The National Brewery that Never Was

ISO: WH Honey Ale, FT:  beers produced without Secret Service protection. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In early 2011, President Obama became the first brewer-in-chief. Using a personal homebrewing kit, White House chefs produced a honey ale which the president first served at a Superbowl Party (as is tradition) and later shared with Medal of Honor recipient and former USMC Sergeant Dakota Meyer. Reportedly, the White House Brewery has gone on to make a honey blonde and a honey porter as well, with the honey coming from a beehive on the South Lawn (beekeeping is another first for Pennsylvania Ave). I’m pretty curious as to what “presidential” beer tastes like, and if any of you homebrewers out there want to find out, recipes are available through the White House blog.

The presidential beverage coverage also investigated whether the Obama administration was indeed the first to bring brewing into the White House. Short answer: yeah, probably. It seems that some illicit drinking took place there during Prohibition [gasp!], and both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson dabbled in distilling and brewing, respectively, while not in office.

Yet while Washington DC has over time become rife with national archives, galleries, cathedrals, and zoos, there has never been a national brewery. But that doesn’t mean no one’s tried.

Joseph Coppinger didn’t hold public office. He was a self-described English farmer who had immigrated to the fledgling United States around the turn of the 19th century. After writing to President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 for advice on naturalization and patenting his inventions, he later wrote to President James Madison looking to help realize a personal dream. Coppinger wanted help to establish a brewery in Washington that would be a “National object.”

Writing from New York in December 1810, Coppinger believed that a national brewery would be of national importance. Its influence, he claimed, would not only elevate the U.S. commercial brewing industry (which was tiny at the time) but turn a nice profit for the government as well.

Coppinger wasn’t the first person to think this way. In the 1790s, Sec. of Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed tariffs on imported beer  to promote domestic brewing. And local governments had been using liquor licenses to raise money off alcohol since basically the founding of North American colonies in the 17th century. Fingers in pies everywhere.

But more than that, Coppinger hoped a national brewery would “serve to counteract the baneful influence of ardent spirits on the health and Morals of our fellow Citizens, considerations in themselves so important as to be well worthy the attention of every wise and good Statesman…” Whoa, now… health? I mean, the only reason beer is part of my fitness regimen is because I have a terrible fitness regimen.

Believe it or not, Coppinger wasn’t just pulling that out of his butterfly valve. From at least the 1750s through the end of the 19th century, beer was often considered a healthier, moderate alternative to hard liquor.¹ A few people argued that beer was healthy in general, to the point of using brew-based medicines to treat everything from cholera to colic in babies (that was no a fun source to read).

Medicinal Properties of Ale and Beer
The Western Brewer, Volume 2, Number 1 (Jan. 1877)

The other side of this was that hard liquors were often considered damaging to health and social order from the mid-18th century onward. In the late 1700s, for example, Dr. Benjamin Rush attributed numerous illnesses to spirits and advised switching to weaker beverages like beer. More generally, liquor consumption was linked to wider social ills like poverty, immorality, crime, etc. These arguments were put to good use by the temperance movement of the 1800s but they existed much earlier, and were the motivation behind a great deal of alcohol regulation.

Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751), two prints by William Hogarth, illustrate the differing perceptions of beer and liquor in London, but similar attitudes could be found in the colonies and later the US. Quick, someone catch that baby! Source: Wikipedia

Not that these efforts worked. Americans before 1830 drank more alcohol that at any other time in American history by a large margin, and they preferred whiskey and rum. Beer wouldn’t make a dent in those numbers until the 1850s at least.

In other words, when Coppinger proposed a national brewery, he was just putting the latest spin on social and economic debates over how government should engage with producing and consuming beer.

But alas, we already know how this story turns out. President Obama is no copycat, and a national brewery was never actually built. The relationship between government and beer is a complex one, historically and today, involving multifaceted regulations, taxes, licenses, on and on. But it doesn’t yield a lot of government beer. So Coppinger never got his wish to see a government-run brewery. His ideas eventually reached former president Thomas Jefferson’s hands, who in 1815 responded, saying:

I have no doubt, either in a moral or economical view, of the desireableness to introduce a taste for malt liquors instead of that for ardent spirits. the difficulty is in changing the public taste & habit. the business of brewing is now so much introduced in every state, that it appears to me to need no other encouragement than to increase the number of customers. I do not think it a case where a company need form itself on patriotic principles meerly, because there is a sufficiency of private capital which would embark itself in the business if there were a demand…

Shut. Down. And by a man who had his slave, Peter Hemings, do his brewing for him, no less. Personally, I’d get a kick out of a hypothetical “Brewery of the United States,” if only for the names they’d give the beers.

Lager of the Free

Weiss Tax

Cap and Trade

In-Session IPA (rare special release)

Helles to the Chief

…I’ll stop now.

Further Reading

  • Stanley Baron, Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962).
  • W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
  • Sharon Salinger, Taverns and Drinking in Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).


¹ See, for example: I.C. Kennedy. “Art. 4–Alcohol–Its Effects in Health. Its remedial applications in Disease. Where and when should it be used?” The Cincinnati Lancet & Observer (1858-1878) 20, no. 1 (Jan 01, 1877): 30. Obtained via ProQuest.

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