Despite seemingly inexhaustible supplies of pristine drinking water, colonists to the New World were first and foremost Englishmen, every one of whom understood that drinking water could make you deathly ill. The connection between sanitation and the boiling to make beer was ill understood, but everyone knew. Those who drank beer and ale didn’t get sick. The brewhouse was an indispensable priority in every new settlement.
The earliest settlers to Jamestown, Virginia neglected the brewer’s art. Their first pleas for relief from England, included advertisements seeking “two brewers’ to join them.
When Pilgrims fetched up on the shores of Cape Cod and the later Plimoth colony in 1620, it was not in search of a beach vacation, but because of dwindling beer supplies.
Little brother Benjamin Franklin describes his earliest experience working in his brother’s print shop, with frequent reference to fetching ale for the journeyman printers.
Beer and ale were dietary staples in the era, a source of nourishment as well as refreshment. Infants drank beer and it was especially recommended for nursing mothers. Many households added a small brewing room to the outside of the building, so that the heat and risk of fire associated with brewing and cooking could be kept outside of living quarters. To this day, the lower rooflines of these “brew rooms” can be found, jutting out from the sides of the oldest American homes.
In early colonial America, tavern keepers would put out an “Ale Stick” or “Ale Stake”, a wooden pole with a bush of barley tied to the top, informing thirsty travelers that sustenance could be found, inside. Sometimes a hoop of woven barley hanging outside, would tell you that you had arrived.
Samuel Cole was an early settler in the Massachusetts Bay colony, arriving with the Winthrop fleet in 1630 and establishing himself on the Shawmut peninsula. Four years later, he opened the first house of entertainment in Boston, calling his place “Cole’s Inn”, established March 3, 1634.
Taverns were common in England from as early as the 1200s, where women called “Ale Wives” would fetch beer, wine, mead and ale for the guests. Though lodgings were a common feature of the ale houses of the time, it would not be until the early 1700s that Colonial taverns commonly offered such amenities.
Later taverns posted elaborate signs, carved from wood, stone, or even terra cotta, and hanged from wooden posts mounted to the building or to a nearby tree. Barley, the universal symbol for beer, remained a common feature of such signs, and continues in use on the labels of many brands sold to this day.
The signs of the time frequently included horses, indicating that lodgings and stables were available. Many such establishments came to be called after such signs, and names such as “Chestnut Mare” and “White Stallion” were common.
Today, a Google search of the term “Black Horse Tavern” yields some 1,090,000 hits. Cheers.
“Filled with mingled cream and amber
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chambers of my brain –
Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
Who cares how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.” – Edgar Allen Poe