Controversy re: The Real Sam Adams

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Feb 24, 2010
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I heard a guy on TV today say that the beer in colonial times was so weak you couldn't get drunk on it. He was a tea-totaler and was trying to save Samuel Adams' reputation so-to-speak. He said that Adams had a "malt house" but was essentially saying that he didn't make beer like we would drink today. That struck me as revisionist, but can anyone prove otherwise? It strikes me that if you knew a colonial age recipe you would know within tolerances what the alcohol content was. Anyone an expert?
I'm no expert, however I have done a lot reading and here is what i understood. During that period of time "small" beer was very common as people drank in place of water as it was safer to drink. The beer to get drunk from was an entirely different deal and most beer was made to take the place of water.
Malting wasn't as efficient. Mashing wasn't as efficient. Yeast strains were less refined.

When you made beers, you typically made 3. A first, second, and third running, all of which were fermented seperatly. The first running would be the best, strongest, and most expensive. The third running would be the weekest and the "commoner's" beer.

Porters were among the first beers to be brewed with all three runnings combined, making a stronger and higher quality beer more affordable to the common man.

Sam Adams would have been wealthy enough to drink which ever running he wanted.
All very interesting. So, the colonials had all types of beer from a kind of table beer up to a stronger style that would get you tipsy? He made it sound as if it was nearly impossible to get drunk, so I guess that is only half of the story. Did Sam Adams himself only produce Malt for others or did he make beer? I'm guessing that most people made some for their own purposes.
I went back and consulted my porter book. Porters started coming out in the 1720s, so they were contemporary to Sam Adams. So porter beer would have been available for drinking either as made in the Colonies or imported from London.

Porters could have easily been brewed at 1.060 - 1.070 OG. So I'm guessing 5% - 6% beer wouldn't be out of the question. A first running, or I guess the proper term is "thread", could have had a higher OG.
best book on subject "Brewed in America: The History of Beer and Ale in the United States" by Stanley Baron
Sam Adams was not wealthy at all. When we went to the Continental Congress his friends took up donations to buy his clothes and to pay for his expenses for the travel.

Yeah, but he was also 4th governor of Mass. I can't imagine a governor not being able to afford his own clothes.

Let's agree on "not overly concerned with money". At times he had it. At other times he didn't.
Let's review a few things here:

1. Many things were different in the 18th century, compared to the 21st. More than will ever be discussed on the Internet. Although by the 18th century Americans had already developed the myth that they were somehow special and qualitatively "different" than Europeans, they imported most of the habits of Europe, good and bad.
One of the bad ones was to turn surface water, and ground water in the urban areas, into open sewers. Beer wasn't just many people's choice, it was safe. Even small beer (think of something like a lambic, no more than a percent or two of alcohol, maybe less) had been boiled, so it was safe, too.

2. Beer was different, too, although it was basically the heavenly malted beverage we so love. Previous posts have covered this topic pretty well. Think of beer being WAY more variable, even from batch to batch, not the predictable homogeneous product we buy today. Think of two kegs of Budweiser, one tasting like beer, the next like monkey spunk. (Maybe not the best example.....)

3. Although there has been some good information given in this thread, the best was the book. If you're interested in beer in colonial times, you'll find that your time will be well repaid by reading up on the subject.

4. Samuel Adams was the cousin of John Adams, who WAS wealthy, and who was one of the Founding Fathers, and went on to become the 2nd president. These two have been confused in the past, and will be in the future.
Sam Adams was not wealthy at all. When we went to the Continental Congress his friends took up donations to buy his clothes and to pay for his expenses for the travel.

Sam Adams was not in the Continental Congress. John Adams was. And Sam Adams was a land owner which gave him status and income.
While I have nothing to add specifically on Sam Adams. I do have a bit of "inside knowledge" that would be fun to share. Dad was touring George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and was with a very small tour group.

In the Dinning room there was a double door "mini-cabinet" with no windows. The tour guide was NOT going to mention anything about it. Dad being curious wanted to know what it was and expected the guide to do anything other than what she did. The guide took the group over to the cabinet and opened it up and inside were what dad described as "mini-wine glasses" and some empty decanters.
The guide proceeded to tell the group that it was customary at the time, when entertaining guests, that after dinner they would "sample" the home brewed brandies and other alcohols. When sampling only the very best would ever be served. This also would provide valuable outside critiques of the alcohols as well as a social environment vs. a formal one.