In the late 1750s, George Washington inscribed a recipe “To make Small Beer” in the notebook he carried as colonel of the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. The manuscript, now in the New York Public Library's collections, suggests that Washington wrote down the recipe around 1757, when he was 25 years old and stationed at Fort Loudon in central Pennsylvania.1
“Small beer,” as opposed to typical beer, is notable for its low alcohol content. The recipe’s inclusion in Washington’s wartime notebook suggests that it was consumed as a regular beverage - and even perhaps an occasional substitute for water - among troops. At Mount Vernon, beer was a favorite, but the Washington family rarely would have consumed small beer or served it to guests. Instead, it was given to paid servants, enslaved people, and children, while its finer, more alcoholic counterpart was reserved for those who could afford it.
The recipe is succinct, requires very few ingredients, and has a remarkably short preparation time of little more than a day (three hours of boiling bran hops, time to stand, then twenty-four hours to “Work in the Cooler”). It also takes into account the environmental factors of making the beer outside of a brewery, and details specifically that “if the Weather is very Cold cover it [the beer] over with a Blanket.”3 The recipe also calls for three gallons of molasses in the thirty-gallon brew, making the beer unusually sweet. The amount of molasses called for in the recipe was likely to mask the unsavory taste of the basic and hastily made brew.
Washington took up alcohol production as an official business in the last years of his life. There is no evidence, however, that he considered brewing beer for commercial purposes. Rather, in 1797, Washington started a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon thanks to convincing from his plantation manager, James Anderson, who claimed that it would make good use of Washington’s extant grain plantation and produce considerable profit. Indeed, with Anderson’s expertise, Washington’s whiskey production reached an annual rate of 11,000 gallons by 1799. Today, the distillery at Mount Vernon has been reconstructed and is once again producing small quantities of whiskey for sale to the public.
Meanwhile, since its recent rediscovery, Washington’s small beer recipe has been recreated by multiple historical beer connoisseurs. In 2011, the New York Public Library and Brooklyn-based Coney Island Brewing Company partnered to brew a porter similar to the recipe, but amended slightly to appeal to a contemporary drinker’s palate.4
To make Small Beer
Take a large Siffer full of Bran
Hops to your taste - Boil these
3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gall[ons]
into a Cooler[.] put in 3 Gall[ons]
molasses while the Beer is
scalding hot or rather draw the
molasses into the Cooler & strain
the Beer on it while boiling Hot[.]
let this stand till it is little more
than Blood warm then put in
a quart of Ye[a]st[.] if the Weather is
very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et]
& let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours
then put it into the Cask - leave
the Bung open till it is almost done
working - Bottle it that day week
it was Brewed[.]
The George Washington University
Revised and updated with recipe transcription by Jim Ambuske, 2 April 2020
1. George Washington notebook as a Virginia colonel (1757), The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, MssCol 23122, http://archives.nypl.org/mss/23122, accessed April 2, 2020; Washington, Memoranda, 7 June 1757, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-04-02-0108.
3. George Washington notebook as a Virginia colonel (1757).
4. “The New York Public Library And Coney Island Brewing Company Partner to Brew George Washington’s Personal Beer Recipe,” New York Public Library, 2011, https://www.nypl.org/press/press-release/2011/05/04/new-york-public-library-and-coney-island-brewing-company-partner-brew, accessed April 5, 2015.
DeWitt, Dave. The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine. Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010.
Pogue, Dennis J. Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry. London: Harbour Books, 2011.