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Basket of fruits and vegetables

Only two contemporary accounts of the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 are known to exist. They describe the wild turkey bagged by the Pilgrims and the venison brought by members of the Wampanoag tribe. But neither answers the critical question: What did the Pilgrims drink?

There was no California Pinot Noir for the first revelers – there wasn’t even a California. Yet despite their Puritanical inclinations, the Pilgrims certainly would have been interested in having alcoholic beverages on hand. In the early 17th century, potable water was hard to come by. Beer, cider and spirits, with alcohol levels that kept bacteria at bay, were safe choices.

Pilgrims packing for the journey on the Mayflower, which would last 66 days, had been urged to bring provisions including beer, cider and “aqua-vitae,” or distilled spirits. It’s hard to imagine those kegs and bottles weren’t drained by the long trip, the grueling winter and the busy spring and summer setting up the Plymouth Colony.

Pumpkin Patch Mini-Pumpkins

So historians assume the Pilgrims got to work brewing fresh beer. Early crops of barley, a critical ingredient in the standard recipe, did not thrive. But the settlers “were a resourceful lot and would have found ways to make fermented drinks from whatever they had available from the land,” notes Rob Hill, a Certified Cicerone™ and author of the Total Wine & More “Guide to Beer.” Happily, native pumpkin – perhaps known to the settlers as pompion – was available in abundance. Pumpkins are filled with fermentable sugars, so for Pilgrims pumpkin was not a flavoring (as it is in most modern pumpkin ales) but a substitute for malts in the brewing process.

Also growing wild around the Cape Cod settlement: apples. Cider had been a popular drink in Europe for centuries by the time the Pilgrims pushed off for North America, so they knew just what to do with the crab apples they found. Apples could be pressed into fresh juice, which could be made into hard cider. (Later, they found a way to further distill cider into the spirit applejack.)

Close up of apples in wood crate in apple orchard

It turns out the Pilgrims were quite the trendsetters – their table included beers and ciders that, almost 400 years later, are modern seasonal favorites. A pumpkin beer has the perfect autumn flavors to complement Thanksgiving dinner. And the refreshing effervescence and acidity of dry hard cider means it’s still a great choice to accompany a rich Thanksgiving meal.

The pilgrims didn’t have cranberry sauce (sugar was a scarce commodity) and they didn’t have pie (wheat flour, for crust, would come later), but it’s likely they enjoyed beer and cider at their first Thanksgiving. Visit Total Wine & More to find pumpkin beers and ciders that’ll add a bit of history to your 2015 feast.