George Washington’s Small Beer

Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of George Washington, though he probably celebrated it on the 11th, because that’s what day the calendar read when he was born. That’s because when Washington was born in 1731, the British government still used the Julian calendar, but the British Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, implemented the Gregorian calendar in 1752, and that’s the calendar system we still use today in the U.S. When it was adjusted, eleven days were added, and George went from having a birthday of February 11, 1731 to February 22, 1732, which is the one we use today.

I did a column several years ago for the San Francisco Chronicle, before I started working for rival Bay Area Newsgroup, about Washington’s love of Porter and his efforts making small beer. Washington’s handwritten recipe has famously survived and can be seen at the New York Public Library. It was in his “Notebook as a Virginia Colonel,” from 1757. And below it what it looks like.


Luckily, his penmanship has been translated:

To make Small Beer

Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste. “” Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gallons into a 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 till 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[hole] open till it is almost done working “” Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.

Most people agree it probably wasn’t the best tasting beer, and I believe that there were efforts a few years ago to recreate it faithfully, but I don’t recall hearing those experiments turned out. Still, it’s nice to remember that our founding fathers were beer drinkers and, in some cases, brewers, as well.

I love this illustration of Washington throwing back a cold one, by Canadian artist Scott McKowen, which he did for a Wired article about Tom Kehoe, at Yards Brewing in Philadelphia, recreating some colonial beer recipes.

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