand Meadery just opened in March and serves visitors flights of mead. Down the road, Alewerks Brewing Company – Williamsburg’s hometown brewery – offers guests an ever-changing rotation of beer on draft. The Virginia Beer Company just opened its doors and features a new craft brewery, taproom and garden, all from the confines of an auto-body shop. If wine is the beverage of choice, the award-winning Williamsburg Winery is a must-visit. Vines have been growing here in one form or another for more than 350 years.