Beer isn’t just for celebrating with your friends or drowning your sorrows. Alcohol in general has long played an important role in the history of mankind to both wonderful and disastrous affect. Beer in particular is important to us as Americans, because it played a pivotal role in the founding of colonies in the New World by the British. Envious of the riches the Spanish and Portuguese were bring back to Europe from their empires in the New World, the British decided to cash in on this source of new-found wealth. Not only did their empire require an extraordinary amount of cash to grease the wheels of the bureaucracy, but it was rumored that the New World was covered in grape vines. If the British could grow wine in the Americas, they would no longer be dependent on French imports . So they began attempting to colonize in the late 15th century to disastrous results, induced in part because of the difficulty of producing good beer. British expeditions began badly and only worsened. In 1497, John Cabot disappeared on his voyage west to help establish fishing posts in Newfoundland. Very few ventured West until 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland, but failed to establish a colony and sank on his return voyage. Finally, the dashing and debonair Sir Walter Raleigh launched an expedition in 1585 taking 108 colonists across the Atlantic to Virginia where they established a colony called Roanoke. The ships records list ale, sack, wine, cider and spirits, so plenty to drink, but alas, before their ships could safely deposit them on shore, a storm hit drowning the livestock, killing the seed, and ruining most of the alcohol .
Nevertheless, the intrepid pilgrims eked out a colony which they named Roanoke. Several things contributed to Roanoke’s failure, but chief among them were deteriorating relationships with the native tribes of the region, and a lack of beer. Why was beer so important? To answer that question we need to step back briefly and take a broader historical look.
In England, and indeed throughout most of Europe, increasing population pressures, a lack of medicinal knowledge especially with respect to sanitation, the filth of cities, and the movement of populations from Central Asia westward, had all combined to create water that was completely unsuitable to drink. The process of boiling beer however, or of distilling spirits, or the higher alcohol content of wine, all eradicated a good portion of the harmful bacteria, and so peasants and nobility alike turned to beer for ‘water’ and vitamins. Beer provided much need carbohydrates and calories for the peasantry while participating in the complex social culture of the aristocracy. So, it wasn’t just that the pilgrims tippled excessively, but beer was necessary if a British colony was going to survive in the wilds of the New World.
Another example included the settlers of Jamestown. Of the 144 colonists who set out from England in 1607, a little over a hundred of them survived the voyage to the Chesapeake Bay. The ships left the unfortunate settlers on their wet spit of land, and took all the beer for their return voyage. Many of them had emigrated for clean living sans alcohol, and as a result, most of them died . The situation deteriorated so rapidly that two years later the colonists tried to entice two brewers to make the journey across the sea, but were unsuccessful. It was another vice, tobacco, that allowed the colonists to survive long enough, to make enough money to trade the crop for imported alcohol. Only then did they begin to thrive. Though often the beer was bad after the transatlantic voyage and in one case reportedly killed 200. Still, your chances were better than if you were drinking water.
It wasn’t until 1621, 124 years after Cabot’s unfortunate attempt, that pilgrims accidentally landed at Cape Cod where after suffering through numerous epidemics caused, most likely, by waterborne illnesses, that they befriended the Massasoit who showed them where to find clean water. This revelation that clean water could be had turned the flow of pilgrims into a flood, though it was still a very long time before anyone attempting the crossing or the first few years of settlement without beer.