Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Raise Your Mug to

Virginia’s Lagers and Ales


Deep in the bowels of the New York Public Library’s manuscript collection, there is a notebook penned by George Washington. In it he set down a recipe for his “small beer,” the type brewed in many 18th-century colonial homes, including Mt. Vernon:


“Take a large Siffer [Sifter] 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 Melasses into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t 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 don[e] Working -- Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.” (


By the time Washington scribbled his recipe, brewers had been producing malt liquors for more than 6,000 years. Beer in its simplest form is fermented grain -- evidence of its use is found in the ancient Fertile Crescent civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Some anthropologists have even argued that beer, rather than bread, was the force behind the development of civilization. In A History of the World in 6 Glasses, author Tom Standage theorizes that the long life of stored grains allowed nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle near their food supplies. The need to keep track of their stores in turn led to the development of the trappings of civilization – accounting, writing and bureaucracy. So beer, a byproduct of stored grain, and the rise of civilization are intimately linked.


While Washington may not have known beer’s lofty origins, he realized the value of a home-grown product.  In true “buy American” form, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789, “We have already been too long subject to British prejudices. I use no porter [a dark, sweet ale] or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America, both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality”. Two centuries earlier, in 1587, Europeans had brewed the first beer in the New World at Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated Virginia colony, but weren’t pleased with the result. They sent back to England for better quality beer. Unfortunately, when it finally arrived, the colony had vanished.


Today, despite valiant efforts by the Mid-Atlantic Association of Craft Brewers, which launched a “Virginia is for Beer Lovers” campaign a few years back, the Old Dominion’s breweries have not achieved the national reputation of our wineries. This might be due in part to their smaller numbers. Besides two large beer manufacturers – Budweiser in James City County and Coors in Rockingham County -- there are just a dozen or so microbreweries and some breweries attached to restaurants, known as brewpubs. The large beer manufacturers produce massive amounts of beer – seven million barrels per year, as opposed to amounts ranging from 500 to 4,500 barrels per year for Virginia’s microbreweries. (Barrel measures seem to vary according to what is stored in them -- 31 gallons in a barrel of beer; 42 in a barrel of oil.)


Just as an aside, according to GMU’s Charlie Grymes’, Coors sends a “beer concentrate” in tank cars to Rockingham County from its headquarters in Golden, Colorado.  Adding water and packaging in Virginia reduces costs (Beer and Breweries in Virginia). And it means Coors drinkers here have some local water mixed with their Rocky Mountain springs.


Beer basically has four ingredients – grain, yeast, hops (a type of flowering plant that adds the bitter flavor to a brew) and water. Some Virginia microbreweries try to adhere to a 16th-century German purity law, known as Reinheitsgebot, which restricted brewers to water, hops and barley malt. (Yeast hadn’t been discovered yet). The larger beer manufacturers add non-barley grains, such as corn and rice, which true brew aficionados deplore. In fact, the Old Dominion’s microbrewers are proud of their designer beers. Some opt for purity; others boast brews with extras, such as fruits and spices and even marshmallow, graham and vanilla. 


Thanks to the efforts of the craft brewers, the Virginia Tourism Corporation now devotes a section of its “Quench Your Thirst” Web page to beer makers in the Commonwealth (Beer: What's Brewing).  A Web site called also provides an exhaustive, up-to-date list of Virginia breweries (Breweries in Virginia). Washington would be proud that his taste for good local ale has lasted through the centuries.


Do you have a preferred Virginia brew?  Send it to We’ll let you know the results. 


NEXT: Edgar Cayce’s Legacy: Virginia’s Psychic Phenomena and Other Stuff

November 14, 2005













About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.