Chapter VI. Decline of Brewing

Up to the Revolution the decline of brewing in the Colonies continued until scarcely a vague recollection of its former flourishing condition lingered in the minds o the people. Here and there, widely scattered over an immense extent of territory, a few brew houses whose product had acquired an uncommon reputation---like the porters and ales of Philadelphia---remained in operation; but their output was infinitesimal as compared with the quantities of other inebriating liquors produced and consumed in the country. True, the lawmakers improved every available opportunity to hold out inducements to brewers and never failed on such occasions to lament the total decay of the industry; but however alluring the exemption from duties and excises, premiums on domestic hops, and the protection of malt and beer may have been, they were insufficient to counterbalance other economic factors---such, for example, as the cheapness and popularity of rum, which the legislator could not neutralize.

Hence, with the exceptions already adverted to, brewing relapsed into the primitive state in which we found it at the beginning of its Colonial career, again becoming a domestic industry wherever a lingering taste for malt beverages induced the people to set up the discarded kettles, and to brew their own beer, from time to time. In like manner, tavern keepers recommended brewing in order to supply those of their customers who still preserved a taste for beer; and the quantities thus brewed for home consumption, in the narrowest sense of the term, may not have been inconsiderable; but we have no way of determining, even approximately, how large this production was. Such beers were not, of course, of a very good quality; and this explains the well authenticated fact that the few regular brewers who still continued to brew were overrun with orders from the tapsters. Of a certain Quaker brewer it is reported that, toward the end of the eighteenth century, he used to hold receptions in the old Rainbow Inn, in Beekman Street, New York, whither came his customers, with hat in hand, to pay their respects and solicit a supply of ale!

During the war, when commercial intercourse with England was completely shut off, and the importation of merchandise from other countries hampered by many dangers, domestic brewing revived in a measure; but the unsettled state of affairs prevented anything like a complete resuscitation of the trade. >From all we can learn it appears that the increased activity in this field of labor was confined to an effort to produce the quantities of malt liquors which before the war had been imported from England; but even this object was not, in all probability, fully accomplished, because other more pressing needs confronted the struggling people.

For a short time after the re-establishment of peace, the slight impetus thus given to brewing derived an additional force from a pretty general movement in favor of malt liquors, based alike upon moral considerations and economic requirements. We refer to the movement begun by Dr. Benjamin Rush and carried forward by a strong organization for many years after its inauguration. It was during this period that many small breweries were erected in the towns along the Hudson in the State of New York, and in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, where the movement referred to originated, at once became the greatest brewing city in America, the brew houses there exceeding in number and the quantity of manufactured beer, those of all the seaports of the United States.

Progress Under Difficulties

That the brewing industry progressed considerably in those localities where it was introduced, shortly before and after the Revolution, is evidenced by a number of circumstances. As early as 1807 the production of malt liquors, according to Gallatin's statement, was nearly equal to the consumption, yet the importation of malt into Pennsylvania had already ceased in 1793; thus showing that the adjuncts of brewing in the large establishments were rapidly being perfected. In Philadelphia, where the agitation in favor of the substitution of fermented liquors for ardent spirits had found most favor, the use of beer had become very general, and soon extended into the larger cities of adjoining states. The state of the brewing industry in 1809-10 appears from the following table, taken from the "Digest of Manufactures":

The per capita production of malt liquors in the States names (the total amount produced being 5,754,737 gallons) amounted to almost one and one fourth gallons, or, to be precise, to 4.98 quarts. This does not include what in the Digest is styled ancient fermented liquors, made of honey---the old German meth, here called metheglin and mead---of which considerable quantities are said to have been produced and consumed by private families. Surely, this is a gratifying development of a new industry within so brief a period, and under difficulties of which the present followers of the trade can scarcely form an adequate idea. We quote the Digest:

"The difficulty and expense of procuring a supply of strong bottles, and peculiar taste for lively or foaming beer, which our summers do not favor, have been the principal causes of the inconsiderable progress of the manufacture of malt liquors, compared with distilled spirits. The absence, or the infrequency of malting, as a separate trade, has also operated against brewing in a small way and in families. The great facility of making and preserving distilled spirits has occasioned them exceedingly to interfere with the brewery. The liquor of peaches, hitherto deemed incapable of use without distillation, greatly prevents the use of beer in a very extensive region of our country, where the peach tree grows with the freedom of a weed, and where its fruit is of the best quality. Cider, which is abundantly produced in another very extensive region, rivals fermented malt liquors as a common drink, and as a material for a customary concoction (the cider royal) and for distillation."

The want of bottles was pointed out during the discussions in the first Congress, as an impediment to brewing; but the brewer of the present day will scarcely appreciate the stress laid upon this want, unless a full account could be given him of the character of the malt liquors brewed in those days. Unfortunately, no such account can be obtained; yet a conclusion may be ventured from the statement that, until a Philadelphia brewer of the name of Robert Hare, invented in 1809, a peculiarly constructed cask and faucet, no method was known of preserving beer, on tap, in partly filled vessels. What the word "preserving" means in this connection will appear from the following passage of the Digest:

"The want of a head, or top of foam, is now observable in the tap beers of Europe, and it is presumable that this object of fancy or taste will not, therefore, be in future deemed indispensable in American tap houses and families. We have been used to consider the want of this foam as an evidence of badness."

That the use of the liquor of peaches prevented the introduction of the brewing industry into the Southern States, is an observation of as much force today as it was nearly a hundred years ago; but later experiences have demonstrated the fact, that the influence of climatic conditions, coupled with the high price of ice, is quite as unfavorable to the industry as the abundance of fruit and the tastes of the people. In addition to a scarcity of bottles, there was also a want of cork and wire for bottling purposes. Establishments for manufacturing these three articles were just beginning to grow into some importance, and, of course, demanded protection, which was granted, at least to one of them. By the Act of March 27, 1804, quart bottles, which, in order to foster the brewing industry, had therefore been exempt from the duty upon glassware, were taxed sixty cents per gross; yet the home supply remained behind the demand.

All these impediments, however, would not so materially have retarded the progress of brewing, if laws tending to restrict country distilling could have been maintained; and, from the standpoint of true temperance, nothing could have appeared so desirable as a judicious restraint upon what might be styled rural distillation. All authorities concur in the opinion---confirmed by the voluminous report of the Statistical Bureau of Switzerland---that in Sweden unrestricted distillation in the rural districts rendered intemperance a national vice of consequences all the more pernicious as, owing to the unavoidable deficiencies of a primitive mode of distillation, the spirituous liquors produced were of an extremely ardent nature. But it was precisely in respect to country distilling that our first restrictive laws were only partially successful. Those persons who distilled for the trade cheerfully obeyed the laws from the very beginning; and had they not elected to do so, little difficulty could have been experienced in controlling and coercing them. It was not the trade distiller, if this term may be allowed, but the distilling farmer from whom the opposition to excises emanated, and with him, the question resolved itself into one of personal rights, on the one hand, and of a limitation of the taxing power of the Federal Government on the other.

Insufficient, both as to time and mode, as had been the test to which the excise system was subjected, it was nevertheless, proved beyond question that, coupled with a sufficiently high import duty, it could have fully realized the ethical objects of its framers, if the Government had been able to execute it rigorously, and the people had been willing to live up to it.

At the end of the first decade of the last century rural distilling recommenced with renewed vigor in all grain producing states. From this time onward the brewing industry developed somewhat more rapidly in Pennsylvania and New York on account of the great influx of immigrants from beer countries; while in the other States it either remained stationary or progressed very slowly, constantly struggling against great difficulties and impediments. The extent of the progress of brewing within forty years, i.e., from 1810 to 1850, is clearly stated in these figures:

During all this time, and up to 1842, or thereabout, the beers produced in this country were of the kind known as ale and porter, and some of these had acquired a reputation for palatableness and strength which rendered them formidable competitors of English ales in foreign markets.

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State/TerritoryPopulation Beer, Ale, and Porter in Barrels of 31-1/2 gallons)
New York959,04966,896
New Jersey245,562 2,170
District of Columbia24,0232,900