Happy Birthday, America! Home of the brave, land of the free, terrain of the tavern, domain of the drunk. We’ve been drinking as a country as long as the English started settling here in the 16th Century. During the 1580s, some of the earliest British colonists were adjusting to their new surroundings in Virginia by home brewing. Realizing supply could not even begin to meet demand, the colonists insisted that a brewer get sent to the new territory. In 1612 the very first brewery was established in New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. Needless to say, some of our country’s earliest taverns were also established during these formative years. But in 1620, other soon-to-be immigrants set sail from England on the Mayflower and headed towards what is now northern Virginia to settle property acquired by a one William Brewster. Navigation was off and next thing you know the ship was lost. Although they attempted to get back on tract they realized one important thing: they were running out of beer. No beer? That was crazy. So, the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock because they ran out of booze.
Yup, Americans have been knee deep into the drink way before the first musket was shot in 1775. In fact, it was in 1770 that a group of folks were gathered at a Boston tavern to discuss the ill-doings of the repressive British government whilst throwing back a few beers. As the number of beers consumed increased, so did tempers and the group ended up hitting the streets and caused a bit of trouble. The result was an incident in our history known as the Boston Massacre, but it was also the beginnings of colonial activism which ultimately led to a revolt on the British and our fight for freedom.
Taverns and beer became staples during the Revolutionary War. Some of our earliest recruiting stations were in pubs encouraging young men to enlist for liberty while they sipped on free beer and were promised rations of beer throughout the duration of their commitment. Indeed, soldiers received beer as part of their service and when it would run out, they got ticked about it and gave their commanding officers an earful. Throughout this time, patriots gathered at taverns to stir up emotions against the Redcoats, plan strategies, console one another when troops were defeated, and celebrate when our men in blue were victorious. Taverns were pivotal not only to the beginnings of the war, but to the entire battle, the absolute victory, and ultimately, to our nation’s beginnings.
The city of Boston played a key role in all of this, as did its taverns. Silversmith Paul Revere, one of our country’s greatest patriots, took his infamous ride on the night of April 18, 1775. Realizing troop morale needed to be bolstered, Captain Parker gathered his men at Buckman’s Tavern in the city center that morning to let them know they should have confidence in Revere and that he would succeed. And succeed he did. The local town crier – that person in charge of ringing a hand bell and reporting of all the day’s events – would report of Revere’s accomplishment and the residents of Boston, as well as Captain Parker’s men, would celebrate in local Boston taverns that night and for days that followed.
It’s no surprise then that our country’s oldest and longest operating tavern is located in Boston, MA (aside from those sad 13 years of Prohibition). In 1795, the Bell In Hand was established by Boston’s last known town crier, Jimmy Wilson after he retired from officially reporting news to the locals. His newly established tavern, located on Elm St. near modern day City Hall, allowed him to keep reporting and keep drinking with folks around town. In 1844, the tavern moved to its current location on Union Street, Boston’s oldest operating street and across from another historic tavern, The Union Oyster House (the original Bell In Hand tavern sign is located in Boston’s City Hall).
The tavern exchanged hands over time and today it is owned by Eddie and Bryna Kaplan, third generation owners. Their daughter, Debbie, a fourth generation inn keeper, runs the bar on a daily basis. The present day establishment embraces its history while it caters to a modern day urban center. Boston is a college town and the Friday and Saturday night crowds reflect that population. Loud music, karaoke, and all around nuttiness define the bar on these nights, but the mayhem that ensues is probably oddly similar to a mayhem that took place 200 plus years ago. Head to the Bell In Hand at night and take in Boston as it is now. But head to the Bell In Hand during the day and soak up bit of tavern history, Boston’s past, and our country’s beginnings all while taking in a bit of delicious brew hand-crafted in the good ol’ US of A. If you are into history of any sort, this is the place for you. And thank you to the patriots of the past and the military of the present for sacrificing your lives and giving of yourselves to fight for our freedom and continue the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness – through taverns and beer.