A lot of Thanksgiving Day foods have changed since the first Thanksgiving, but some have remained an integral part of the meal. Along with turkey and desserts made from pumpkins, beer is credited with having been at the table since the beginning. Was it really?
The Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower were originally given a land grant from England for a space in the northern part of the Virginia Colony along the Hudson River. Unfortunately, the group left England on their journey later than intended and the trade winds had changed. They found themselves along the coast near modern day Boston, Massachusetts. Though they were competent navigators and knew where they were, they were uncertain that they should go all the way to New York with the rations left available.
“We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.”
- William Bradford
The group, instead, landed at Plymouth Rock in modern day Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In those days, beer wasn't a luxury item. It was food and water for sea travelers, and without it people would not survive. In the 1620s, potable water was never a guarantee, even on land. At sea, wooden barrels full of water would quickly spoil and become dangerous to drink. Beer is naturally acidic and had been boiled as part of the manufacturing process. This combination sterilized the questionable water and kept it clean to drink. No known pathogens can survive in beer, thus insuring its safety.
Beer was also a great source of nutrition for those aboard. Being made of cereal grains, beer was full of protein and carbohydrate calories. Compared to other common foods at sea such as dry biscuit (stale flat bread) and salt tack (extremely dry and salty jerky) beer was probably preferred by many.
By landing at Plymouth, the Pilgrims were able to make use of the land and the fresh clean water that was available. The scarcity of beer prompted the crew of the ship to force the passengers to go ashore, so that they wouldn't continue to consume the beer on board. A shelter was immediately built to help the group survive the winter, and beer became less of a necessity. It is at this point that myth and fact separate.
The myth is that the Pilgrims immediately built a brewery. Unfortunately, the first record of a licensed brewery being built in Massachusetts comes from 1637, a full 16 years later. Very likely some beer was brewed immediately as beer ingredients are portable. With a bag of malted barley, a fire to boil water, and a handful of hops beer could be made in a matter of a week or so. However, with winter fast approaching and abundant clean water nearby, shelter was likely more immediately important than beer.
Along with plenty of fresh clean water the area also had plenty of wild game and fish, so beer wasn't the only source of nutrition. While grain was regularly imported from England during the early days of the American Colonies, it would have been some time before brewing grains made their way to Plymouth. Any early beer brewing would have been done with other fermentables that the settlers found in the area.
The first Thanksgiving didn't happen until the following year. By then, any suitable brewing supplies were very likely exhausted. If any beer was brewed for the feast, it was made from locally available ingredients like pumpkins or corn.
I, as much as anyone, want to believe that the Pilgrims were enjoying cold pints with their turkey and stuffing, but the historical evidence doesn't do much to support it. The big breweries spent a lot of money advertising that beer was served at the First Thanksgiving before and after prohibition to help cement the idea that beer was a staple of American culture. Though it was certainly important to the Pilgrims and one of the main reasons they landed at Plymouth Rock, it is unclear if there was actually any beer served at the First Thanksgiving. If you have any evidence you'd like to share, please post it to the comments. And, Happy Thanksgiving!
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