Misquote: Benjamin Franklin on Beer

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A tip of the glass to Dick Stevens, owner of the Elevator Brewery & Draught Haus in Columbus, Ohio, who announced the recall of a batch of promotional t-shirts featuring a witticism frequently — but erroneously — attributed to founding father Benjamin Franklin.

It was reported as follows by Aria Munro of eNewsChannels.com on Sep. 15, 2008:

Beer-themed web sites, brewing organizations and even "beer writers" are fond of quoting Franklin and his supposed love of beer — "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." But after recently hearing a lecture by Chicago-based brewing historian, Bob Skilnik, that convincingly asserts that Franklin was writing about rain, its nourishment of grapes, and ultimately, its conversion into wine, Stevens decided to do his part in correcting this historical inaccuracy. 

"I hope that we can set the record straight about this little white lie that has been repeated for years," Stevens said in a press release. "I have no doubt that ole Ben enjoyed a tankard or two of beer with friends and associates, but this beer quote, while well-meaning, is inaccurate."

The aforementioned Skilnik, author of , has issued a challenge to promulgators of the quote to come forward with proof, reported my colleague (and fellow beer drinker) Bryce Eddings in 2007. There have been no takers so far.

For the record, here, in a letter addressed to André Morellet in 1779, is what Benjamin Franklin actually did say:

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it.

(Source: Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. p.374.)

When Franklin did speak of beer, it wasn't in the most glowing of terms. "My Companion at the Press," he wrote in his autobiography, "drank every day a Pint before Breakfast, a Pint at Breakfast with his Bread and Cheese; a Pint between Breakfast and Dinner; a Pint at Dinner; a Pint in the Afternoon about Six o’Clock, and another when he had done his Day’s-Work. I thought it a detestable Custom."

"Small beer" (made with cheaper ingredients and with a lower alcohol content) was very popular in Franklin's time. Apparently, George Washington even had his own recipe.