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An Indian beer story too good to be true?

Sometimes you come across a random story that has a bit of what you know to be a true, but also surprising facts introduced into evidence that have never appeared any place else. So before presenting this article that appeared in the St. Louis Republic in January of 1909, three simple questions that came immediately to mind:

– Where did the Choctaw get malted barley and hops?
– Could the “native” renowned for his brewing skill be a immigrant miner? (Because by all accounts the miners, or more accurately their wives, were the ones making Choc at the outset of the twentieth century.)
– What’s the source for this bit? “In earliest days of the serving of Choctaw beer was an act of hospitality, few Indian homes in rural districts being without supply.” Is the writer aware that the Choctaw did not arrive in what is now Oklahoma until 1832?

Guthrie OK, Jan 9 – State-wide prohibition in Oklahoma has given impetus to a native industry of Indian origin that flourished in many localities of the original Indian Territory long before the Civil War. It is the making of Choctaw beer, which got its name from the Choctaw Indians, in whose county the liquor is supposed to first have been brewed.

There are hospitable natives who will tell the stranger the Choctaw beer is as harmless as milk or spring water, and that there is nothing in it that “biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder.” There is gross deception in this assurance. There may have been men in the ancient days of the Choctaws whose heads were strong enough to resist the effects of Choctaw beer, but they cannot be found in these later days.

A native of Choctaw territory renowned for his skill in making of this native “beverage,” gives this recipe for its preparation: For a brew of sixteen gallons take one peck of barley malt, two quarter-pound cakes of hops, 50 cents of granulated sugar and one small cake of yeast.

On an open fire place the water in a big kettle and in it boil the malt and hops until their strength has been taken. When the liquid is milk-warm put in the sugar and yeast. Let the brew stand all night. The next morning it should be covered with four inches of foam.

The liquid should now be put into a strong keg and the bung hole left open for twelve hours, and then corked. The keg should be strong and the cork securely fastened. In four days the beer is ready for use. In winter keep the beer in a warm place and in summer in a cool place. Should it become stale, new life can be given by adding more sugar.

The native drinker is confident that Choctaw beer is ruined by putting ice in it. Bottled Choctaw beer a year old is described by Choctaw tipplers as being indescribably delightful.

For more than half a century the Federal Government enforced a prohibition in Indian Territory, this being a treaty provision with the government of the Five Civilized Tribes. The native citizen did not wish to run the risk of undertaking the more laborious work of making moonshine wiskey and turned his attention to Choctaw beer.

The strength of the beer can be made greater by increasing the amount of malt, hops, etc., the rule being that twice the amount of these ingredients would give twice the strength. One insurmountable drawback to copious libation of Choctaw beer is the fact that the “morning after” is a time of unutterable woe.

In earliest days of the serving of Choctaw beer was an act of hospitality, few Indian homes in rural districts being without supply. Many housewives were known for their superior skill in making it. Choctaw beer was served free to known guests at country hotels.

The unadulterated beer is a pleasing beverage when its strength is mild. In other forms it has been the cause of much lawlessness. When sold for commercial purposes, which has always been a violation of the law, cocaine and other injurious drugs were added to it.

The Indian is a harmless citizen when sober, but when drunk he “sees red.” Crazed with drugged Choctaw beer, Indians have run amuck with pistols and Winchesters in the towns of old Indian territory. In the mining region many of the miners are Hungarian, Poles, Irish, Italians and Mexicans. They like Choctaw beer and often drink it to excess. If the beer is of the drugged kind fights soon start.

Perhaps this story was written under the influence of Choctaw beer.

8 Responses to An Indian beer story too good to be true?

  1. Alan October 14, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Chock beer was dangerous stuff:

    A bit more in the comments here from ten years ago:

  2. Martyn Cornell October 15, 2015 at 7:34 am #

    Typo alert: “the bung hole left open for twelve hours, and then cooked.” Corked.

    • Stan Hieronymus October 15, 2015 at 7:46 am #

      Thanks, Martyn. (And for those confused, it is now fixed.)

  3. Gary Gillman October 16, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    Stan, good article. I think your uncertainty about a native American origin is well-justified. I offer two alternative explanations for the terms chock beer and Choctaw beer, i.e., to the one traditionally accepted (or assumed).

    Chock may be a corruption of “Czech”. As you note, Choctaw or chock beer was a staple in the mining districts. Europeans of recent immigration formed a large part of the mine workers, and of these, “Slovaks” formed a significant number, see this circa 1910 study: (It actually mentions “Choctaw beer”, but offers no insights on the etymology).

    The former Czechoslovakia didn’t form until the end of WW I. The term “Slovak” was more commonly used in the English-speaking world than “Czech”, prior to WW I. Of course, the two nations, Czech and Slovak, are different, but both peoples are of Slavonic origin. Their languages and culture have close connections. The fact that Chile called a glass of beer a chock lends support to this IMO and, correlatively, this distances the beer from an American Indian origin. Early emigration to Chile included a large group from Bohemia (see Wikipedia entry entitled “Immigration to Chile”). Both Czechs and Slovaks have an old brewing culture and this part of Europe became famous for pale beer from the mid-1800’s…

    The other possibility though is, the term chock is a corruption of shack. In Alan McLeod’s comment above, his second link is a post from his blog in 2004. In a comment to that post, reader TM Moore quoted a source stating both chock beer and moonshine were available in a Texas “shack”. I don’t think TM Moore intended to suggest that shack was connected to chock etymologically, because he or she went on to talk about the etymology of barrelhouse, but perhaps inadvertently Moore hit upon the true origin of the term chock beer. In Gaelic, shebeen is an illegal drinking place, and the word means shack or hut. Even though Prohibition existed in the later 1800’s in Choctaw Territory in what is now Oklahoma, miner’s wives, as you said, made chock beer. People in the area, perhaps those of Scots-Irish background (numerous in Oklahoma), may have called the miners’ home brew shack beer and it quickly became corrupted to choc or chock beer with some finally thinking the Choctaw Nation of native Americans originated it.

    The second explanation seems more persuasive to me, but I don’t rule out the first.

    Gary Gillman

  4. Gary Gillman October 16, 2015 at 10:16 am #

    Sorry, I meant to add in my note above that the apparent use of choc to describe a glass of beer in Chile is also mentioned in a comment to Alan McLeod’s 2004 post from his blog he linked in his comment above, but in this case from reader Ben Henry.


  5. Michael Rich October 17, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    Some of my forebears spent time in Oklahoma in the 1910’s. They passed along stories of making “Choctaw Beer” in a tub atop the wood stove. They were sharecroppers who lived alongside a Choctaw reservation.

    I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the newspaper writer’s fanciful use of “earliest” or “ancient” days. There’s no question that Choctaw made homebrew, showed at least some white folks how to do it, and that a century ago there was something popularly known as Choctaw Beer. None of that, aside from some unfortunate colorful newspaperman’s prose, suggests a Native American origin for a particular type of beer, only that at some point in the 19th century they began brewing.

  6. allan girdler December 16, 2016 at 10:57 am #

    Oh, c’mon.
    Beer is made with grain plus, then brewed ie fermented, so you don’t need barley and hops.
    Next, every culture and national ever studied had a way to get sloshed, blotto, etc. Safe bet here is the Choctaws made beer back where they came from.
    What’s my source? My first father-in-law, a Cherokee/Choctaw/Scot, made beer at home in the Cherokee nation…the kids all giggled when it blew up…and he didn’t have one ounce of Italian blood nor did he speak gaelic.
    Finally, when I was a newspaper reporter, on the Tulsa World, and went to the meetings of the state pardon and parole board, all the parties met at the pizza place in McAlester, yes the Choctaw Nation,, and we drank Choctaw beer nemmind that measly 3.2 substitute

  7. allan girdler December 16, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Oh, c’mon…czech beer, shack beer, get sensible.
    First, all cultures and nations ever studied have found something to brew or ferment.
    Next, you don’t need barley and hops, any grain and/or fruit, yeast, ext will do.
    As for personal, my first father-in-law was Cherokee/Choctaw/Scot. When he lived in the Creek Nation he made Choctaw beer from an old. pre-statehood, family recipe. (His kids giggled when the kegs blew up, which they did sometimes.)
    Pre-repeal, when I was a reporter for the Tulsa World, and travelled to McAlester, Choctaw Nation, for pardon and parole board meetings, all the visitors met and drank Choctaw beer, brewed by the city’s fire chief (I assume the statutes of limitation have come to pass.) We did so because we would not settle for that measly 3.2 stuff.
    In sum, Choctaw Beer was made by Choctaws.

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