Budweiser's New Beer Has Nothing To Do With George Washington

The news of the day, from Leuven via New York (not St. Louis!), is the release of a new Budweiser. The ultra-patriotic beer does not just evoke old glory, but has a tie-in with American vets. It follows AB InBev's practice of renaming Budweiser "America" the past two summers. It is not subtly (but inelegantly) named New Freedom Reserve Red Lager. Nothing here moves us out of the "whatever" category of big beer releases, and I might have been able to let this go without comment. Except:

Freedom Reserve Red Lager is the second specialty lager to appear in Budweiser’s Reserve Collection and is inspired by George Washington’s hand-penned recipe from his personal military journal dating back to 1757.
— Budweiser Press Release

Even this obviously fraudulent claim might not have been enough to stir me to action, except that it sparked a million incurious articles with variations on this headline:


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No, it's not. Breweries routinely make beers "inspired by" historical examples, with greater or lesser fidelity to the originals. This, however, is a fraud; literally nothing about a red lager has anything to do with the weird recipe a 25-year-old Washington scribbled out in 1757.

Washington Drank Ales

In the mid-18th century, lagers were made exclusively in Bavaria (and maybe Bohemia). It was an obscure, provincial tradition ignored by the rest of the world. London was the center of the brewing universe, not Munich. The 1750s, when Washington was writing down his recipe, coincided with the rise of porter in London, the first international super-style. By that point, porter was already heading out in the hulls of English ships, and around 15,000 barrels was being shipped to colonies around the world--and North America was a prime destination.

The English did not drink lagers. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Washington would have even encountered the word, much less the beer. Colonial brewing was hard because barley didn't grow well and English ingredients were expensive--as we'll see when we come to Washington's recipe. Colonists certainly weren't digging out cellars for careful lagering. In fact, they mostly weren't brewing much at all; they drank whiskey and rum instead, and vast quantities of it. When Washington was writing his recipe, there were 159 distilleries in New England--more than the number of breweries the entire country would have fifty years later.

Washington's Recipe Was ... Odd

Okay, fine, Washington knew and made ales; this doesn't mean Budweiser's new beer couldn't be an evocation of its spirit, right? Not so much. Here is the recipe in full:

Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste — Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gall. into a Cooler put in 3 Gallons Molasses while the Beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the Cooler. Strain the Beer on it while boiling hot let this stand til it is little more than Blood warm. Then put in a quart of Yeast if the weather is very cold cover it over with a Blanket. Let it work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask. leave the Bung open til it is almost done working — Bottle it that day Week [after?] it was Brewed.

This wasn't really even beer. The first time I encountered it, I couldn't understand what he meant by "bran hops," but most historians assume there's a missing comma there--"bran, hops." But bran is the outer layer of the grain's seed, and contains almost no starch. Pure speculation, but I'd guess that the bran would have helped make it taste a bit more like actual beer, and the proteins might have helped form a head. But really, Washington was just fermenting molasses. It was closer to mead than beer.

The recipe was titled "To make small beer," which is somewhat curious, too. In terms of brewing technology, 1757 is really early. The first thermometers were being used around 1760. Thermometers! (That's why Washington describes pitching temp as "blood warm.") Attemperation (cooling the wort with water), the hydrometer (to measure dissolved sugars), steam power--all these innovations lay in the future.

One other technique yet to be discovered: sparging (rinsing the grain bed of sugars with warm water), which was still 20 years out. Before sparging, brewers soaked their grain in water, drew off the wort, added more water and soaked it again, and so on (the number of times varied by brewery and beer type). Small beer was made when later worts, which contained less sugar, were fermented. (Or, more often, blended up slightly with stronger worts before fermentation.) It's not really clear to me what Washington means when he calls his beer "small" (or "beer" for that matter). When I read this recipe, I see the work of extremely provisional alcohol production by someone not overly concerned with process or flavor. It's the fermented equivalent of moonshine.


In short, the beer Washington made wasn't properly even a beer, it was fermented like an ale, and bore no resemblance to a modern red lager. Budweiser has cleverly exploited Washington's name without even gesturing at his recipe, and the business media, who know very little about brewing, guilelessly pass it along, effectively laundering AB InBev's fraud. Ever since the Belgo-Brazilian giant bought Budweiser a decade ago, it's shattered the brand's sense of confidence as an American brand, and they've been overcompensating ever since. But dragging Washington into it is really going beyond the pale.