Beer & History: The Public House in America

Beer History Ryan Hieronymus

By Staff Blogger Ryan Hieronymus



While the pubs of today don’t hold the same significance as in Colonial times, the importance of the tavern in American history can’t be overlooked.  The idea of the public house was brought to America from Europe as the settlers arrived, but as we’ve done with other traditions it became distinctly American overtime. 

“The taverns also gave us our current cup and spoon measuring system. Europeans favored scales, but Americans, even then, always eager to get back to work and therefore in a hurry, demanded faster service. So the innkeepers resorted to measuring with cups and spoons, which was much quicker than scales.” (

As travel was all done on horseback or carriage at this time, taverns were spaced about every 8-10 miles to provide respite for the weary travelers. Taverns were more than places to drink; they were central to Colonial life as mail depots, entertainment locals, inns and meeting halls.  Those riding via carriage had meals included with the price of the ride. Those meals were provided at the local inns and taverns.  The food provided could be as simple as what the tavern owner and his family had available to share, like porridge, hard bread and perhaps cheese with weak coffee to wash it all down.  Some inns were known for serving a better fare of roast fowl, eggs, and a tankard of ale or cider.

“With each meal you got alcohol. A colonial era tavern’s reputation could rise and fall on the quality of its ale. Ales were usually locally brewed, often by the innkeeper himself. Hard cider was also extremely popular. The dirty little secret we’re not told in school about Johnny Appleseed was that he wasn’t planting apple trees to have apples to eat, but for cider to drink. Which had as much to do with practicality as inebriation. You couldn’t keep an apple crop through the winter, but you could keep a barrel of cider. Also, cider could be transported long distances and sold, so it was a commercial enterprise as well.”  (

The taverns and public houses were more than just a place to eat and drink as they are now.  Travel, even short distances, wasn’t quick or pleasant and stops at the taverns were generally needed.  Imagine traveling even just a few miles by horseback in a crowded carriage on uneven and rocky, rut filled paths during a hot summer.  As the dust from the roads filled your mouth and dirtied your clothes who wouldn’t look forward a respite from the rocky roads.  These travelers arriving in town were a big deal and the locals would stop in to hear the news of the day. 

 “A person did not have to be traveling a great distance - according to our modern definition of what a great distance may be - to be in need of a tavern. A trip ten miles beyond Boston required spending the night. Eager villagers, hoping for information from distant towns, would drop in one by one, mingle with the day's arrivals around the fire in the great room, and listen with attentive ears to the news that they related. Around the fire the assembled company would discuss all manner of topics, though politics seemed to be the main subject.” (www.passionforthepast)

Beyond the day-to-day life of the average Colonial Era person, our founding fathers spent many an evening debating the merits of politics in these public houses. 

“However, arguably the taverns’ most important role in society (and American history) is the role they played in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As anger spread throughout the colonies, many took to the tavern to discuss, argue, and debate what needed to be done. One location in particular, Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern (or as Daniel Webster put it “the Headquarters of the Revolution”) played host to the infamous “Sons Of Liberty” who, presumably after a couple of pints of spruce beer or molasses-infused porters, plotted the “Boston Tea Party.” (

Local taverns are still host to many exchanging their opinions while have a drink or two, but much of that political debate happens online now.  With the continuous rise in breweries (7000 plus licensed now) you might believe Americans are spending more time sitting in a pub enjoying a local draft and talking with their neighbors, much like our Colonial counterparts.  You might think so, but reports/trends indicate otherwise.  Sales for at home drinking have been on the rise since 2010, in part due to the economy at the time and the continued allure of ‘Netflix and chill’ and enjoying a beer after putting the kids to bed. On -premise consumption has been slumping even as craft breweries explode and offer family friendly options. 

As a relatively new father (son just turned two) I appreciate the tap rooms that are kid friendly, but I’m definitely spending less time sitting in the pub and drinking; I definitely enjoy the convenience of growlers. There are days when I do miss spending time at my neighborhood pub talking with strangers about anything and everything.  While many of us engage in something that simulates conversation online, I don’t think there is any substitute for really engaging with someone in person. 

A few churches have embraced the pub as a place to meet and discuss religion as 1) an outreach to those who feel uncomfortable in a church and 2) to facilitate a relaxed atmosphere to discuss religion.  Not all churches are on board with the idea, but it illustrates an option some have used to help grow their congregations and create a more inviting place to discuss theology. 

While the importance of the pub has changed over time the need for a place to have civil, but lively, discussion has not declined. 








Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published