Thanksgiving, pilgrims, and beer myths
The Thanksgiving story
When the pilgrims came to America they were running low on provisions, specifically beer. The crew was concerned about provisions for the trip back so they dumped the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, packed up and left. The pilgrims immediately built a brewery and had a happy Thanksgiving dinner with the locals.
That is the story, but is it really true? Would religious puritans really drink beer? Did they build a brewery? What was the brew choice at the first Thanksgiving? Here’s what I found out.
Did the pilgrims drink beer?
Water is essential to life, but at the time of the Mayflower water could also make you sick. You’ve heard “don’t drink the water” when traveling to Mexico or you’ll get Montezuma’s Revenge. Back then, you didn’t drink the water anywhere. This made beer an important commodity at the time, because beer was a much safer beverage than water. To survive the trip across an ocean, you needed some source of water. During the Mayflower times, that source of water was beer and wine.
The reason for beer’s advantage over water is harmful microorganisms cannot survive long in beer (or wine). Of course you can boil water to make it safe, but in the 1600s no one knew microorganisms were the source of their health problems. People just knew beer was safe and water was not. So yes, the pilgrims drank beer.
- Beer was the main source of water at the time
- Ships carried wine and beer for long voyages
- The Mayflower was a wine vessel capable of carrying 180 casks of wine
So what kind of beer did the pilgrims drink?
Were the party pilgrims getting drunk on the way over to America? Beer does not need to be strong for its anti microbial effects. The polyphenols (not alcohol) in beer and wine act as an anti-microbial agent and prevent bacterial diarrhoea. Small beers were common at dinner time during Colonial times.
These small beers were usually consumed soon after brewing. The reason is small beers tend to spoil quickly. So while the beers were much better than water, they didn’t survive long. This is true even now, which is probably why Budweiser advertises their “born on” dating system so often. A small beer would most likely not make the trip to the Americas and back.
I could not find a definitive word on the exact type of beer the pilgrims drank, but it most likely was some type of bitter. The beer couldn’t be a pale ale since pale ales arrived on the scene in England around 1700. Porters are very nutritional and would have been my first guess, but the beer style didn’t show up until 1722. IPAs came even later, however the recipe construction of IPAs do give us some insight into the beer the pilgrims might have been drinking.
India Pale Ales (IPA) were created later in history specifically to make the long journey to India. Brewers added hops to these beers to travel to much warmer regions of the world over longer periods of time without spoiling. Hops act as an anti-microbial agent, which is why these beers tend to be very hoppy. However these beers rarely had initial gravities over 1.070, and most were between 1.050 and 1.070. These gravities correspond to an alcohol content around 5% to 7.5% ABV. IPAs were actually brewed lower in gravity to have less residual sugars. Any remaining sugars would attract spoilage organisms. This is why IPAs are traditionally dry.
Any beer the pilgrims would be carrying on the Mayflower most likely would not be too strong. You don’t want people getting drunk on a ship, especially when you are going nuts anyway from sheer boredom. A stronger beer would also run the risk of more residual sugars. Spoiled beer is a bigger problem than drunk puritans. I’m guessing the beer was a very dry, slightly over-hopped, medium strength bitter. If you know for sure the beer they brought (with a reference), let me know.
- IPAs were developed later for long trips, but they were rarely stronger than 7% ABV
- Higher alcohol beers contain residual sugars, a target for spoiling microorganisms
- Ethanol is not anti-microbial, but hops and polyphenols are
Were they dumped on Plymouth Rock due to low beer supplies?
Many websites point to the ship logs of Captain Christopher Jones as proof the ship’s crew was concerned about beer supplies. The only problem is Captain Christopher Jones either didn’t keep a log, or it was long lost. Other accounts of what happened were not written until many years later.
Here’s what likely happened. The Mayflower was supposed to leave England much earlier and with another ship, the Speedwell. The puritans had an initial delay negotiating debts with their investment company, and then when they eventually set sail the Speedwell took on water. The ships had to go back, cram pack most everyone on one ship, and set sail for the Americas again on September 6th.
They reached land in the Americas on November 9th, but they didn’t make for shore until a few days later. When they arrived they realized the Mayflower was no where close to where they needed to be (Virginia Colony) and many colonists questioned if they had the legal right to settle in Cape Cod. The last thing you wanted to do was colonize the land and have another group of settlers take the land from you over a legal dispute. That was ok to do to the natives, but not so cool to each other. That’s why they wrote the Mayflower Compact. It was to alleviate the legal fears of the settlers.
The pilgrims got the heave ho from the Mayflower because they were out of time, not out of beer. And they really didn’t get the “heave ho” as many would imply. The Mayflower set sail for England April 5th the following year. That’s five months after reaching America. If the crew was worried about supplies, they would have left much earlier. The ship had at least half of their beer left at this point, because they needed it for the return trip. They were not low on beer.
The pilgrims wasted five weeks running around New England, robbed a few Native American graves for buried corn and beans, and eventually landed on Plymouth Rock on December 17th. They picked the spot because the ship needed to get the colonists established before winter really set in. Three days later, December 21st, they agreed on a site to settle and set out on their first task.
- The pilgrams were forced to land at Plymouth rock because they were out of time
- The crew had beer through the winter, and left with enough supplies for the voyage back
- The Mayflower set sail for England in April of the following year
Was the first pilgrim structure a brewery?
If you’ve been on a ship for two months, winter is already here, people are dying, and someone told you the first building was going to be a brewery you would laugh at them, probably after beating the silly person senseless.
The first structure was not a brewery, it was shelter. The pilgrims planned on building nineteen structures, but they only made four common houses. Only 45 people of the original 102 settlers survived the first winter. A brewery was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
- Only 45 people survived the winter, a brewery was the last thing they would think to build
Was the first Thanksgiving happy with beer?
The first real Thanksgiving most likely wasn’t until July of 1623 when more colonists and supplies arrived. The famous dinner with the Native Americans happened in October 1621. The “harvest festival” lasted three days, and probably didn’t have beer. Any beer from England was long gone, the Mayflower was long gone, and the grains in New England were not suitable for beer.
The colonists did plant some barley the first year, but there is no evidence it was used for beer. Barley wasn’t grown in large amounts in the Americas until the late 1700s to create a brewing industry. In short, there was no beer at the first dinner with the locals.
- President Washington declared the first Thanksgiving Day, but it wasn’t a regular national holiday until Lincoln
- The first Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival with the natives
- There was no record of beer served
Who lied to me?
Budweiser, who else. Well not just Budweiser, but all the breweries collectively as the United Brewers Industrial Foundation. The brewers before and after prohibition were scared silly of losing their industry, with good reason. They wanted to paint beer as American as apple pie in an effort to improve beer’s image and prevent prohibition.
The brewers ran ads stating “the pilgrims drank beer” and created the myths surrounding the beer habits of the early settlers. These ads ran before prohibition and after prohibition. The ads are the source of many of the pilgrim myths, and unfortunately what many know about early American History.
- “Pilgrims drank beer” was a marketing campaign to help beer’s tarnished image during prohibition
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Credits and Links
I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!