Sunday, June 26, 2016

Who Were the Real Pioneers of Southern Brewing?

In today's New York Times, Clay Risen tells the story of the African-American slave who likely taught Jack Daniels how to distill whiskey. "Enslaved men not only made up the bulk of the distilling labor force," Risen writes, "but they often played crucial skilled roles in the whiskey-making process." Whiskey wasn't the only alcoholic beverage with such a history, either. Enslaved African-Americans played a key role in the distilling of Southern beer, too.

In my book Southern Spirits: 400 Year of Drinking in the American South, I tell the story of Edmund Egan, the pioneering Charleston brewer who was the first Southerner to achieve significant commercial success brewing beer. Egan was the one who won the accolades for the quality of his beer ("Let the beer justify itself" was his delightful motto) and, of course, he was the one who pocketed the profits from a business that at its peak brought in £20,000 a year, the equivalent of several million dollars in revenue today. The actual brewing of Egan's beer, though, was performed by eight slaves—skilled craftsmen who not only managed the kettles and malt grinder but built barrels and casks, too.

I had to omit from the book the story of John Mercer, who attempted commercial brewing on a scale even more ambitious than Egan’s—and leaned upon slave labor even more heavily, too.

John Mercer
A Virginia planter and attorney, Mercer was among the colony’s most wealthy and accomplished men. But he was also one of its most profligate, spending well beyond his means on carriages, fine clothes, expensive jewelry, and commissioned oil portraits. Marlborough, his manor house, had a Palladian facade, stone corner quoins, and brass hardware on the exterior. The interior was filled with imported furniture and mirrors, and a formal English garden extended out behind it.

In 1765, deafness forced Mercer to retire from the bar, leaving him disillusioned and deeply in debt. But soon he struck upon a plan to revive his fortunes. "Our Ordinaries abound & daily increase," he observed, "for drinking will continue longer than anything but eating." Much of the beer and ale drunk in those ordinaries was imported from England, and Mercer figured that if he established his own brewery he could drive out a lot of those expensive imports with locally-brewed beer.

Mercer wasn’t one to do things by half-measures. He hired a young brewer from Scotland named Andrew Wales oversee the operations. He had a brick and stone malthouse and brewhouse constructed, both 100 feet in length, along with a cooperage to supply barrels. With a vision of a fully vertically-integrated operation, he planned to grow his own barley and hops and eventually to establish a glassworks to manufacture bottles. And, of course, he needed people to work in his operation, so he borrowed £8,000 and used it to purchase 40 African-American slaves.

In June 1766, Mercer announced that his Marlborough Brewery was selling strong beer and porter "equal in goodness to any that can be imported from any part of the world."

Advertisement in the Virginia Gazette (June 6, 1766).

Mercer’s product never lived up to the "goodness" promised in his advertisement. He rotated through three master brewers in a matter of just a few months, and the third of these, William Bailey, managed to produce enough beer to ship a schooner load to Norfolk. Unfortunately for Mercer,  it was of such “bad character” that they could sell only two casks. The rest, after being stored for two months, ended up getting shipped back to Marlborough, where Mercer tried and failed to make whiskey from it.

John Mercer died suddenly in 1768, just two years after launching the venture, still believing that his beer could be improved and that the brewery would eventually become profitable. Unfortunately, he had saddled his widow and sons with extraordinary debts. They had to sell off the entire estate, including the brewery, to satisfy creditors, bringing an ignominious end to perhaps the most ambitious attempt at Southern beer brewing in the Colonial era.

In his New York Times piece, Clay Risen notes the frustrating absence of information about African-American distillers that can be found in the historical record. The same is the case in the records of early Southern beer brewing, too.

In a letter discussion the poor sales at his brewery, Mercer lamented, "What then remained to support me & a family consisting of about 26 white people & 122 negroes? Nothing but my crops, after that I had expended above £100, for corn only to support them, besides rice & pork to near that value." We know little else about his enslaved labor force and their role in the brewery. 

However, the same issue of the Virginia Gazette that announced the opening of the Marlborough Brewery included another advertisement from John Mercer for "a Negro man named Temple" who had run away, and for two indentured servants who had run away as well. It isn't clear whether Temple worked in the Mercer's brewery or just on the his plantation, but it seems fitting to end with what little we know of his story:    

Virginia Gazette (June 6, 1766).

1 comment:

Richard C. Lambert said...

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