What better time than Fall for a new craft beer recipe? This one, in particular, has a unique origin story—and it starts with Founding Father and first US President George Washington.
The recipe was found written in a notebook that Washington kept during the French and Indian War, digitized and available through The New York Public Library. The notebook entries, which begin in June 1757, put a 25-year-old Washington at Fort Loundoun in Winchester, Virginia, where he served as a colonel in the Virginia Regiment militia. Washington’s experience in the militia, where he served as an ambassador, led expeditions, and defended Virginia against French and Indian attacks, gave him a military and political savvy that helped shape his leadership of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
The notebook gives a unique view into Washington’s time in the military on a day-to-day basis. These include his notes for “Sundry things to be done in Williamsburg,” and lists of supplies (the pages marked with cross-hatched x’s, once the items were done). Washington outlines memos and letters, including to the Governor of Virginia and the Speaker of the House of Burgesses. He describes his horses, too—Nelly, Jolly, Ball, Jack, Rock, Woodfin, Prince, Buck, Diamond, and Crab—with illustrations of their brand marks.
Among these notes, on the final page of the book, is Washington’s recipe for “small beer.” This type of beer is thought to have low alcohol content and low quality, and is believed to have been regularly given to soldiers in the British Army. While other, higher-quality alcohol was for the rich, who could afford the luxury, small beer was typically for paid servants. Other alcohol rations, like rum and later whiskey, were given to both slaves and employees at Mount Vernon on a weekly basis.
The small beer recipe, transcribed below, makes provisions for the types of conditions Washington or others may have needed for wartime preparation, outside of a more stable brewery. The directions require little time or ingredients, and include additional steps to take depending on the weather.
Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste — Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gall. 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 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.
For Washington, beer was considered a favorite drink (though he enjoyed a higher quality than that described in his notebook). It was typically on the menu for dinners at Mount Vernon, and a bottle of beer was given to servants daily. Washington even brewed his own beer on the estate, at what Mount Vernon historians believe to be sizeable rates.
In 1797, he started a whiskey distillery, too, making use of the plantation’s grain, which produced up to 12,000 gallons a year. While his distillery was a successful business venture for Washington, he himself wasn’t a fan of whiskey, and preferred his customary mug of beer each night at dinner.
Washington’s notebook was digitized as part of The New York Public Library’s Early American Manuscripts Project, which is looking to digitize 50,000 pages of material. These unique documents give a new perspective on life in the colonies and during the Revolutionary War, on a large and small scale. Besides the digitized papers of Founding Fathers (like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison), there are collections of diaries, business papers, and other fascinating colonial material.