Upside down and on the last page of one of his journals, George Washington wrote down a recipe for small beer. The beer had low alcohol content because it was meant for hydration, not getting drunk. In the 1700s, many people drank mostly beer instead of water.* Washington’s beer recipe is located in a journal he kept while serving as colonel of the Virginia Regiment in 1757, and he likely served this beer to his troops to keep them hydrated during laborious tasks.
“This document is important because it shows the personality of George Washington, which then becomes the personality of the United States of America,” says Thomas Lannon, assistant director of manuscripts, archives, and rare books at the New York Public Library. As Lannon notes, details from the journal help show who Washington was as a person. Washington was stringent and wanted to succeed. He crossed out most pages of the notebook to mark completed tasks. He lashed soldiers for desertion, and there are at least two accounts where Washington chose to hang deserters, says Lannon.
The placement of the beer recipe on the first folio of the reverse side suggests it was added later. This recipe is made from bran hops and molasses and bottled on the same day it’s brewed. In Lannon’s opinion, it’s not very appetizing. The beer recipe gets more attention than the rest of the journal perhaps because it’s more interesting than a war notebook. Additionally, Washington “has this sort of dual personality of being a sort of militaristic person, but also a benevolent Founding Father and so the beer recipe, I think, can be used to show his human side,” says Lannon.
In the video above, Atlas Obscura gets a closer look at the beer recipe and Washington’s journal from his time as a colonel.
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*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed beer drinking habits in the 1700s to cholera fears. Cholera outbreaks were not widespread in North America until the 1830s.