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midevel brewery

Figuring out the story of the first brewery in America, isn't hard - we just have to look at the records!

When Europeans arrived in the New World they were culturally dependent on that most popular of beverage - beer! When I say culturally dependent, I mean it! In their lives they drank beer with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and even on breaks in between work. Kids drank it, pregnant moms drank it, and even old grandma sipped beer throughout the day. Sure, you say, they might have been used to it, but that's different than being culturally dependent, right?

Well, sort of. See you have to understand why they drank it - it wasn't just about taste or to get that wobbly feeling after you'd had a few. Understand that water - in the cities anyway - was oftentimes very unclean and would get you sick. Very sick. People threw sewage, animal waste, and other disgusting material into the rivers of their local communities, and so their perception was that all water was potentially filthy. But beer? Ahhh, beer was safe!

The first brewery in America was probably at the Jamestown, Virginia Colony, though we don't have evidence for this. The settlers who arrived there in 1606-1607 were most likely living off the beer they brought with them. Once they had exhausted that supply, they turned to what they had locally. Apparently it wasn't very good though, as the Governor placed ads for brewers in London newspapers in 1609.

At that time much of the beer that people drank was made in their own homes. Sure there were taverns back in Europe, and there were also numerous commercial brewers at the time, but brewing was also a domestic chore, and most wives were responsible for the household suds (in fact the book, The English Huswife, was published in 1615 containing everything the perfect wife needed to know, and chapter 9 was about brewing).

But domestic brewing wasn't what was needed in the new colonies. Not every man was married, after all, and further there were a lot of people passing through - seamen, merchants, traders - all needing beer, and the women of the colony couldn't supply them all. What Jamestown needed was a commercial brewery. And, eventually, they got it. By 1620 it was reported there were two brewhouses in the colony. However, we still don't know exactly when they were built and so these records just aren't good enough to convince us that this is the first. Instead, we need to look elsewhere, and so our glance turns north, to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands.

block christiansen small

That's where Adriean Block, a Dutch explorer and privateer, was operating. In fact, he made his home base the colony town of New Amsterdam, and from there he scouted the rivers between New Jersey and Massachusetts. New Amsterdam had the same issue as Jamestown - merchants, fur-trappers, seamen, and others were routinely stopping in, and each needed a drink. So, together with another Dutch settler named Hans Christiansen, the enterprising Block opened a brewhouse on the southern tip of Manhattan around 1612.

The location is probably around Battery park. There the Dutch had put together a number of log cabins that served as fort, quarters and, now, brewhouse. The production wouldn't be thought of much by today's standards. They probably had a couple of open-air, wooden vats in which the beer first fermented. They would have a brew-kettle, but there's no way of knowing how big it was or any details. It's not even at all clear where they got the brewing materials from, but we do know they were pumping out the suds. And so, while this may not be the very first brewing operation in America, so far as we know, it is definitely the first commercial brewery in America.

Incidentally, in the structure that housed the brewhouse was born a boy named Jan Vigne in 1624. Ironically - he grew up to be a brewer! Cheers!


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