Beer in the Old West

I’ll start by saying my knowledge of the Old West – as in, cowboy era – comes almost completely from novels and movies and tv shows, so this question may just reflect the biases and distortions of the media:

Where the heck did they get all that beer?

It seems like every town had a saloon where everyone (well, males, I guess, and except for the preacher, maybe) gathered regularly to swill beer. These are towns that were, apparently, supplied by wagons hauling goods for long distances. Beer would seem to be a lousy product to haul around – it weighs way too much for its price.

The other possibility is that they hauled in the grain & hops and manufactured the beer locally. Which is fine, beer isn’t hard to make, but I have NEVER seen or heard a reference to a brewer or brewery in a Western novel/show/movie. They show the town livery, and blacksmith, and church, and general merchandise. Sometimes you learn of seamstresses, barbers, and, yes, the ubiquitous saloons.

So which is it:

a) They didn’t, in fact, have all that many saloons around.
b) They did haul in the beer; yes, it was hard work, but some things are worth doing.
c) They in fact brewed locally, and references to them were omitted for reasons related to censorship/family values.

Not a big help, but watch out for the Modern Marvels episode about beer. It was pretty interesting (even though I don’t drink).

All of my knowledge comes from the same place, and it seems to me the cowboys and gunfighters were always drinking whiskey. Whiskey has a much better “weight to price” or “weight to drunkenness” ratio. Beer would have been locally made as soon as they were growing wheat instead of mining gold. Just my WAG.

Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t ‘Old West’ saloons serve whiskey and other liquors? It occurs to me that a potent liquor could be distilled locally or shipped with greater ease than a keg o’ beer.


A few thoughts:

  1. Most of the West was grain territory. If you go to Nebraska, or Minnesota, you’re going to find a lot more grain growing than gold prospecting. And look at where a bunch of modern breweries are, most of which date from the 19th century. Anheiser-Busch is in St. Louis, Coors is in Colorado.

Also, beer is easily portible, and it can be brewed with a low enough alcohol content to be an alternative to water. So it’s a handy thing to have around in the event that something happens to your water supply or it goes bad.

  1. Those saloon scenes in movies are probably over-emphasized. This isn’t to say saloons/bars/pubs didn’t exist in the west. They certainly did, but if you watch some of those movies, everybody’s in the saloon all the time, and that’s an exageration

Maybe not. From here:

  1. Alcohol is a good fluid replacement.
    False. Alcohol is a diuretic, a substance that causes greater loss of fluids (and minerals and electrolytes) than it contains. Alcohol decreases production of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), the brain hormone that regulates fluid balance.

This causes increased urination, water loss, dehydration and loss of essential minerals. Since you urinate more, drinking alcohol may make you think you are well hydrated. But it is a forced loss of fluid in greater amounts than you are drinking.

Another perspective from here:

Alcohol, meanwhile, is truly dehydrating because the body needs water for your liver to metabolize all that tequila you just drank. However, studies found that one drink won’t harm you and diluted alcoholic drinks like beer can count as a fluid replacement as long as you drink moderately.

So for the short term, beer might get you by, but it looks like it would aggravate a lack of water in the long run.

Actually, most towns in Western movies were supplied by railroads.

Brewing beer is an ancient art, possibly pre-dating recorded history. What we call micro brewing today, was the way many beers were brewed in the past.

As Peter Morris suggests, it was the advent of the railroads that changed brewing from a local activity to a regional business. At that time, the production of beer actually increased, as the number of brewers declined.

For more beer history, see

Well, if you’re talking about most commercial beers today, with a 4-5% alcohol content, I agree with you. However, there are also “small beers”, beers with a 1-2% alcohol content, which used to be really common. And it will keep you hydrated.

I asked a guy in Buckeye, AZ once about what kind of liquor they had in salloons. Whiskey and beer and sasperilla(non alcky). The beer was brewed either on site, or as Pete said supplied by rail. Most boom towns had salloons for the cattleman and miners and workers to unwind in. It kept productivity up in a manner of speaking. Then when more and more civilized people started replacing railroad workers churches started to number the same and more than salloons and we get to where we were in 1920…Prohibition Interesting factshere … Scroll down to see refs for how beer got to west!

I think from rreading that article you’d see. They brewed it mainly.

My question: in those Western movies, a copwboy shuffles into a saloon, and orders whiskey. They hand him a glass AND the bottle?Did you just serve yourself? And, wasn’t a salloon a pretty dangerous place?(everybody had a gun and people were getting shattered!)

Well, a saloon (and a western town in general) is a dangerous place in Western movies, because everybody’s armed to the teeth and the murder rate is astronomical. In real life, murder rates out west weren’t very different than murder rates back east, most people weren’t armed with pistols or revolvers, and a lot of western towns had laws prohibiting the possession of firearms or the carrying of firearms in public.

Are you saying that TV and Movies have been LYING to me all these years? :mad:


I read something similar about wine in medievial England. Wine was fermented (you ferment wine right?) in monastaries and was an alternative to water from wells which was quite often infected with something nasty. Assuming this anecdote is true, is there something in the brewing/fermenting process that kills off germs or is it just the alcohol content that makes it cleaner?

If I understand, alcohol is the waste/defensive of the bacteria used to ferment the beer/wine/whisky/grog/etc. As such it is toxic to most of the little critters in water, so having enough alcohol in the water to kill the bugs and not your brain was particularly helpful. This practice dates back to at least the Roman Empire, where everyone drank wine mixed with water but drinking to get drunk was looked down on.

We were playing in Alaska, the only remaining frontier, and most folks had left the saloon as we were putting guitars away. There were a few folks having the usual drunken argument at the bar when one guy stepped away from the others, pulled out a pearl-handled revolver, waved it at everyone and said “Alrite, there ain’t no argument!” We left in a hurry. I have no idea how it ended…

[hijack2]My great grandmother, who had her kids in ‘the old West’ (late 1800’s, anyway), was prescribed a keg of beer to help her milk come in. Local brewer delivered it, IIRthestoryC. Being a proper lady, she had it delivered to the back door.[/hijack2]

So it wasn’t just the saloons. Midwives were a reasonably big source of custom. (and yes, it does work.)

Parlay voo say what? Do I need to start another thread?

Back in the 1970s a Budweiser bottle a hundred or more years old turned up in an excavation in a well-known western town. Unfortunately, I no longer remember what that town was: Cheyenne, maybe? In any case, Ed McMahon used to talk about it when doing pitches for Anheuser-Busch on The Tonight Show.

There were definitely a lot of saloons in some towns. Some Chambers of Commerce like to cite statistics about this when talking about their town’s frontier heritage. Bryan, Texas comes to mind as an example. I recall reading in a brochure once that there had been something like sixty taverns in a five block area, or something similarly startling.

A gun was part of the basic tool kit of the cowboy. It was used on drives to kill injured cattle, to protect the herd from predators, and to divert cattle and buffalo when they stampeded.

Guns were expensive, as were bullets. I’ve heard it said that possibly the most unrealistic thing in westerns is the way cowboys shoot at bottles, etc., for fun. I’ve heard it said that an army private got thirty dollars a month, and a bullet went for about one dollar.

As a previous poster suggested, though, men didn’t walk around with guns strapped to their belts with quite the frequency that movies and TV suggest. Look at photographs of the old west: pictures of famous sheriffs, mountain men, etc. show lots of guns. Pictures of ordinary street scenes generally don’t.

This was likely true even in “wide open” towns. Aside from the expense, one reason a lot of men would have been reluctant to go about armed is that, contrary to what some arguments from the NRA suggest, displaying a weapon might increase your chances of having people shoot at you–they could see you as a threat and decide they had better shoot first.

Mark Twain talks about things of this kind in Roughing It. He talks about how he first tried to swagger around acting tough when he was in a mining town, and then decided that a milder approach was safer. One day, he said, he accidentally sat on a man’s hat while in a salloon. The man looked very angry, so he picked up the hat, brushed it off, and apologized sincerely. The man was no longer angry.

After the man left, bystanders told him that the man was a famous gunslinger who was infamous for his temper, and had already shot something like twenty six men. Twain said something like: “I like to think of that as the day I looked out for number one, and avoided being number twenty seven.”

Close, very close.
To make a few sweeping generalizations: Beer (not wine) in the middle ages was cleaner than water. Nothing so toxic to kill you will grow in hopped beer. Most monasteries made beer (hopped or flavored with other herbs) for sale. Monasteries in England were some of the last producers of commercial herb beers as the use of hops took over.
While wine would have been cleaner than water, most medieval people will still in the habit of watering their wine, and nothing in the wine would have prevented infections from bad water. However, most people were aware that bad water = upset tummy, so give them a little credit for using the cleanest water they could manage.