Urban legends of American beer

Did you hear the story about the guy who attached a JATO rocket to his car, fired it up on a road in the desert, and all they found in the wreckage (on the face of a cliff) was his fingernails embedded into the steering wheel? Or how about how you can get money from Bill Gates for forwarding a message in order to test Microsoft’s e-mail systems? Did you know that Target (pronounced tar-zhay) is owned by the French?

None of them are true. They’re all urban legends.


An urban legend or urban myth is similar to a modern folklore consisting of stories often thought to be factual by those circulating them. The term is often used to mean something akin to “apocryphal story”. Urban legends are not necessarily untrue, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized. Despite the name, a typical urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban setting. The term is designed to differentiate them from traditional folklore in preindustrial times.

I used to hear/read these all the time. When I heard them it was almost invariably some blow-hard in a bar trying to be witty. I also used to get them as those ubiquitous e-mail forwards that seem to clutter everyone’s inbox. Usually within five minutes I’d have a response back out to the sender–and the unfortunates who also received the message–debunking it, usually with a link to snopes.com, The Straight Dope, and/or the alt.folklore.urban archives.

It’s been a while since I’ve received any. Either the people who used to send them to me have wised up, or I pissed them off too much. In any event, urban legends have become a bit of a hobby of mine.

So I reacted with interest and amusement when I saw a press release from Bob Skilnik, author of Beer & Food: An American History, talking about his debunking of five rather popular urban legends about beer:

  • The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer.
  • George Washington was a brewer.
  • Early American brewers used adjuncts like corn to lessen the cost of their beer and increase their profits.
  • There was no American brewing industry until the arrival of lager beer in the 1840s, brewed by German immigrants.
  • National Prohibition irrevocably changed the taste and character of American beer.

Now, of course, the George Washington item is a little disingenuous. Yeah, it’s nothing special that he was a brewer, because everyone was a brewer. But it’s not untrue. And I’ll even admit to believing the first one for quite some time.

While not mentioned in this press release, Skilnik also debunks that rather famous quote, supposedly made by Ben Franklin:

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

I can’t tell you how many t-shirts I’ve seen that on.

But that’s nothing. A friend of my cousin went to Japan, and he says that some of those crazy karaoke people are drinking beer made with hydrogen so they can sing the soprano parts and shoot blue flames out of their mouths at dramatic moments

(via Beer Dinners)

This entry was posted in Beer, History by Al. Bookmark the permalink.

About Al

Forty-something, married, with two kids. I generally prefer the English styles - ESB, IPA - but am willing to try just about anything. You can reach me at al@hop-talk.com.

4 thoughts on “Urban legends of American beer

  1. Methinks Bob is being a little disingenuous for effect. The log of the Mayflower does state that the captain was concerned about supplies of victuals, including beer. The fact that beer was considered an important foodstuff and it was supplies for the journey back across the Atlantic that worried him makes this no less valid. And Washington, as you note, was indeed a brewer, just like everyone else.

    The third point is one I’ve never heard spoken about early American brewers, who, as Bob points out, brewed from what they had at their disposal. (Later American brewers have been accused of this, with some justification, for certain.) Point four is another I’ve seldom if ever heard expressed — quite the opposite, actually, as I’ve heard many Americans make reference to the robust early brewing industry and the way the arrival of the Germans changed it.

    And finally, Prohibition did have a notable effect on the taste of American beer, just as did the aforementioned arrival of the Germans. That is was just one of several factors in a long and winding evolution should not diminish that fact.

  2. Pingback: Without Beer… Would We Be Celebrating Thanksgiving? at Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s UnReserved with Wine Enthusiast Editors

Comments are closed.