Ever been at a party where beer rations were running low and noticed the sudden stir of whispers, suspicious looks, hoarded cans, and unapologetic double-fisting? Imagine it’s 1620, and this is happening on board a ship full of exhausted religious runaways, after 64 days on rocky seas, right after you’ve landed—in the wrong place.
This is the story of the Mayflower. Well, the lesser-told story of the Mayflower, since it doesn’t involve a famous Compact or the First Thanksgiving. But this one, unlike the idealized “breaking bread with the natives” narrative, actually has some truth to it. And—we’re glad—some beer to it.
The Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock in late 1620. They’d actually landed on Cape Cod in November and tried to sail south to their originally intended destination—The Virginia Colony, a fairly monstrous 220 miles south—eventually ending up in Plymouth Rock (despite the name, more of a stone than a rock). The choice to land was due in part to treacherous shoals and breakers facing Mayflower Captain Christopher Jones off the coast of Cape Cod—but it was also due in large part to a dangerous shortage of beer.
Dangerous not because the Pilgrims loved to party and things in the New World would be, like, a total bummer. Beer was vital at the time, an essential staple to the stationary and seafaring alike, since sources of fresh water were untrustworthy—often reliably fatal—and scarce. Beer, on the other hand, was always boiled prior to fermentation, making it safe to drink. What wasn’t quite safe was running out of it when you’d hit land with a bunch of thirsty Separatists and an entire, slightly less god-fearing crew that also needed beer to make it back to England.
Like with a keg running low—except with much higher stakes, despite how everyone on line for the keg feels—tension crept in, with Captain Jones sending all but crew off the ship and into the witchy frigidity of a New England winter on December 19th, 1620. As Colonists began falling ill, and actually dying, the dividing line got starkly clear. According to Mayflower passenger William Bradford, Captain Jones was a bit of a tyrant about rations; in response to “one in his sickness desiring but a small can of beer, it was answered that if he were their own father, he should have none.” Ouch, man. That’s cold. Literally.
Of course never forget the magic of Christmas. On December 25th, 1620, Bradford and a few lucky Pilgrims returned to the ship to take refuge from the cold. They were given water at first, but “at night, the master caused us to have some beer.” Back on shore, the Pilgrims (who also weren’t actually called Pilgrims just yet, but that’s another story) were left to fend for themselves at Plymouth. And they did, eventually setting up brewing systems based on corn (yes, Budweiser, enjoy that), and probably pouring little to no beer out on the curb for Captain Jones and his men.