It’s the start of winter in 1620. The Pilgrims have left the Mayflower to set forth on land. But what (other than Providence) led them to choose this time and place to leave the Mayflower?
They were out of beer.
And the crew of Mayflower wasn’t going to share their brew because they needed it to survive the winter and their voyage back to England.
William Bradford mentioned their need for beer when he recalled the day they set out for what would be known as Plymouth:
So in the morning, after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution — to go presently ashore again and to take a better view of the two places which we thought most fitting for us; for we could not now take much time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.
Out of beer, the Pilgrims were forced to live off water. Beer was viewed as a health drink. It was fairly low on alcohol and didn’t make one sick like the water from many streams and wells in Europe.
Stephen Mansfield talks in detail about the Pilgrims and beer in his book The Search for God and Guinness. Mansfield says that the need for beer often caused the Pilgrims and other colonists to do things “because it was a source of the health and the nourishment and the purity that our ancestors needed at the time.”
When the Pilgrims began building their settlement, they prioritized. The first building? You guessed it: a brewery.
But perhaps the strangest incident involving beer happened in March 1621 when the Pilgrims were approached by Somoset. Here is how Mansfield describes the scene:
As startling as this Indian was to the Pilgrims, it was what happened next that shocked them most of all. The man neared, paused, and then shouted “Welcome!” in clear, perfect English. And then, most astonishing still, he asked — again, flawlessly in the Pilgrim’s own tongue — if they had some beer.
… [Somoset] had grown fond of the Englishmen, had become accustomed to their ways, and apparently developed a taste for English beer.
So, when sitting around this Thanksgiving, you may want to give thanks for beer. Without it, the Pilgrims may have never survived to give thanks. And it’s a good bet that beer held a prominent place on the tables at the first Thanksgiving.
If you want to celebrate in true Pilgrim style, however, you should look for a pumpkin beer. Barley didn’t grow well in the New World. Corn was often used, but Pilgrims used pumpkin and other ingredients. A Pilgrims poem from the time spoke of how they made the beer:
If Barley be wanting to make into Malt,
We must be contented and think it no Fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our
Lips Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips
Mmmm. Pumpkin-Parsnip-Walnut beer! Be thankful you don’t need to live off that.