The Brides ‘Imported’ to Colonial America for Their Brewing Skills

Allice Burges, an Englishwoman, walked onto American soil in 1621 clutching a letter recommending her beer-making abilities. The Virginia Tobacco Company imported 57 women from England to help the Chesapeake Bay settlers. Investors of the company believed that women and children would be able to cure colonists' loneliness and strengthen their connection to the new land. It was also good business sense for colonists to have happy workers. The women had practical skills that would increase survival chances for everyone.
The Virginia Tobacco Company had tried before to send English brides to the settlers, but it didn't work out. One man complained that the company only sent few women [and] was not able to send any corrupted. Another writer said that the first women to be sent were so poor they made it difficult for the Colony to want any more.

Illustration of the wives and settlers of Jamestown. Bettmann / Getty Images

Allice Burges, and her peers, came from wealthy families. These were daughters of artisans and gentry, some even being related to knights. Burges was a close friend. They all had letters of recommendation which vouched to their good upbringing and their skill in huswifery, that is, chores like brewing, baking and spinning as well as making butter and cheese. Many were widowed or orphans at a young age, or did not possess the skills that their peers considered natural defenders. This is according to historian David R. Ransome. Some women might have fled their homeland in search of a natural defender, while others might have wanted to pursue adventure. The Virginia Tobacco Company had recruited the women partly because they were skilled in areas that the male settlers, their soon-to be husbands, did not have.

The most important skill women had to have was the ability to make alcohol. The English colonists were accustomed to heavy drinking and there was little else to drink in the early settlements. Tea and coffee were scarce luxuries. Milk required milk production and fresh water could easily be contaminated, particularly in the Chesapeake tidal waters. Colonists were so cautious about their water, signs were often posted at water pumps warning anyone who drinks too quickly.

England was the source of colonists' distrust in water. Waterways, especially in urban areas, were frequently polluted by refuse and blood from slaughtered animals.

According to Theresa McCulla (curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at National Museum of American History), alcohol was safer than water. Boiling is the best way to make alcohol. However, boiling can kill many pathogens. These societies also consider beer and other alcoholic beverages very nutritional. These were essential elements of the diet, which provided sustenance beyond water.

London's first fresh water seller, 1600s. Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Drinking water was considered to be a sign that the English didn't like water. An Englishman of resources would drink a pint of hard cider with every meal and any other alcohol that came his way throughout the day.

This tradition of substituting water for alcohol would have been continued by the first male colonists, but they didn't know how to make it. Brewing, cidering and distilling were all considered women's work or the work of domestic workers and enslaved persons.

McCulla says that brewing was a common household chore. Brewing was a domestic chore in England, and other countries until it became a lucrative profession.

Englishwomen could make a wide range of alcohol beverages in their own kitchens. This allowed them to provide steady drinking for their husbands as well as their children. You can drink at any age. Men in colonies were tired of drinking water and sought out women who could make safer and more interesting elixirs.

Despite the fact that Virginia Tobacco Company imported many brides, there was still a shortage of women in colonies during the 1600s. Many men had to stop drinking water. In her book Every Home a Distillery, Sarah Hand Meacham writes that the colony of Chesapeake was known for being a colony full of water drinkers.

John Hammond, an English traveler, complained in 1656 that there was no water or milk available in certain parts of Virginia and Maryland. He blamed the few goodwives in Virginia and Maryland, claiming they were negligent and inactive because they didn't produce enough alcohol. He hoped that their observations would make them laugh and spark a fire under the kettles. He warned them that their drinking habits will make them look like housewives.

Hammond's expectations were likely unreasonable.

Meacham wrote in an email that it was impossible for Englishwomen recreate the alcohol drinks that men, women and children consumed daily in England during their first landing in Jamestown. They could not yet grow hops or wheat to make beer and ale that was becoming more common in England. Even if they did have them, the heat was too high to make beer or ale in the American South without refrigeration and pasteurization. Cider was not available in Virginia, as the varieties of apples were different from those found in England. Distilling technology was expensive and large. It was also prone to explosion. Colonists had to be flexible and drank quick ciders made with local fruit trees in their early years.

Sometimes signs were posted at water pumps warning of death to anyone who drinks too quickly.

Cider also keeps precious food from going stale.

McCulla says that before the invention of refrigeration, people had no choice but to use their creativity in preserving food and drinks. It could be pickling, drying, baking, cooking, or keeping it in a cool area, such as a cellar. For things like peaches, apples, and pears, the best way to preserve them was to make cider out of pears and to make distilled spirits from fruit and grains.

Women were able to find substitutes for beer and ale's main ingredients through their creativity. They used spruce essence to replace hops. This gave them a similar bitterness and served as a preservative. Ground ivy was also a common weed. Women substituted barley for the key source of fermentable sugars, and used fruits and vegetables instead. In colonial Chesapeake homes, unhopped ale was made from corn, pumpkins or molasses.

McCulla cites a number of other ingredients that were used in colonial-era beer recipe: sweet fern, ginger root, wheat bran and rye meal.

Home-scale alcohol production increased as the colonies' female and enslaved population grew. Soon, women were able to supply their families with alcohol in large quantities. In 1770, an adult white male consumed seven shots of rum per night, while a woman of average age drank nearly two pints of hard cider per day. The Chesapeake wasn't a colony of water-drinkers anymore, Meacham wrote in Every Home a Distillery.

Reproduction of a colonial hot beer flip. Luke Fater, Gastro Obscura

Women homebrewers were able to continue to experiment with all types of herbs, fruits, weeds, and fruits to make beer, cider, and ale.

However, brewing became more commercialized over time and women were exempted from the process. Gregg Smith, a historian, told Craft Beer & Brewing magazine that men started brewing more when money became an issue. The industrialization of beer also led to homogenization. This meant that the original brews that women colonists made almost disappeared. This was before the modern craft beer movement had a taste for history.

Today's breweries recreate early American beverages like spruce beer or flip. Many are assisted by the original brewers. Meacham wrote in an email that many recipes were copied by women for making alcoholic beverages. They also preserved and passed on cookbooks that contained alcoholic beverages, Meacham writes in an email.

Arrival of the first woman to the Jamestown colony. Bettmann / Getty Images

This year marks 400years since Allice Burges arrived in America with her friends. Recreating and enjoying their recipes is a great way to recognize their contribution in shaping American brewing.

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