I wrote over two years ago of the 1944 beer tasting at the Waldorf-Astoria of the Wine and Food Society of New York. In fact, I recreated the event at a local restaurant to salute early pioneers of beer appreciation and evoke the gastronomic experience of a previous era.
In researching early tasting menus of this Society, which generally focuses on wine, by yesterday I had identified three beer events. This is based to be sure on publicly-available menus, most archived at the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org. (The extracts herein of its menus are courtesy www.nypl.org).
The three tastings all occurred in the 1940s: one before America entered the war, one in 1942 after the war started, and the 1944 one. I intend to write at length in another forum of the first two tastings.
Just this morning I found a fourth tasting, held more recently in 1973; the one-page program appears below.
It is very interesting to compare the 1973 program to those of the 1940s. The 1973 is much shorter, as the earlier ones featured many more beers and also a broader range of foods. The 1973 event was a sausage-tasting, certainly valid until itself, but the earlier ones covered interesting cheeses, vintage hams and other meats, and numerous smoked fish and herring, all sourced from high-end suppliers.
The earlier tastings were gastronomic in the true sense; 1973’s was more limited in scope although no doubt enjoyable.
Also, the 40s tastings have a pronounced New York and regional brewing character. By 1973 no New York or Jersey beers were represented. Imports were selected almost exclusively, and only one American beer offered, the rather jejune Schlitz (with roots in the Midwest).
It was served with a hot dog, no doubt to evoke the ballpark idea. A more interesting approach might have paired a Rochester, NY “white hot” with a beer of that city, Genesee Cream Ale, say, or 12 Horse Ale.
The 1973 event matched a typical sausage of a country with a beer from that land. Since the event took place at one of the Society’s old haunts, the Waldorf-Astoria, no doubt the kitchen produced high-quality versions of these foods.
The choice of a lager from Ireland was odd since lager was well-represented at the tasting: Guinness would have made more sense (tasted in the 1940s), or say Murphy Stout. Moreover lager is not a style traditional to Ireland.
Still, for the time, the Harp offered an exotic note, as did Kronenbourg of France, or Pripps. Offering a dark version of Heineken instead of the familiar blond version – New York knew regular Heineken well – was a good choice: everything is relative to time and place.
Carta Blanca from Mexico was a rare satisfying link to the 1940s since it appeared on some of the earlier menus.
I include above two extracts from the 1942 tasting to give a sense of contrast. The early tastings sought to explain the beers more by type and individual characteristics, just as we do again. Things have come full circle.
But classifying beers by nation was a potent idea in the 1950s-1970s. Beer writing in that period often used the approach, even Michael Jackson’s early books did although his learned introductions and creative chapter sub-divisions gave a wider context.
The styles he helped popularize, and invented, have now moved around the world. Therefore, classifying beer by geographic area is less valid than it ever was. There is little difference between a Black IPA made in Italy and one made within a mile of where I write.
Wine is somewhat similar with the spread of the famous varietals although local grapes still have a say and perhaps increasingly so in the future. For the foreseeable future though the lexicon of beer appreciation will remain international.
There are some food anomalies on the 1973 menu, but not serious ones. A haggis for Brewmaster Pale Ale is not really right. Brewmaster was a classic southern English taste, flowery and delicate. A banger sausage, the Oxford type perhaps, would have done better.
Holland’s national sausage is not bratwurst, which is German, but braadworst, but maybe that is what was served, simply under a name more familiar to New Yorkers.
Most of the beers were certainly good or excellent for their style: Pripps’ lager of Sweden for example, or the Munich-style of Heineken (dark).
The choice of Pilsner Urquell, known in New York since the late 1800s, was a wise one, as was Germany’s Wurzburger, a popular import in the 1970s. I believe it was tanked in and bottled close to distribution by Anheuser-Busch. I knew the light version (Helles) which was very good: well-matured, zesty but not sulphury as many lagers today.
The dessert and Cognac look just right after a culinary/beery whirl like that.
Who led the tasting? I believe Harriet Lembeck as she is described in the program as “commentator”. Ms. Lembeck is still active in the wine and spirits world. She gives classes on wine education in New York and has been called the dean of wine education in America.
Her mentor was Harold Grossman, an influential Manhattan wine and spirits importer who inaugurated wine education in the city in 1940. He also wrote an influential guide to wine, beer and spirits. Ms. Lembeck edited a couple of editions after his death, in fact.
Harold Grossman and indeed Ms. Lembeck are part of how wine appreciation migrated from small influential groups into the national consciousness.
To a died-in-the-wool beerman the 1940s tastings and notes are more contemporary than the somewhat attenuated 1973 event.
On the beer side, the changes are explained by the transformation of the brewing industry in the prior 30 years. Consolidation and expansion in New York of national brands took their toll. Also, old ethnic ties – Anglo, Irish, German and Central European – that kept distinctive beers going had weakened by 1970.
To be sure newer ethnicities arose but beer was not their remit other than to favour light lagers of the international style.
That’s how things go, change is ever a leitmotif of cultural studies.
Still, that 1973 tasting must have been enjoyable, many of the beers and the food too. I wonder about the condition of the beers though. Having commenced beer tasting in the 1970s I can say many imports tasted poorly then.
Skunky, oxidised and autolysized flavours were all too common. Logistics and handling have improved immeasurably and consequently imported beer tastes much better today.
Maybe that’s why the event finished with Swiss cherry cake, good coffee* and Cognac – all stale beer flavours swept way on a wave of unimpeachable gemütlichkeit!
I’d recreate this event too, why not? If anything the results would be more authentic given that imports taste much better today. And the food would be certainly interesting to try. We can add a vegetarian option or two.
Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, and early disco on the sound system. And old Bert Kaempfert, he’d go well with those German and Czech beers.
We’ll close by playing David Bowie’s Changes – to a last round of … what shall we use for Brewmaster dear me?
Note re images: the menu images herein were sourced from the www.nypl.org menu archive. The Brewmaster Pale Ale image is from the invaluable Tavern Trove site, here. The last image was authored by “IG Zuger Chris – Ueli Kleeb”, was sourced from Wikipedia here, and is used pursuant to the terms and conditions of this Creative Common licence. All property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*It’s 1973 but this is the Waldorf-Astoria and a European-theme event. Moreover, the chef, Arno Schmidt, is – not was – Austrian-born and top of his profession. The Waldorf would not ruin fine Swiss cake and French brandy with bad coffee.