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Alexandria's First Brewery

How did Alexandria's First Brewery Develop

Alexandria, Virginia is one of the oldest cities in the nation. As a port city, the town grew up around maritime commerce most notably the tobacco trade with Great Britain. In 1730, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the Tobacco Inspection Act, which regulated the quality of tobacco exports through designated inspection warehouses. Alexandria's first official tobacco inspection station was Hunting Creek Warehouse, which was owned by Hugh West, a trustee and founder of Alexandria.

As the Virginia economy continued to develop, commercial life relied on the growth of taverns. Tavern keepers had to obtain licenses from the colony. By law taverns had to provide a meal, drink, and lodging to the patrons. In the 1750s, Alexandria had 18 licensed taverns.

Colonial Americans drank large quantities of alcohol to include rum and beer. One of the most common statistics suggests that the amount of rum consumed was nearly 4 gallons per capita per year. Beer also developed as a dietary staple as water supplies were typically unsanitary to drink.

As a result, Andrew Wales, a Scottish born merchant, decided to apply his entrepreneurial energy toward opening Alexandria's first brewery in 1770. Wales already had at least one high profile client, George Washington. The first documented sale between the two men occurred on April 4, 1768. Washington paid Wales almost £4 for a cask of beer. This began a business relationship between the two men that lasted nearly three decades.

Wales's brewery was originally located at the foot of Duke Street near Point Lumley. He operated at this location for four years from 1770-1774. In December 1771, Wales acquired property along Prince Street and Water Street (now Lee Street). The land that he purchased was part of the original lot 56 and 57. Lot 57 is where the Fairfax Home was built. The Athenaeum is also part of lot 57. Wales's brewery was located in the backyard of where the Athenaeum now stands.

In 1788, Wales moved his brewery to a location in between Water and Union Street. This location is known today as Wales Alley. There are several old warehouses on the Union Street block to include Fitzgerald's warehouse. Across from Fitzgerald's warehouse is a restaurant called Virtue Feed & Grain. On the second floor, there is a historical write up that mentions Andrew Wales and the location of Alexandria's first brewer.

Andrew Wales: Businessman and Tory

Wales's life was not without controversy. As colonial America moved toward revolution, Wales was an adamant Tory, which means that he remained loyal to the British Crown. As a member of the First Presbyterian Church (now called the Old Presbyterian Meeting House), Wales was an outlier because Presbyterians were more enthusiastic about American independence than other denominations. In fact, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House claims that up to 70 of its members fought on the American side of the revolution.

As the war continued into April 1777, Wales was accused of being a co-conspirator in a plot that freed nine British and Loyalist sailors from a prison in Alexandria. As a result, Wales was arrested and imprisoned in Williamsburg. If convicted, Wales faced the possibility of a death sentence. However, Wales and the other defendants were acquitted on a technicality that involved the lead witness being unfit to testify in the case.

After the ordeal surrounding his arrest and acquittal, Wales moved to Bladensburg, Maryland. Several accounts suggest that he remained a committed Loyalist. In fact, he supposedly celebrated when the British seized Charleston in May 1780.

Back to Alexandria

After the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, American victory appeared inevitable. At that point, Wales moved back to Alexandria. After resettling in Alexandria, he appears to have resumed his previous life as a prominent businessman and member of the Alexandria community. In fact, he was instrumental in pushing many policies that would improve commercial activity to include filling out Alexandria's shoreline and establishing the Bank of Alexandria.

Throughout the 1780s, Wales continued his strong business relationship with George Washington and sold him barley, which Washington found difficult to grow at Mount Vernon. Wales also found other ways to make money including running a tavern, renting out warehouse space, and operating a store.

Wales's story is a fascinating look at many cross sections of early American life. First, we see that the American colonies were divided between Loyalists and Patriots. We tend to think that everyone believed in the cause of independence. But, this is not true. For example, there was a man named Nicholas Creswell, who came to America in 1774 to start a business. He spent a lot of time in Alexandria, and kept a detailed journal of his experiences. Much of his writing contains harsh rebukes against the American independence movement. For example, after the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, Creswell wrote the following:

“A pamphlet called ‘Commonsense’ makes a great noise. One of the vilest things that ever was published. Full of false representations, lies, calumny, and treason, whose principles are to subvert all Kingly Governments and erect an Independent Republic.”

Creswell was also critical of the Presbyterian service that he attended at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Thus, as a Presbyterian, Wales was more likely to have been a Patriot than a Loyalist. But, perhaps he felt a strong economic tie to Great Britain due to his business interests, which would have relied heavily on international trade. Or, maybe Wales simply liked the status quo and continued to feel a genuine loyalty to the Crown.

Second, the fact that Wales was able to return to private life with his property intact also seems remarkable. This was not the experience of all Loyalists. But, Wales clearly possessed impressive business acumen including the ability to adapt and get along with many people. These skills must have have helped him reintegrate into the community. Clearly the former commander-in-chief, General Washington, harbored no ill-will toward him. Or if he did, it did not stop him from transacting with Wales after the war.

Today, there is a sign that reads, "Wales Alley" in between Virtue Feed & Grain and the Old Town Shop, which is located in Fitzgerald's warehouse. We can also walk through the alley in between Union and Water Street. In doing so, one can imagine what it might have been like in the early days of Alexandria. We can imagine seeing tall ships coming into Alexandria's growing ports. Wales must have seen thirsty sailors and thought it was worth taking a bold risk on a new venture.

At Alexandria History Tours, nearly all of our tours visit the location of Wales's second brewery where the Athenaeum now stands. This is one of the most iconic spots in Old Town Alexandria. Wales was caught up in an early civil war between Patriots and Loyalists. However, the Athenaeum became a critical part of America's next Civil War from 1861-1865. It served as headquarters of the commissary department for the Union Army in Alexandria.

Like so many locations in Alexandria, one block tells many stories from America's history. The story of Andrew Wales stretches across several blocks. From his entrepreneurship, association with Washington, and Tory sympathies, Andrew Wales, Alexandria's first brewer, remains one of Alexandria's most fascinating historical figures.

Athenaeum in Alexandria, VA
The Athenaeum in Alexandria, VA

Wales Alley in Alexandria, VA
Wales Alley in between Fitzgerald's Warehouse and Virtue Feed & Grain

Below from left to right. Far left image is the exterior of the Williamsburg jail. The middle image is the interior of one of the jail cells. The right image is the courthouse in Williamsburg. Andrew Wales was taken to Williamsburg's jail on May 30, 1777. On August 8, 1777, he was acquitted. After his acquittal, he moved to Maryland where he stayed until after the Battle of Yorktown.

Works Cited | Sources

  1. “Cash Accounts, April 1768,” Founders Online, National Archives Link

  2. Garrett Peck. "Andrew Wales: Alexandria's First Brewer." The Alexandria Chronicle. Spring 2015 No. 2. pp. 1-16

  3. Salinger, Sharon V. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore, MD, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

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