Spotlight on the Revolutionary War: Beer Rations

One of my favorite special events here at the village, Soldiers and Spies, is fast approaching! This is an event we run every Father’s Day weekend, which includes a Revolutionary War re-enactment on our seldom seen North Property.  Father’s Day weekend is still pretty far away, but any time is a good time to talk about history and beer!

Stand Your Ground
A painting depicting the Revolutionary War entitled “Stand Your Ground” painted by Don Troiani, courtesy U.S. Army Center for Military History. Doesn’t this look like it could be on our North Property?

You may ask – what’s the connection between the Revolutionary War and beer? Well, American and British soldiers actually had a beer ration provided to them as part of their daily allowance while serving. This was not uncommon at the time – you may remember that British soldiers stationed in India were also provided a beer ration, leading to the creation of the India Pale Ale.  However, colonial-era soldiers were not drinking hoppy IPAs like their counterparts in 19th century India. So… what were they actually drinking?

According to the National Museum of American History, a daily allowance for an American soldier likely looked something like this:

  • One pound of bread
  • Half a pound of beef and half a pound of pork; and if pork cannot be had, one pound and a quarter of beef; and one day in seven they shall have one pound and one quarter of salt fish, instead of one day’s allowance of meat
  • One pint of milk, or if milk cannot be had, one gill [half a cup] of rice
  • One quart of good spruce or malt beer
  • One gill of peas or beans, or other sauce equivalent
  • Six ounces of good butter per week
  • One pound of good common soap for six men per week
  • Half a pint of vinegar per week per man, if it can be had.

Spruce Beer was enjoyed by soldiers on both sides of the battle. It was likely chosen as a ration because of its ability to potentially keep away scurvy. According to our previous blog writer Karell:

Colonial soldiers learned from the First Nations peoples that spruce could prevent and cure scurvy: a scourge of mariners and soldiers alike prior to the 19th century.  Scurvy was recognized as a disease caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, but it wasn’t understood to be caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C until 1932!  Thus, while soldiers and sailors didn’t know that spruce was an excellent source of Vitamin C or why Spruce Beer kept scurvy at bay, they did know it was good for what ailed them!

George Washington himself was a fan of beer, and even penned a recipe for small beer that has been preserved to this day. Perhaps the “malt beer” provided as rations was something similar to Washington’s recipe penned in 1757. Here is a transcription provided by Draft Mag:

“Take a large sifter full of bran hops to your taste—boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 gall. into cooler put in 3 gallons molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot let this stand til it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of yeast if the weather is very cold cover it over with a blanket. Let it work in the cooler 24 hours then put it into the cask. Leave the bung open til it is almost done working—bottle it that day week it was brewed.”

According to the George Washington Library at Mount Vernon, Washington penned this recipe while serving in the Virginia militia. The inclusion of this recipe in Washington’s wartime journal points to the fact that it was likely consumed by the troops serving along Washington during the French and Indian War.

If you’d like to pick up some beer rations for yourself, our brewmaster will be preparing a Ginger Beer that will be available on June 16th! Keep an eye on this blog for more information as we get closer to the date.

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