George Washington’s Hidden Beer Recipe | Object of Intrigue | Atlas Obscura

By Brian Lemay No comments


– In this time period, people
couldn’t just drink water. There was a lot of, sort
of, disease in the water, so in order to avoid cholera, you could make small
beer, which would have a small amount of alcohol content in it, enough to kill the bacteria, and then you could drink it to be hydrated without getting drunk. So
small beer was really important in order to keep a group of people, say, a group of soldiers, hydrated, when they were out in the woods, you know, patrolling the frontier. I’m Thomas Lannon, I’m
the assistant director of manuscripts, archives, and rare books at the New York Public Library, and today, we’re looking at George Washington’s recipe for beer in his journal from 1757,
and by taking a closer look, we might learn that it wasn’t
as delicious as we think. We call it the “Notebook
of a Virginia Colonel,” because it was maintained by Washington as he was a captain of
the Virginia Regiment. This document is
important because it shows the personality of George
Washington, which then becomes the personality of
the United States of America. Washington’s notebook includes
a lot of things crossed out. He did that in order to
prove they were done. This helps build the myth
about the type of person George Washington was. He was exacting, deliberate,
and wanted to succeed. So when we actually look at the journal, you’ll sort of see why the recipe for beer is separated from his sort of, goings on, as a Virginia colonel. Washington is known as a real draconian, he lashed people for deserting, we know of at least two times where he hung people for desertion. The beer recipe appears
at the end of the journal and also upside down, which suggests that it was added later because it’s on page one of the
journal on its reverse side. In this time period,
there’s not as much stigma around drinking. Everyone drinks. Children drink, women
drink, you drink to survive, and you drink beer because it’s clean, so the drinking of beer was a sort of everyday occurrence that all people did in order to be hydrated. The beer recipe also is unappetizing. Take a large siffer full
of bran hops to your taste. Now, there’s lots of types of hops. Bran ones don’t sound most appetizing. Boil these three hours, then strain out 30 gallons into a cooler. Put
in three gallons of molasses. Okay, so now you’ve boiled bran hops, you’re adding molasses, so you have, a kind of syrupy elixir. Then, while the beer is scalding hot, draw the molasses into a cooler, let this stand until it is
little more than blood warm, then put in a quart of yeast. If the weather is very cold,
cover it with a blanket and let it work in the cooler 24 hours, then put into a cask,
leaving the bung open until it is almost done working. Bottle it that day, as it was brewed. So, you’re not aging it. Today’s beer makers would
never make this beer. Even the most, sort of,
dedicated craft brewer would call this beer sort of, like, “(beep) water.” Sorry. – [Off camera] No, it’s good, it’s good. – There’s been a lot of
focus on the beer recipe, and the reason why might be
because the military history of the French and Indian
Wars is not as exciting as the recipe for beer, which
humanizes George Washington. He has this sort of dual personality of being a sort of militaristic person, but also a benevolent Founding Father and so the beer recipe, I think, can be used to show his human side. This document has told different stories to different people at different times, and that’s what makes it
so alive and interesting is that there’s different
ways to read the document and there’s different ways to see it.

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