All About Beer Magazine - Volume 23, Issue 4
September 1, 2002 By

Napoleon is credited with having said, “An army travels on its belly.” Maybe he should have added, “and that belly should be full of beer.” In Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Gunga Din,” an Indian water carrier is depicted as a lifesaving hero to parched British soldiers in the heat of battle. But as vital as his service is, water is not the beverage these fighting men desire: “You may talk o’ gin and beer/ When you’re safely quartered ‘ere,” the poet writes. Throughout the history of warfare, especially in northern Europe and North America, beer has been the soldier’s “water of life.”

Brewing and Battles in Ancient Times

While beer has a long history as a beverage in Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Egypt, by the time of the Roman Empire, the drink of choice around the Mediterranean was wine. The Romans planted vineyards wherever they settled (even in Britain), and Roman legionnaires drank wine daily, as did most other citizens. When Roman soldiers encountered the tribal peoples of Gaul and the British Isles, however, they found themselves battling serious beer drinkers.

To the ancient Celts, beer was a prelude to battle. The effects of alcohol ameliorated the natural fear of injury or death in armed conflict.

The strength of the Celtic attack lay in the ferocity of the first onslaught. It was a power generated a belief in the afterlife, a desire to gain glory, and a battle hysteria created by the building crescendo of noise and chanting, often enhanced still further by alcohol. These are, in fact, the usual methods that fighting forces throughout the ages have needed to give courage at the moment of battle. (1)

Like the Vikings, the Celts often fought naked. Was this a consequence of the shedding of inhibitions brought about by beer drinking? As a battle strategy, it seems to have had only limited success. Soldiers usually keep their clothes on these days, but beer still retains its ability to create a fighting mood, as any bartender knows.

The American Revolution

Bartenders also should know the role of beer in inspiring revolution. Taverns were the major meeting places of American colonial life and, consequently, the sites where groups such as the Sons of Liberty gathered to plot rebellion against English rule. A historic example is Samuel Adams’s famous haunt, the Green Dragon in Boston.

But beer did more than kindle the American Revolution. As part of a soldier’s regular daily ration as decreed by the Continental Congress, beer fueled the flames of freedom burning within its armies. The statute, enacted on November 4, 1775, stipulated that each soldier be provided with “I QT of Spruce Beer, or Cider/man/day.”(2)

George Washington himself, major general of the American rebel army, was a firm believer in the importance of beer as a staple for his troops. According to historian Gregg Smith, “among Washington’s least recognized but most valuable skills was locating his encampments within reach of a supply of beer.”(3) On the other hand, he often issued proclamations against the sale of whiskey to soldiers, fearing that drunkenness would disrupt troop discipline.

Colonial brewers were quick to take advantage of the new army’s thirst for beer. Smith quotes the grand scheme of one Thomas Peters, who planned to build a brewery in Baltimore expressly to supply the American troops: “I then formed the plan(of a brewery on the most extensive scale of any in America, for the purpose of brewing to serve the American and French troops,” Peters wrote.(4) The war did not last long enough for Peters’s plans to come to fruition, although other brewers, particularly in New York, found plenty of business in the interim.

The Civil War

When the most devastating of all American wars threatened to divide the young country in half in 1861, beer played a crucial role both on and off the battlefield. Here again, beer was central to the lives of soldiers of both Union and Confederate persuasions. Since this bloody and long-drawn-out conflict involved many days, even weeks, and months of inactivity for large armies, soldiers turned to drink to help ease the boredom of non-combat. Homebrewing was a common activity among Union troops, as was distilling. They often produced a beverage known as O Be Joyful (as well as other names) among the ranks. The old-time fiddle tune, “Soldier’s Joy,” must have echoed the sentiments of many a soldier at the time:

“25 cents for the morphine, 15 cents for the beer,
”25 cents for the morphine, gonna drink myself away from here!”

Beer was usually provided to Union soldiers by sutlers–merchants who followed the troops. A constant trade was available, as thousands of men looked for diversion or comfort, and many sutlers must have regretted the end of the conflict and its handsome profits in 1865.

Pale Ale to India

The beer style that retains the greatest military connection these days is India pale ale. Invented by Burton brewer, George Hodgson, about 1790, it was originally a strong, highly hopped ale meant to survive the 11,000-mile sea voyage from England to British troops stationed in India. The popularity of the brew inspired many a British brewer, although the style had nearly died out in the United Kingdom before Bert Grant of Yakima, WA, released his American version in 1982. Now many British breweries, including Fuller’s and Samuel Smith’s, once again make IPAs, although these beers are more likely to be exported to troops of beer geeks in the USA.

Beer on the Home Front

In England during World War I, British beer was under attack on the home front. “Drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together,” proclaimed David Lloyd George, the British Minister of Munitions who would become Prime Minister in 1916. (5)

A staunch prohibitionist, Lloyd George and his allies used the war as an excuse to shut down pubs and breweries. Beginning with the Defense of the Realm Act of 1914, licensing hours were restricted, eventually to just five and a half hours a day. Prices of pints doubled as a heavy tax was put on beer. In his fascinating book, Brewing For Victory, Brian Glover points out that not only was British beer production cut from 37 million barrels in 1913 to just 19 million by 1917, the average strength of beer also dropped from a starting gravity of 1052 in 1914 to 1030 in 1918. Meanwhile, across the pond, the United States jumped off the abyss into national Prohibition in 1917.(6)

At the outset of World War II in 1939, British breweries had recovered some of their past strength (though their beers had not). Mindful of the failure of Prohibition in America in 1933, British temperance leaders renewed their attack. Beer industry leaders countered by promoting beer as a healthy beverage, full of nutrition for citizens on a wartime diet.

Regardless of claims on both sides of the bar, this time the public would not be denied its proper pint. Lord Woolston, the Minister of Food, declared the consensus of government leaders in 1940 by stating that “there are many people who believe that a glass of beer is not doing anybody any harm.”(7)

Supporting British breweries, in fact, was a matter of national pride. Shipping restrictions and rationing during the war created less reliance on foreign malted barley. In 1933, according to Glover, fully one-third of brewer’s malt in England was imported. With a “British is Best” focus, imports were reduced to 23 percent by 1935 All this was much to the delight of British farmers, who were able to significantly increase their barley prices with little or no (public) complaint from brewers.

They did complain, however, about lack of sufficient manpower due to military conscription during the war. Only brewers over 30 years old were exempt from military service. “When hostilities began, breweries all over the country lost many of their best men,” noted the Brewing Trade Review in 1940.(8)

This change in the available work force did present something of a victory for women, who were employed in breweries in jobs previously thought unsuitable for females. Women also took over the running of many pubs, even gaining in some measure an equality of pay with men. As a consequence, working women acquired a new taste for beer, providing breweries with more customers. But when supplies of all sorts became scarce–even drinking glasses–beer shortages and pub closings became common.

Supplying the Troops in WWII

British breweries set up a “beer for troops” committee in July 1942. “It is a national duty that every brewer should do his utmost to supply beer for troops in their messes, many of which are a long distance from the nearest licensed premises”(9). A long way, indeed–in Muslim-dominated areas of the Middle East and northern Africa, alcohol was completely forbidden (although often still available). Local culture notwithstanding, Whitbread and Wanted sent 500 cases of beer to honor ” the defenders of Tobruk” in North Africa, the arrival of which was celebrated long afterward. Camp-following breweries, such as Bushell, Watkins & Smith of Westerham, even strapped beer casks beneath the wings of fighter planes for the great D-Day Invasion of June 1944.

American breweries were also generous to soldiers, but not voluntarily. The US Department of Agriculture actually ordered that 15 percent of all beer production in the United States be set aside for the troops, which amounted to a bigger ration of beer than the average citizen received. With the advantage of large canning lines, and a normal original gravity of 1045, American wartime beers were also much stronger than those from the United Kingdom. One interesting footnote: many cans of American beer during the war were painted olive drab to camouflage them from enemy aircraft.

Beer Afloat

Britain’s Royal Navy in 1944 launched the most ambitious plan for supplying soldiers with beer during World War II. Anticipating a long war in the Pacific, with impending shortages of beer for sailors on the high seas, the navy selected Adlams, brewery engineers based in Bristol, to design a “brewing boat” capable of making 250 barrels of beer per week using malt extract. Four such floating breweries were planned initially, although the number was reduced to two because of many technical problems, including exploding drums of extract. Two former minesweepers, the Agamemnon and the Menestheus, were chosen for the project and sent to Vancouver, Canada, in the summer of 1945 to be outfitted.

But the war, or rather the lack of it, got in the way. After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. Meanwhile, the first test brew on board the “beer boat” was not completed until December 31, 1945, in Vancouver. Only the Menestheus was equipped with what was called the “Davy Jones Brewery.” It was sent on a single, somewhat meaningless voyage to Yokohama, Shanghai, and Hong Kong and other Pacific ports to dispense to sailors and visiting dignitaries just one brew, an English mild ale. After barely six months as a brewery, the Menestheus sailed back to England and her brew house was dismantled. Such a project was never undertaken again.

Modern Warfare and Beer

The Vietnam War was a debilitating defeat for the Unites States, inspiring much opposition both at home and abroad. Whether from the war’s unpopularity, or the schizophrenic nature of guerilla jungle fighting in a region that had not known peace in centuries, drug use among US soldiers was rampant. One of those drugs was alcohol. “Beer was everywhere. I remember seeing pallets of it stacked up outside at the base,” says Wenatchee, WA, psychologist Dr. James Goodwin, who was a Marine sergeant at the time. Many different brands of American beer were available, and soldiers usually preferred them to the Vietnamese-made “33” lager, known as “bam-e-bam” or “tiger piss.”

Beer, along with whiskey in remote areas, was an essential part of the soldier’s arsenal. “Most helicopter pilots I knew would not fly out without having a little alcohol. A lot of guys would drink until they went out on patrol.” Even though many soldiers were under age for legal drinking at home, they were never asked for identification to get beer in Vietnam, Goodwin says. Goodwin was in charge of 13 men, about half of whom he felt had “a real problem” with alcohol.

But separating a soldier from his beer was no more popular in the 20th century than it was in the first. In an Associated Press story on March 20, 1996, American soldiers in Bosnia reportedly complained about being denied beer, which had even been flown in by helicopter to troops during the Vietnam War. Apparently US commanders in Bosnia banned alcohol because “land mines, hostile locals and other factors could endanger drunk soldiers,” the article said. The troops saw things differently. “I’m entrusted with eight aircraft and the lives of 12 soldiers as well as those of my pilots,” Staff Sgt. James Andujo wrote from his base in Tuzla. “Yet I can’t be trusted to relax over a ‘cold one’ with my peers.”(10)

War Beers

The “noble” side of war–acts of bravery and heroism that the literary critic Edmund Wilson once called “patriotic gore”– has inspired numerous “war beers” over the years. Among them is Traquair House’s Jacobite Ale, brewed in 1995 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland against England. (The Bear Gates outside the Scottish brewery have been closed since Bonnie Prince Charlie passed through them in 1745.)

War beers seem to be fashionable in Scotland these days. Another one, SkullSplitter, a strong ale made by the Orkney Brewery, is not named for its effect on the drinker but for the historical warrior, Thorfinn Hausakluif, Seventh Viking Earl of Orkney in about 1000 A.D. The brewery also produces The Red MacGregor, a brew that one Seattle beer retailer promotes as “the beer to drink when you’re fighting the English.”

The English, however, have had their own “fighting” beers. Vaux Double Maxim, a brown ale once made by the now-defunct Vaux Brewery of Sunderland, England, was brewed to celebrate the return of Captain (later Colonel) Ernest Vaux from the Boer War in South Africa. It was named for the Maxim machine gun detachment with which Vaux served.

Probably the most controversial contemporary British “war beer” is Spitfire Ale–a special bitter that took flight in 1990 to commemorate the Battle of Britain in World War II. Dubbed “the bottle of Britain,” the brand took humorous aim at Germans in a series of clever ads with a military theme. In one, the black silhouette of a British pint glass and a German beer stein are shown against a red background with the caption: “Target Identification: Ours–Theirs.” Other headlines from the campaign include, “Downed all over Kent–just like the Luftwaffe” and “No Fokker comes Close.” Complaints by German tourists caused the posters to be pulled from Tube stations in London in 1995. The brewery responded with a parting shot: a poster that read “Vot’s zo funny about zees posters?”

Whether it has been used as an inducement to war or a draught of relief when the battle’s done, beer has always been on the front lines. It would be the ultimate irony if this beverage that has literally inspired legions were to be relegated, in this new era of political correctness, to the military museum.

(1) Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 103
(2) Gregg Smith, Beer in America: The Early Years 1587-1840 . Boulder, CO: Siris Books (Brewers Publications), 1998, p. 100
(3) Ibid, p. 108
(4) Ibid, p. 105
(5) Brian Glover, Brewing For Victory: Brewers, Beer and Pubs in World War II. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1995, p.1
(6) Ibid, p. 2-4
(7) Ibid, p. 15
(8) Ibid, p. 97
(9) Ibid, p. 126
(10) George Boehmer, “GI Gripes in Yugoslavia”, Associated Press article, March 20, 1996.


Alan Moen
Alan Moen makes beer, not war, in Entiat, WA.