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Beer, its extended family, and boating

Published on August 8th, 2019

Bob Muggleston, editor of Points East magazine which serves New England boaters, gets into suds with this report:

Beer is definitely having a moment. I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to say that it was once the least-sophisticated member of the booze family, the matriarch of which is wine and its patriarch, spirits. Never snooty or considered much of a jet-setter, maybe more of a truculent teenaged son in this somewhat far-fetched analogy, lowly beer in the last few decades has pulled itself up by its workboot straps and, well . . . elevated itself.

Elevated itself? Yes. As both a big fan of beer and an unrecognized expert in this field, I definitely think so. If beer has elevated itself – if it’s more sophisticated these days, and worthy of the endless analysis dedicated to it – then it’s also true that much of this is due to the explosion of craft breweries.

In 2019, our beer is as good as anyone’s. Ambers, blondes, browns, cream-styles, darks, pales, IPAs, Belgians, sours . . . there’s a flavor and alcohol content for everyone, in more styles than colors in a crayon box.

So what’s got me thinking about all this? Three things: 1) the glut of amazing beer I’ve outlined above; 2) Martha Blanchfield’s fine article on beer’s long association with sailboat racing; and 3) a story that’s circulated since as early as 1959, concerning, of all things, Old Ironsides. It probably won’t make sense at first, but stick with me.

In the Old Ironsides narrative, which I first saw about 20 years ago, it’s written – supposedly on authority – that prior to the USS Constitution’s leaving on a six-month voyage in 1779 (our first red herring, since she wasn’t finished until 1797), the ship’s liquid provisions consisted of 48,600 gallons of water and 79,400 gallons of rum, these provisions being for 475 men.

Two months later she took on an additional 68,300 gallons of rum. A month after that? 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine. After wreaking havoc with British shipping (and salvaging only the rum in these skirmishes, of course), two months later, in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde, she appropriated 40,000 gallons of single-malt Scotch.

The story ends with the Constitution arriving back in Boston with no booze and 38,600 gallons of water, and ends with this shout: Go Navy!

What does this have to do with beer? Beyond the fact that it’s an incredibly improbable story (the fact-checking website has dedicated several pages to debunking this myth, and an actual pre-departure provisioning list aboard the Constitution pegs the amount of rum at 3,000 gallons), the story has always made me wonder how much beer was passed out on a day-to-day basis in the Age of Sail, beer being one of the earliest forms of alcohol issued to sailors, and at by far the largest volume.

Here’s an interesting stat I’ve since discovered, which, at first blush, is fairly startling: In 1677 a sailor in the British Navy could expect to receive as part of his daily ration one pound of biscuits, two pounds of salted pork, six ounces of butter and one gallon of beer.

Before anyone shouts Go Navy! (and personally, I think I’m more alarmed by the two pounds of salt pork), the beer being referenced is a “small” beer, meaning it’s very low in alcohol, sometime less than one percent. It was issued at such quantities because it kept better aboard voyaging ships than water, and prevented scurvy.

Since scurvy was, by many factors, the biggest killer of men in the Age of Sail, issuing it as a daily ration was a no-brainer. That it helped ease the alternating monotony and terror of shipboard life was a bonus. Daily rations in their various forms continued in the U.S. Navy through 1914; the Brits stopped in 1970.

Of course, everyone knows sailors are slaves to tradition. It’s why, even with so much fresh fruit available these days, we still love beer and the rest of beer’s extended family members – even the snooty ones. And just think of the phrases inspired by the daily ration. It’s every sailor’s job to carry the language of sailing forward, lest it disappear forever.

Summer is here. The boating season is – for real, now – upon us. I’ve had fun with the above topic, but, as individual boaters, we need to remember that we represent the community at large. The thrust of which everyone understands. ’Nuff said.

Have a great month of July . . . and here’s to making great new memories on the water.

Top photo: An illustration published in London, England in 1841 that depicts off-duty sailors amusing themselves, beers in hand. Illustration by George Cruikshank

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