Friday, October 16, 2020

From Garden to Table at Mount Vernon - Small Beer


Martha Washington (1731-1802) - From the Garden to the Table 

While George Washington oversaw most aspects of managing Mount Vernon's  pleasure gardens & grounds, Martha Washington oversaw the Kitchen Garden (The Lower Garden), allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the table year round.

The Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon

“…impress it on the gardener to have every thing in his garden that will be nece]ssary in the House keeping way — as vegetable is the best part of our living in the country.” – Martha Washington, 1792

Inside the Kitchen at Mount Vernon

Outside The Kitchen at Mount Vernon

In the matter of eating & drinking George Washington was temperate. For breakfast he ordinarily had tea & Indian cakes with butter & perhaps honey, of which he was very fond. His supper was equally light, consisting of perhaps tea & toast, with wine, & he usually retired at nine o'clock. Dinner was the main meal of the day at Mount Vernon, & usually was served at two o'clock. One such meal is thus described by a guest:  "He thanked us, desired us to be seated, & to excuse him a few moments.... The President came & desired us to walk in to dinner & directed  us where to sit, (no grace was said).... The dinner was very good, a small roasted pigg, boiled leg of lamb, roasted fowls, beef, peas, lettice, cucumbers, artichokes, etc., puddings, tarts, etc. etc."   The General ordinarily confined himself to a few courses & if offered anything very rich, he would protest, "That is too good for me." He often drank beer with the meal, with one or two glasses of wine & perhaps as many more afterward, often eating nuts, another delicacy with him, as he sipped the wine.

 Small Beer

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 & 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 & 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 - & 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, & children, while its finer, more alcoholic counterpart was reserved for those who could afford it.

The recipe is succinct, requires very few ingredients, & 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, & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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[.]

By Jay Fondin, The George Washington University  Revised & 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 & Archives Division, MssCol 23122,, accessed April 2, 2020; Washington, Memoranda, 7 June 1757, Founders Online, National Archives, 

3. George Washington notebook as a Virginia colonel (1757).

4. “The New York Public Library & Coney Island Brewing Company Partner to Brew George Washington’s Personal Beer Recipe,” New York Public Library, 2011,, accessed April 5, 2015. 


DeWitt, Dave. The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, & Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine. Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010.

Pogue, Dennis J. Founding Spirits: George Washington & the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry. London: Harbour Books, 2011.