Beer or Bad Water? How Connecticut’s Perfected the Former, Then and Now

June 24, 2015 · Collections ·
At the Relic Brewery in Plainville

At the Relic Brewery in Plainville

Beer connoisseurs believe that the United States is currently in a craft-brewing renaissance. The number of microbreweries is at an all-time high and some American beers are considered to be the best in the world. But the history of brewing beer in Connecticut, like other states in America, has had its ups and downs.

Beer, particularly ales and porter, was an important and traditional beverage among the early English settlers. Drinking water was unhealthy because of the possibility of contamination; the boiling involved in the brewing process actually produced a healthier drink. In the 1600s, Connecticut’s first colonists were faced with a choice of brewing their own beer or purchasing imported English brews. Colonists sometimes experimented with local ingredients, substituting corn, oats, and pumpkins for barley, and spruce for hops. Later in the 1700s, the availability of beer increased as tavern-keepers, like Pomfret’s Israel Putnam, began producing the beverage for their own establishments.

Posing with beer, about 1895, gift of Sylvian Ofiara.

Posing with beer, about 1895, gift of Sylvian Ofiara.

In the 1800s individual brewers were the dominant force until technological advances such as refrigeration, pasteurization, and improved transportation via railroads allowed large city breweries began to increase their production and distribution. The number of commercial breweries increased between 1800 and 1910, while the overall number of brewers decreased.

Many brewers went out of business beginning with the passage of Prohibition in 1920. Other brewers turned to making low alcohol beer, soft drinks, ice, or other products. Speakeasies (“underground” establishments that illegally sold alcohol), backyard distilleries, and rum running (illegally transporting alcohol) were widespread. Prohibition was unpopular and difficult to enforce—it was repealed in 1933 and by that time many of the local breweries had disappeared. Home-brewed beer with an alcohol content higher than 0.5% remained illegal until 1978.

beer-display

Various breweriana from the CHS collection.

By the 1950s, most American commercial beer was produced by a few large corporations. Beer drinkers craving variety turned to home brewing and a few started doing so on a larger scale. The popularity of craft brews inspired a revival, and hundreds of small breweries sprang up. There are now 3,646 craft breweries in the United States, including over twenty (and still counting!) in Connecticut.

Hooker Brewery

The Hooker Brewery in Bloomfield

What’s your favorite in-state brew? Work your way along Connecticut’s Beer Trail this summer (in moderation, of course!) and experience how our state’s breweries and home brew houses are creating tried-and-true flavors of the past with today’s modern brew technology.  What’s more, beer drinkers seeking locally made brews can connect to Connecticut’s beer producers through a new app, the Connecticut Brewers Guild Beer Guide, available for Android on Google Play or for iPhone in the app store.

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Please note the museum & research center will be closed for Thanksgiving (11/22)