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These are our beer glory days

Catching up after 10 days offline (and often off the grid), I see that Eric Asimov of the New York Times devoted his column Wednesday to Overcoming a Frat Party Reputation, an even-handed look at modern day beer culture.

He framed the story by venturing to Boston to share beers with Todd and Jason Alström of Beer Advocate. Asimov writes correctly:

Each of the Web sites has its partisans, and crossover is common, but at beeradvocate.com, discussions seem to get louder, arguments rage more fiercely and passions flow close to the surface.

Asimov repeatedly gets to the point: “. . . the real action in beer culture takes place on a far more visceral level, in the rants about why so many good restaurants have wine lists as thick as books but only carry three beers, or whether beer lovers have a bias against big breweries, or whether high-alcohol extreme beers are great or ruinous.”

And I really like what he notices at the end (go read it). But – and you knew this was coming – there’s something that bugged me.

“One of our main goals is trying to raise the image of beer as a whole and bring back the beer culture,” Todd said. “We had a beer culture but Prohibition kind of reset the button.”

Not exactly. Maureen Ogle surely grimaced if she read this, because in Ambitious Brew she endeavored to correct the oft-told (but factually inaccurate) tale that America had a booming beer culture before Prohibition and that big, greedy brewers flattened it after the Noble Experiment failed.

Bob Skilnik further substantiates that this is a myth in Beer and Food: An American History (more on that book later in the week).

Beer itself began to change in the 1870s – lager took over, beer factories took over, beer brewed with adjuncts took over. And the places where people drank beer also changed. Both Ogle and Madelon Power (Faces along the Bar) document the role the Anti-Saloon League in the ultimate success of those in the Prohibition movement. The Anti-Saloon League would not have succeeded if saloons had not provided plenty to be against.

Bevo MillIt’s not like brewers didn’t know what was going on. In 1916, August A. Busch – the second member of his family to guide Anheuser-Busch – built the Bevo Mill in St. Louis as part of an effort to associate beer with something other than wicked saloons.

Kind of a Here’s to Beer of the early twentieth century. By then, Busch had already launched Bevo, which took its name from the Bohemian pivo (beer) and contained less than one-half percent alcohol. The Bevo Mill, a replica of a Dutch windmill, was a high-class restaurant, with beer and wine (no hard liquor) available only at tables. There was no bar. No sawdust. No bawdy women.

Yes, you could say he was battling windmills with a windmill. That didn’t hold off Prohibition, as you know, but the restaurant still operates today.

My point would be that we are not returning to the past glory days of American beer and beer emporiums. These are the glory days. Peruse the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines, all 41 pages, and ask yourself how many of those styles were available in 1870 or 1915. And that’s before we get to the matter of quality.

It’s only been 30 years since Jack McAuliffe launched the short-lived New Albion Brewing Co. so we’re at what? Chapter Two? Chapter Three? This is creation, not re-creation, which is why matters like ingredients, batch size, shaking the frat boys image, and so on are important.

8 Responses to These are our beer glory days

  1. Alan April 2, 2007 at 7:06 am #

    I have a quibble. One thing I did learn for Marueen Ogles book was about the German approach to beer as a quality product. Prior to the section of the book where it (for me) muddies the macro issues within the industry from, say 1890 to 1921, there is a good description of the earier years of German culture in the US and the role of the new fangled which was top quality and based on family picnic and beer garden life style. Unfortunately, the book also starts with this point so we have no discussion, as Skilnik provides in his book, or colonial and earlier US experience with good beer. Apparently, we are told, there was a period pre-REvolution of enhanced rather than deflating Angliscism and much importation of the best beers like the new fangled porter. So we have two periods identified in these books of fine beer consumption – it’s just that it is not the period right before Prohibition.

    Further, I have yet to find a good text on the role and economics of locally made beer of the sort you can find about English beer or, say, Ungers work in the Low Countries. It may be due in large part to the lack of public records on the point like tax records showing the amount of beer made and the ingredients that went into it. It may very well be that the colonial period was awash with excellent locally consumed ales as one would presume there were great locally produced breads and cheeses – just no body thought much about writing about these things back then so we lack the record.

    So while it is true that the blandificatin of US light ales and lagers started before Prohibition, I am not convinced that this means this present point in time is the only point in time people generally consumed wonderful beer in the continental USA…keeping in mind craft beer is still only around 10% of the market.

  2. Stan Hieronymus April 2, 2007 at 9:37 am #

    Alan, my post also started with a quibble – that Prohibition killed our beer culture. A troubled beer culture helped set up Prohibition.

    Admittedly I swerved off course a bit, thinking that our beer culture ultimately influences what beer choices we end up with.

    I may have to get this book: “Beer, Its History and Its Economic Value as a National Beverage” (from beerbooks.com) to see if it answers some of the questions you bring up.

    I too am pretty confident that were times of great diversity than the early 20th century. Quality would be another issue – not just in the US but everywhere.

  3. Alan April 2, 2007 at 10:51 am #

    Good idea. I will hunt out that one, too. A few points on quality:

    – What was a pale ale, as you know, would not be the same then as now. “Stock” as a flavour concept and style was an accepted aspect of beer prior to a certain point, though this may be more of a Canadian thing as we were pale ale drinkers to a far greater degree before WWII compared to you Americans. Two Ontario craft brewers and at least two macros are making stock ales now, though Molson’s stock is a far cry from what it was once. Moosehead in the Maritimes still makes Ten Penny stock ale and others in their line carry a musty quality that evokes past tastes.

    – quality also goes to storage life. Most ales and lagers would have been sold much more within the natural “best by” date. Freshness or the perception that somehting was what it was supposed to be would have been a variable the consumer would recognize. Also, they would recognize it more within a range than we would with out standardized, homogenized mass market goods.

    – diversity would hav been more in amongst makers than today’s brands amongst fewer brewers. I would have been interesting to know what the range of Canadian Pre-WWII porters, for example, tasted like. So you are not going to find a coffee porter or a imperial India Pale Ale – just different brewers porter and ipa.

  4. Lew Bryson April 3, 2007 at 8:06 pm #

    What does beer culture depend on, Stan? Diversity? You know the trap I’m laying there (Prague), so I’ll move on.

    Quality? A very flexible word, much like “premium.” I would venture to say that the overall quality of beer in the U.S. in the 30 years prior to Prohibition was higher than that of wine, but what does that get us?

    I would say that beer culture depends more on acceptance in society. In which case you’ve certainly got a live issue in the causes of Prohibition: American brewers shot themselves in the foot, along with saloon-owners and drinkers. They were asking for it, and got it. But World War I and the wave of hysterical anti-German propaganda generated by the British had a lot to do with killing the strong German-based beer culture in places like Chicago, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, and Texas.

    You cannot blame everything on Prohibition, nor on the large brewers, to be sure. But something that puts a majority of a country’s brewers out of business can’t be swept under the revisionist rug, either.

  5. Stan Hieronymus April 4, 2007 at 7:26 am #

    Oops, I hope I didn’t leave the impression I think that the 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours, 32 1/2 minutes that Prohibition officially lasted weren’t a watershed.

    Probably harder still on wine – but discussing beer/wine parallels before and after Prohibition would get lengthy.

    I would argue, happily, that German-based beer culture refused to die. One thing we certainly miss about the Midwest is bier stubes. Not much diversity. Great culture.

  6. Lew Bryson April 4, 2007 at 7:55 am #

    I haven’t read Bob Skilnik’s book yet (haven’t seen it; am I the only person who’s ever written about beer that didn’t get a review copy? I’m hurt…), but get the impression from blurb, reviews, and his website that he is marginalizing the role of Prohibition. I hate revisionist histories, for reasons of historiography. But I’ll back off till I’ve read more.

    Meantime, I’ll tone down “killing” German-based beer culture to “sapping” German-based beer culture. It’s not what it used to be, though it’s definitely still there. I overspoke, and I apologize.

  7. Stan Hieronymus April 4, 2007 at 8:22 am #

    In fact I wasn’t flogging on you for using “killing.” It’s important to remember the lengths that Prohibitionists will go to …

    We’ll just call it attempted murder.

    Here’s another history somebody should do (looks like too much work to me): The revival of the German beer tavern, post Prohibition and post WWII.

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