Beer Over There

In recent posts I’ve shown that despite the widely held American view during and after WW II that British beer was unacceptably “warm”, there were exceptions. A Briton lately relocated to America in 1957 testified to the easy acceptance of British beer by U.S. service personnel in his London pub during the war. U.S. journalist Stan Delaplane wrote in 1962 that experience with British beer was required to obtain commensurate rewards. Michael Jackson stated the same thing 15 years later in his widely acclaimed The World Guide to Beer.

A Florida-born soldier in the war years not only liked British beer but thought it the best he had tried anywhere, which took in American lager, Belgian beer, and even German beer (1945).

Still, the general picture can’t be doubted, even though – so far – I’ve given no evidence of it. Now I’ll turn to that, and in a subsequent post will address a few prewar examples.

Rather than quote from the (many) general press reports that grouse about warm English beer, I thought this time I’d examine a different source, the army press. Yank is a good place to look here.

What was Yank? A deft essay in Wikipedia tells us:

The idea for the magazine came from Egbert White, who had worked on the newspaper Stars and Stripes during World War I. He proposed the idea to the Army in early 1942, and accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel. White was the overall commander, Major Franklin S. Forsberg was the business manager and Major Hartzell Spence was the first editor.[1] White was removed from the Yank staff because of disagreements about articles which had appeared.[2] Soon afterward, Spence was also assigned to other duties and Joe McCarthy became the editor.[3]

The first issue was published with the cover date of June 17 1942.[4] The magazine was written by enlisted rank (EM) soldiers with a few officers as managers, and initially was made available only to the US Army overseas.[5] By the fifth issue of July 15 1942, it was made available to serving members within the US, however it was never made available on the newsstands for public purchase.[6] YANK’s circulation exceeded 2.5 million in 41 countries with 21 editions.[7]

The last issue was published on December 28 1945.[8] Joe McCarthy remained the editor of Yank until the official closure of the office on New Year’s Eve 1945.[9]

Prior to scanning Yank for comments on British beer, I had never read anything from the magazine. Some prefatory comments in its regard. I was impressed with the quality of the writing, hence also the editing. Many pieces must have been authored by people involved in publishing before the war. A general literate quality is evident while often exhibiting the informal phrasing and humour associated in popular culture with Yank. The general tone, in fact, was echoed in dialogue of the TV show MASH in the 1970s.

One 1944 article is a foray into satire and even fantasy, positing an end to the war in mid-1944. The writer imagines commentary by well-known journalists in and outside the army such as Ernie Pyle and Walter Winchell, parodying their style to a “t”.  Winchell’s reaction was simply “Flash”, which is funny to anyone who knows his telegraphic yet impactful style.

Two articles show amply that the general attitude to British pub beer was, it’s warm, we don’t love it. One article attributes this view to – I was fascinated to see – our own Canadian army, in a sharp portrait of the Canadian soldiery by U.S. soldier-journalist Robert Neville. He toured a number of Canadian infantry regiments in England. One was the Black Watch, in which my father Bernard was a private in 1944-1945 albeit not overseas.*

The article portrayed the men as “Canadian Tommies” – Tommy was a general term for British soldiers up to 1945 – but Tommies with a difference. As Neville put it, the soldiers struck him as mid-way between British and American in character with an individuality all their own. Sounds about right, for the time.

Canadians’ evolving infantry tactics (post-Dieppe raid), saluting method, marching style, and other aspects of regimental practise were analyzed. While the article is clearly and intelligently written the writer can’t quite conceal his preference for his own nation’s traditions. Thus he is bemused by how the Canadians march, where the hand reaches the waist. To Neville those out of step look more “conspicuous”.

In the end though, he regards the Canadians as “brothers”. And they agreed essentially on British beer, with the interesting slant (if it is that) that Canadians were more reticent:

In his spare time the Canadian Tommy has had to make the same adjustments to British custom and climate that we’ve had to make. British accents are just as foreign to him and British money just as complicated. He accepts warm ale with better grace than we do, but still prefers Coca-Cola.

(From Yank, December 23, 1942).

Here you see an early instance of the “polite Canadian” meme, one that creditably originates outside Canada, as when the subjects perpetuate it, as so often happens today, the cultural point is rather lost, isn’t it. Or perhaps another factor was at work. Ale and porter had a much wider survival in eastern Canada in the Forties than in the United States. Perhaps Canadians were more accepting of beer, temperature regardless, that reminded them somewhat of home.

A fascinating gradation of penalties in the Canadian Army is described, and also a distinction between non-commissioned officers and ranks below, for drunkenness.

For a purely American example of wartime disenchantment with British beer, another piece in Yank is illustrative:

Within a week or two, however, Mrs. French had learned to deal with her new patrons. She could usually distinguish between a soldier well-versed in pub crawling and one who had just arrived. The veteran would order lager or pale ale; the rookie, beer. English beer, or  bitter, is served warm, and Mrs. French quickly learned that if she did not warn of this she would soon hear a grumble: “Hell, it ain’t cold.”

(From Yank, November 18, 1942).

Mrs. French ran with her husband Dirty Dick’s, Curzon Street, London. Formerly patronised largely by the “gentlemens’ gentlemen”, it become equally a haven for American soldiers. The article in general is interesting, and gives examples of beers more palatable to the Yanks. Pale ale was one, meaning bottled beer here, and Graham’s lager, another (makes sense).

We conclude on a humorous note, from the aforementioned issue of Yank:

According to Mr. French, who is very polite, Yanks are beyond criticism in the way they carry their liquor. One lad who gave him considerable amusement, however, had the habit of dropping in for a quick double shot, ducking out, and then ducking in again perhaps 10 minutes later for a repeat. One day Mr. French tabulated his visits; total 22. Only then was it discovered what he did in the 10-minute interval.

He visited another pub down the street.**

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*He was 17 and told me that soldiers were not sent overseas until their 18th birthday. He reached 18 about four months after V-E Day.

**That the story was possibly invented, or at least embellished, does not detract from its charm.

 

 

 

Into the Wonderful Light

… individuals who, twelve months or two years ago, judged a glass of lager by its taste and the amount of snowy froth which crowned the glass, now discuss the merits of Bavarian and Berliner beers with the “cheek” if not the judgement of a connoisseur who had graduated on the Unter den Linden

Many post-1850, 19th century articles have now been unearthed from the New York and Brooklyn press on the rise of lager in the area. I’ve done not a few.

Yet new ones are still to be found. At least, I can’t recall seeing this gem before, from the September 4, 1874 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Union. It describes a transformed beer scene in Manhattan and Brooklyn, henceforth comprised not just of lager-drinkers (this is a given by the 1870s) but of connoisseurs who seek out imported brews.

The imports are in two classes: European beers, and “Western” beers. The latter meant beer from Rochester, NY, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Later, St. Louis would join the Western ranks. Rochester’s lager was remarked with particular favour, selling for six cents a glass, a one cent premium on the standard nickel beer. The local savants, “satellites” of the Brooklyn courthouse said the article, preferred Rochester lager over Milwaukee’s and Cincinnati’s – but true imports over all these.

The article delves into the whys and wherefores: the local beers just weren’t as good due to no brewing occurring in summer, as ice was too expensive. The implication is despite the mythology of long-aged lager it was not, in mid-century New York, considered prime drinking due to acidification over time and excess hop bitterness, as I’ve discussed earlier.* Another reason given was that malt was dear in recent years. This suggested that adjuncts such as rice and corn were already in use, or that all-malt beers were attenuated low which resulted in a thin taste.

The journalist explores the favoured imports by name and often style: Kulmbacher, Tivoli, Kitzinger, Pilsener, Erlanger. Pilsener’s unusually light colour was noted as most American lager then was still amber-brown. The pils was considered less hoppy too, or “resinous”, than domestic beer. The gambrinal crown was bestowed on Bavaria’s Kulmbacher, with a taste note that would do credit to any modern beer writer. It sounds much like the Kulmbacher of today, in fact.

Reading this, one is reminded of the general media’s bemused accounts of modern craft brewing. One still encounters such pieces, sometimes quoting culinary or entertainment figures (the late Anthony Bourdain, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.). The process in old New York was no different. Then the new kids on the block were Kulmbacher and Pilsener; today it’s New England India Pale Ale, Brut IPA, and pastry stouts (pastry, not pasty).

While ale, domestic or imported, is not mentioned in the article there is a passing acknowledgment of Dublin Porter’s merits as the Kulmbacher is compared to it, in effect.

It amazes me that before modern brewery sanitation, before pasteurization, the beers could be imported in good condition, not just bottled but draft. But evidently they were, or enough of them. Did drinkers accept inferior taste because of the import cachet? Perhaps in some cases, but the description of the Kulmbacher certainly suggests the journalist knew, or had learned, what good beer was all about. One suspects the local bartenders and import agents treated him to a few as his article ends as an endorsement of their products.

Like all good journalists, he saw his job as bringing light to those in ignorance, those who as Paul cautioned “look through a glass, darkly”. A clever journalist, he employs a jeu de mots by claiming to enlighten those who view a saloon’s dim interior from the curb and wonder at the workings. (A little sacrilegious, I guess). To them he counterpoints citizens who “… take their lager steadily and respectably in high-toned saloons” and are “already posted…”.

I’ll keep you posted, too.

Note re image above: sourced from an Ebay listing, here. All rights belong solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See this 1877 New York Times article.

 

 

In Comes the Keg (Beer)

Stanton (Stan) Delaplane was a Chicago-born journalist based in San Francisco. He is remembered in drinks history for introducing the Irish Coffee to the United States in 1952. But he should be known for another first (almost certainly a first, anyway): introducing the term “keg bitter” to American audiences, in 1962. It was a long time before the mid-1970s, before writers and famously Michael Jackson in The World Guide to Beer (1977) talked up, or rather down, the term to bemused but enthusiastic American beer fans.

On May 27, 1962, reporting from England in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Delaplane explained to Americans exactly what keg beer was, with colourful references to dubious English drinkers not happy at paying 2d. a pint more for beer that didn’t require the tender care of publicans, anything more than turning the tap that is.

According to Delaplane’s reportage the price differential, something that much exercised beer writers later, seems clearly to have been justified by the capital investment necessary to convert to keg production on a large scale. It wasn’t corporate greed, in other words. True, once the brewers got their money back in the estimated two years, the price should have come down, especially as some later studies showed keg beer was weaker than cask ale.

But there was all that national advertising to pay for. Anyway, prices don’t come down after two years in that kind of environment for that kind of product. C’est la vie.

Delaplane’s information seems to suggest there was no actual quality difference. In fact, early recipes for some keg beers suggest keg was not as beyond the pale (sorry) as beer obsessives later argued. But hey, we know that keg bitter and cask bitter were two different animals from Day 1. They still are, partly for different reasons today.

Delaplane explained that the merger of Flowers and Whitbread breweries in 1962 meant keg beer would replace cask-conditioned ale in Whitbread’s huge tied estate. This seems to show fairly clearly that keg beer, from this early year, was meant to replace cask beer in the tied system versus being an expedient for isolated retail outlets or those with irregular sales as some have suggested. See e.g., the 1992 journal article discussed by Ron Pattinson in a blog post of some years ago, here.

The term keg for pressurised, filtered, often pasteurized beer seems to date from 1954 or 1955 (dates vary) via the trade term Flower’s Keg Bitter for its pressurized, sparkling draft. The beer itself, stated beer historian Ian Hornsey (see p. 671), was a spin-off of wartime efforts at Luton, home of Flowers’ Green brewery, to design draft beer for American servicemen not used to warmish, sometimes misty cask ales.

Watney’s famously or infamously introduced its keg-style beer in the 1930s at London’s East Sheen Racket Club. The little red barrel in the associated marketing, used into the early 1970s and in the term Red Barrel Beer, perhaps inspired Flowers’ use of “keg” for a draft beer served in a metal barrel under injected pressure.

In any case by the early 1960s as we see, the term keg bitter and cognates were evidently established in the London trade for a new kid – keg – on the block. Beer appreciation circles started to rumble which lead finally to the creation of CAMRA or The Campaign for Real Ale, the consumer beer lobby.

So again we see: little is really new in the beer world. Americans were told early on what keg beer was. They were told the potential nemesis of traditional cask beer it proved to be. All this in the dark ages of American brewing, the JFK early 60s. But American brewers were preoccupied with things such as turning all-malt, draft-only Michelob into an adjunct bottled (and draft) beer. With ever-reducing hop and malt levels in beer. With contrived, national ad campaigns. The space age-shape bottle was little consolation to the hard core then, but it had no voice.

As I have shown too, through the 1950s-80s Americans had good supplies of quality imports – in a surprising range of styles including “sours” and Imperial stouts – from the key beer producing countries. There were mid-1970s press reports too in the New York press on the start of CAMRA.

America had everything and all the knowledge to stimulate a beer revival much earlier than 1976 when New Albion Brewing was founded by Jack McAuliffe.

But things don’t happen in a logical fashion, or one that seems logical at any rate retrospectively. They happen because people – or enough people – do things that get noticed by enough other people, whence the ball starts to roll. And whether and how they will do those things is never inevitable or predictable even in broad strokes.

Still, we can look back to see that the tools were available for great changes to occur, even though no one could have said then how or when.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the 1962 news article linked in the text (via Fulton Newspapers). All intellectual property therein belongs to the sole owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Bruno Lessing on the London pub, 1932

Coming out of a steamship office here, several years ago, I felt thirsty and asked a bobby where I could get a glass of good ale. He recommended a little “pub” a few blocks away, and there I went. And there I met Isabel. She was behind the bar and she gave me a pewter tankard of ale. I sat down on a cushioned seat and chatted with her while I drank.

Ever since then, when I come to London, the first thing I jot down on my daily list is to drop into the “pub” at 11 a.m. (that’s when it opens) and have my tankard and a chat with Isabel…

The extract above is from a charming little squib in the Times-Union of Albany, NY in 1932. It was written by Bruno Lessing, the pen name of Rudolph Edgar Block. It has the air and style of the Lieblings, Menckens, Bemelmans’, that whole group of prewar writers who affected an air of sophistication and “European” light-heartedness. He was born in New York City in 1870, of Jewish background. He died in 1940 in a sanatorium in Arizona. A death notice in an Arizona newspaper described him as a respected New York Sun and long-time Hearst journalist and writer, and noted:

Writing his column took him many times around the world, roaming into strange and out-of-the-way places. He delighted in describing the scenery, life, folklore and gastronomic bits he found in his wanderings.

The piece above – read the whole thing for the full flavour – appeared in his column known generally as Vagabondia but called here, A Vagabond Abroad.

Block’s is only one of many inter-war reports on English inns, public houses, and hotels by American journalists eager to chronicle the drinking life in countries not distinguished by a Volstead Act. Indeed the visits start in the post-Civil War and seem to quicken in intensity and coverage with the growth of the Temperance movement. 

Many such accounts note the tankard of ale, or musty ale in pewter, as an emblem of the English drinking place but almost none mention its temperature. Most were simply unconcerned with the ale’s degree of coolness, tepidity, fizz, or what have you. For them, the house and atmosphere were everything. To borrow a line from an early Beatles song, the general reaction can be described as “I’m so happy just to dance with you”.

Now, Block would have known ale in New York, in the old Manhattan and Brooklyn ale houses, many of which I’ve described in these pages. And the beer there, especially from a wood keg on the counter, would equally have been of varying temperature. The reports on record don’t linger on those details either. It just wasn’t a concern, I think because an arctic temperature was not expected of such beer, in contrast of course to the Germanic lager beer.

The American ale houses were regarded as extensions of the British originals anyway, so drawing cellar-cool but non-refrigerated ale was business as usual. If on occasion it came tepid, well that came with the territory.

As we will see, the obsession with warm beer abroad seems to start in military circles. There are one or two indications (I’ll report soon) that civilian culture was starting to notice the same thing before 1939, but it’s nothing akin to the post-1945 press stories that regularly grouse about “warm” beer in England.

Block was your old-time boulevardier, hence not inclined to micro-manage details of foreign cultures anyway. Still, his reaction was typical of American travel reportage up to WW II. The beer was duly noted and often highly approved, but temperature and other serving details were not deemed worthy to report to wide-eyed readers back home.

Of Isabel though, he had more to tell.

Note re image: The image above, of Rudolph Block, was sourced from his entry in Wikipedia. Believed in public domain. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

A G.I. Gins up English Beer

One could probably write a long essay on the confrontation of American soldiers with British beer in World War II, even a book. An outline:

  1. British Beer in 1939: Styles, Temperature, Carbonation
  2. Effect of War Measures on Beer, pub Hours, pub Habits.
  3. Beer Types and Characteristics in U.S. and Canada on eve of WW II
  4. Pre-1930s ale and Porter in North America
  5. Beer Drinking 1933-1939 Among North Americans 18-35
  6. Policies of American and Canadian Forces on Drinking
  7. Availability of Alcohol on Allied Bases, Home Front and Britain
  8. Officer’s Messes and Clubs Viz. Other Ranks
  9. The Dislike of British “Warm Beer” – Myth or Reality?
  10. Reception of Americans and Canadians in Wartime Pubs
  11. “Americanising” British Beer for Allied Soldiers
  12. Influence of Americanised Beer in Post-war U.K.

I’ll deal here, and only briefly, with no. 9 above. I have read enough, in secondary literature and digitized newspaper archives, to conclude that Allies’ dislike of “warm British beer” was not a myth. True, World War II journalism was organized around certain memes to present issues to the home readership in a lively yet disciplined way. Warm beer might have been one, to show there was a friendly disagreement between Allies on this domestic and benign question, with the reality being quite other. But I think it is fair to say, in general, cask-conditioned beer at any rate bemused our soldiers stationed in Britain.

The full picture differed, that is. In my previous post I mentioned a British publican, relocated to central New York in the mid-1950s, who recalled Yankee customers as quite happy with beer at the wartime Queen’s Head (likely in Piccadilly – it is still there). Indeed I have found numerous non-committal and even favourable references to wartime U.K. beer by North Americans. An instance appears from a book, Junius and Katherine: More Letters From WW II: From Field to Battlefront, published in 2013. It is the second volume of a two-part series.

Junius Harris was a Southerner, Florida-born and raised, in an artillery regiment. After completing high school he married and then entered military service. He had a clerical role that involved following the forces closely in the field. After training in the U.S. and then England he served in Belgium and Germany with his regiment. He survived the war and lived until 81. A descendant published the volumes for their historical interest.

Even though beer was not, at the time, a typical Southern drink (whiskey more so), Harris regularly commented on the beer, and food, he encountered in his service. His comments for Britain are of particular interest, including the effects of rationing on the British people. One scene that struck him was the sight of children lining for hours for the hope of a small handful of “soggy” chips from a fish and chips shop (there was no fish, just the potatoes). They often had to leave without getting any. He constantly noted the sacrifices of the populace, stating that many things considered necessary at home for daily living were rationed or simply unavailable.

Before I get to the beer, one thing that struck me paging through the book is how completely American he was, to the point of regarding Britain as a foreign place, akin he states at one point (in architecture, say) to Holland. An image of Harris with his young wife Stateside appears on the cover. Both by his visage and full name he appears of British extract, perhaps Scots-Irish distantly, but in any case of Anglo-Saxon lineage. Yet there is not a word in the book, unless I missed it, of feeling any connection to Britain culturally. It is possible he addressed that in the first volume, which I did not scan.

British beer clearly resonated with him, though. He makes this comment:

I went to the pub here on the post (that’s a beer hall) and had a few glasses of bitters last night. They were out of [mild] ale. The bitters tastes a little like [American lager] beer only it has a far better taste and is not near as bitter as the beer they sell in the states now.

It is something of a surprise that he found British bitter less hopped than American lager. Perhaps wartime U.K. exigencies on brewing explained this. More likely I think, the relative sweetness and body of the British drink dampened the bitterness. Of course it’s hard to say, at day’s end, he liked what he found.

Of Belgian beer, I saw two references. One was unappreciative, since the beer “has no alcohol in it”. Hence it was either wartime washy stuff or so-called table beer, intentionally low in alcohol and meant for family drinking at meals and such. In Germany in 1945 he states the beer was “pretty good”, “like States beer” – this makes sense – “but that we had in England was the best I have ever had anywhere”.

And so we see an instance of someone, not an epicure, not a gastronomic journalist, just a U.S. soldier on foreign service, who evidently valued British beer. It’s not surprising really as British-style beer had a long history in parts of the United States (and Canada of course) before the onset of National Prohibition in 1920. It did again from the 1980s, big time, although modified in hop type and, it must be said, serving temperature.

Note: as I’ve stated on a couple of occasions, historical documents sometimes contain denigrating racial comments. This one does as well, so a warning if you run across them. We must take the historical record as we find it, and try to learn from the ignorance previous generations were liable to and the injustices they countenanced.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

From Guv’nor to Gloversville

Servicing Gloversville and an adjacent town in Fulton County, NY the Leader-Herald of 1957 had an interesting story on an English immigrant who formerly managed a pub, the Queen’s Head in London. While its location was not specified, the Queen’s Head of 2019 in Piccadilly is almost certainly the same place. It is on Denman Street, part of the theatre district. The pub is venerable and claims roots to 1736 (see website).

Thomas Flanagan was 60 and followed his son and daughter-in-law to America after an eventful career in pub-keeping and before that, the soldiery. He was wounded in the first war, recovered and took up tenanting as an occupation. A ex-soldier’s sang froid came in handy during the Blitz and V-2 attacks. Flanagan described vividly how windows and door were regularly blown out – once even the roof – but the pub never ceasing trading.

Still, he and the QH were lucky: five pubs nearby were put out of business (“demolished”) due to German bombs and rockets. Flanagan, pictured in the account and likened by the journalist to a Fred Astaire, took it all in stride and remembered fondly the Americans he had met during the war.

His account runs against conventional wisdom in a couple of respects. He states the soldiers had no trouble accustoming to English beer, infamously served “warm” or at least less icy than American beer. Still, he noted that since the war many London pubs sold chilled beer, an influence he said of WW II G.I.s.

Also, he stated London pubs served better food than American bars. He probably had in mind the typical roadside or small town American tavern, bare bones at the time compared to the big city pub-restaurant, but it’s still an interesting comment.

The worldly Cockney had no trouble blending into life in small-town America, taking a job in a hospital cafeteria. The smooth transition wasn’t a surprise given his association with American soldiers during the war, one he evidently enjoyed.

Judging by the article, he was what I would call the pre-1960s type of English person, mild in temperament and lacking the confessional tendency that frequently (not invariably) characterizes public opinion throughout the West today. I can just picture him: collected manner, wry smile, ready with a quip. He was probably an exemplary landlord, and held the job long enough certainly. People like a change though, or finally, and the New World provided that.

Although I can’t be sure, Fulton County in the 1950s may have provided something of a complementary picture to Albion. It was settled by New England Puritans (not the Dutch or French, for example), themselves of southern English origin of course. The area likely retained its early character well into the 20th century due to its isolated location in the southern Adirondack hills.

Anyway, he was sympa with what he found. I wonder what became of Mr. Flanagan, and whether he ever returned to London, and the Queen’s Head.

Note re image: the image above is the restaurant on the upper story of the Queen’s Arms, Denman Street, London. Source: Trip Advisor’s description of the pub. (Most inviting judging by the accounts). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

McSorley’s Claims its Place in the Gilded Era

It’s April 1, 1894 and you’re reading the New York World, or I have been. And a sizeable column greets you on McSorley’s Ale House in the East Village, The Old House at Home as it was also known. The occasion? The stolid New York tavern’s 40th anniversary. Evidently word had spread about a special something there.

The founder was still living, Irish immigrant and eccentric John McSorley (he died in 1900). There is an interesting tension in the piece about the foreign character of the pub. It is described simultaneously as English and Irish, so H.M.’s English seamen think they are back in “Lunnun”, yet the walls feature “prints of Irish Parliaments, Irish scenes, Irish statesmen, and Irish orators”. Indeed McSorley proudly asserted his adherence to “Home Rule”.

Questioned on the apparent contradiction he states “the Irish sense of justice” requires recognition that “its ale houses constitute the best thing about England”. Sounds good, win-win you might say.

What it shows too though is once you establish an institution far away, it becomes a different animal. It’s no different today for our downtown English and Irish pubs, they can be one or the other, it’s all of a piece.

Already, at 40, the place is a legend. So much was still to come: the survival during 13 years of Prohibition; the visits by international celebrities (1933-1970s); Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 New Yorker encomium, which launched the pub into higher orbit; the lawsuit to admit women (c. 1970); finally its discovery by early craft beer writers. Yet in 1894 its place in U.S. bibulous history is assured, the rest was just icing.

Not a bad achievement for a modest, eccentric bar, and it did it just by being itself and not changing (too much) with the times.

The age fixation is a big part of the appeal, gilded a bit in the early years: the bartender points out the age of some of the fittings, 70 years old say, but the bar was established only 40 years earlier. It doesn’t matter, mythos has a way of building an impregnable case, and we all share in the effort, it makes it fun and life interesting.

An old-new, Irish-American, Lunnun, male-only, then mixed, pipe-smoking, then tobacco-free, Manhattan bar. It all makes sense, once you go and see it. I need to get back.

 

 

The Future of Craft Beer

Dave Infante is an American beer, food, and travel writer who combines a lively style with good research. His recent How the World’s Biggest Brewer Killed the Craft Beer Buzz argues that the accelerated take-over of craft brewers in recent years by “Big Beer”, especially giant AB InBev, has done away with craft beer’s mojo, in effect by co-opting it.

E.g. he notes a recent tag line for Goose Island IPA is, IPA is something you drink, not talk about.  Craft beer has arrived, in other words, if you drink it, ours will do as well or better than anyone else’s.

A quote from the article (but read the whole thing, well-worth it) sums up the flavour:

ABI now had a freer hand than ever to wield the weapons — innovative beers, colorful brewers, and local breweries — once used against it, to shore up its portfolio, neutralize its competitors, and, of course, sell more beer.

He notes that prior to stepping up investment in craft breweries, notably with the marquee Goose Island in Chicago in 2006, Big Beer tried to fashion its own craft brands. The public didn’t twig, presumably because “corporate” was behind it. There were exceptions, such as Coors’ Blue Moon, and Miller’s Leinenkugel, but the Michelob line extensions of 20-odd years ago were mostly a damp squib (which I well remember).

The initial phase of taking stakes in small breweries and devising (mostly) ill-performing craft-style brands was followed by buying craft breweries and maintaining them as separate units. Consumers mostly didn’t notice, or mind who was behind the beer, and the units by and large remain popular with the fan base.

He explains how craft beer started with  Fritz Maytag refashioning tiny Anchor Brewery in San Francisco in the 1960s. Then came the fillip from legalizing home-brewing in 1978. Quoting various industry spokespeople and beer journalists, after an impressive growth to some 7000 breweries, the future is uncertain:

… ABI’s most vocal critics aren’t quite sure … what would happen to America’s 7,000 craft breweries if everyone joins the post-craft world or what ABI is even driving at.

 

In other words, will Big Beer continue interest in craft beers (barrel-aged as one exemplar) and buy more crafts as existing craft units max out interest nationally? Will this further reduce/water down the idea of craft? Or will its attention turn to different, more lucrative niches, maybe cannabis-infused beverages, and leave the field to thousands of small players looking for more customers?

Also, will large-scale production change the nature of craft products, making them less distinctive than small brewers efforts? (There is some risk here, not so much from scale itself but from related processes like filtration and pasteurization).

Having witnessed the start of craft brewing from the late 1970s, some observations.

I didn’t try every craft-style beer put out by large brewers in the late 90s and early 2000s, but I tried a lot of them. In my view, most were quite bland and did not attempt to enter squarely craft territory. I think the breweries wanted that result, they were not really committed then to great beer as defined in craft terms. Blue Moon was a partial exception, partly because it was so different from anything before (nationally). I attribute Leinenkugel’s success, also noted by Infante, to heavy advertising and a distinctive name.

It took many years for a full-flavoured, frankly craft-tasting ale or lager of real visibility to issue from Big Beer. Budweiser American Ale (2008-2011) was one but by then it was too late (in my view) given the large number of Cascade-flavoured ales in the market. Had that beer come out c.1995 its fortunes might have been quite different – a la Blue Moon…

In a word, Big Beer never really came to the plate with great craft beer; for too long it didn’t want to know. When it decided finally to enter the stakes it went the route of buying up crafts since its own releases years earlier mostly hadn’t worked. There was no point to repeat a risky path. But it could have been different had Big Beer joined the party earlier. It could have played off the fact that distinctive brewing was in its own history, nay its own archives, but few in management saw the potential.

Second observation: craft’s mojo derived in good part from the allure of imports. Many imports – Molson’s beers, Mexican beers – were fairly standard in nature. But since the 1970s there were also characterful or idiosyncratic imports on the shelves, e.g. from Merchant du Vin, many made by large or medium-sized brewers at home. Guinness is the best example, also (all-malt) Dutch Heineken, and Grolsch, big German names like Beck’s, St. Pauli Girl, or Spaten, and British beers like Bass, Samuel Smith, and Watney. Not to mention influential Belgian Trappist beers and other offbeat European styles that became craft standbys (saison). This older tradition of interesting beer made by establishment  companies had lots of fans here including among emerging craft brewers.

Founders of crafts had gone to Britain, Belgium, and Germany and were wowed by such beers there. They could have had a similar influence on the domestic lines of large North American brewers but it didn’t happen that way. Indeed when those big brewers took licenses to make, say, Danish Tuborg, or Carlsberg in Canada, the products tasted different than at home.

Small breweries were prized originally because they offered an alternative to mass-market 1970s beer. It really was all about the beer, or “liquid” in the industry cant reported by Infante. It took years for the small aka craft mantra to become established – the “cultural” angle mentioned by Infante – and it was never an end in itself. The interest of Big Beer in craft really fulfills the wish of early campaigners to get better beer from them. Well, now they’re doing it.

There will always be a market for innovative, great, local beer from small shops. Craft isn’t being sapped from brewing but the field is broader now, a marker of success of the good beer revival. When big shops use small brewery names and imagery to sell the stuff that’s a legitimate beef but at day’s end, it’s business. Business thrives on advertising. Advertising has always meant a certain amount of exaggeration, it’s the nature of it. The old Creemore Brewery (pre-Molson-Coors) used to say, “100 years behind the times”; that was exaggeration too, so it can work both ways.

The way forward is to focus on the “liquid”, the taste, the styles – get it right, get it better. Be nimble. Small players will always have a place, ultimately maybe 10,000 can if they master that matrix. In this sense craft will never die and certainly in the 40 years I’ve observed it, it’s never been in a more healthy state.

 

 

McSorley’s in the Letter Columns – 1916

Made in the Shade

I stated in my previous post on McSorley’s, the venerable bar on East Seventh Street, Manhattan, that I’ll canvass a few journalistic mentions not likely to have been covered by others.

I started with 1922 in the early flush (?) of National Prohibition. Now to May 1916, America isn’t in the war yet although it is having some effect on national habits including the alcohol business, with more to come. Still, the beer houses are open and one beerman, every bit the equal of today’s beer obsessives and maybe then some, wrote to The Sun to lyricize McSorley’s as the ideal “quaint” ale tavern.

The immediate reason for the letter was his desire to clarify that another New York bar also called The Old House at Home – McSorley’s full original name – should not be confused with McSorley’s. In fact, as we will detail anon, the term was used by many establishments in the 19th century. A play of that name, and poem earlier, can also be documented. The term wasn’t proprietary and was akin more or less to “bar and grill” with a homey, folksy bent. “Dew Drop Inn” is perhaps a better example.

The other “Old House” had an interesting history of its own, a big flashy Bowery hall that combined a saloon with a boxing ring – typical 1800s entertainments all bound in one.

Once he made his main point, the writer stated of McSorley’s, “I don’t know of a more interesting town tavern”. He even invested it with intellectual trappings, tempting readers with his occasional conclave there that included a reporter, physician, and civil service examiner. He said their combined knowledge was to be found nowhere else in the world, and maybe he was right.

There is no mention of the cream stock ale that after all was the sine qua non of the place, or cozy “grate fire” so beloved of gas lamp New York. McSorley’s had reached another level.

Below is an extract of the letter, but read the whole thing to get the full flavour.

This guy wanted to lead tours of “old New York” to show people the surviving ale haunts! Too bad websites didn’t exit then, he’d have been laughin’. He sent a letter to McSorely’s from another city addressed, “McSorley’s, New York”, and it got there in a jiffy! Talk about nerdy, but then readers of this blog know all about that.

Already barely past the century’s turn people are reminiscing about New York’s irretrievable golden past. It’s always like that, once people reach a certain age, an aura envelops the past no present can rival, much less what’s in prospect.

But mythos had already enveloped McSorley’s in 1894, 22 years earlier. That’s next.

 

 

The Origins of Porter and Stock Beers

Maybe things aren’t as complicated as it seems? What is the origin of aging beer and ale? (I’ll leave lager out of it, but its shadow may reach far).

Most look at it from the point of view of palate. Aging confers a certain taste people like. Hence the development of porter, from inception a matured beer, to impart special flavours from aging. Finally it extends to charred malts, amount of hops,  wild yeast (“horse blanket”). Later such beer was mixed with newly produced porter. Today porter can be new or old, but the romantic image endures of groaning wood vats in smoky Georgian and Imperial London.

It is doubtful though that calculations of taste, especially the much bandied but largely mythic “public taste”, had much to do with it. Historians of porter, especially with economics training, look at things more analytically. Some years ago in the journal Brewery History Alan Pryor had a long series on porter. It is very valuable and really should be packaged in a book.

One of the themes he developed was how barley hence malt prices encouraged the storage of beer. When barley was cheap brewers bought large amounts of malt and stored the beer away until it could be sold. This was impacted as well by the malt tax. He explained his framework:

The most comprehensive work on the early brewing trade is undoubtedly The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, published in 1959. The author, Peter Mathias, had a clear aim, to provide a largely economic account of the brewing trade in that period, the first such study of its kind. Although the title indicates a nation-wide remit, it is predominantly concerned with the London brewers’ development of porter. Mathias deals exhaustively with problems of production and supply, but those of demand are not investigated. It is the intention in this study to build on Mathias’s work by using digitised eighteenth-century literature that has become available, including newspapers and magazines, to investigate the factors which affected the market for beer.

(From pp. 55 et seq. of Alan Pryor’s The Industrialisation of the London Brewing Trade – Part I).

After an impressive analysis he concluded:

London brewers were finding it increasingly difficult to evade the duty on beer or could no longer contemplate the social disgrace of a conviction for fraud. These brewers had found that the best method of containing costs within a fixed price regime was to brew large quantities of beer when the price of malt was cheap. This entailed the use of additional hops to preserve the beer in butts until it had matured and for when it was needed. They also found that the storage of beer for such a long period meant that they could use the cheapest of the brown malts, which had been dried by a wood fire in the kiln. This had the adverse effect of giving the beer a peculiar taste which was ameliorated by its long term storage. As described by Ellis, ‘its ill taste is lost in nine or twelve months, by the age of the beer, and the great quantity of hops that were used…’.

Earlier in the study he states when malt prices were high brewers brewed large quantities of pale ale, not intended for keeping. In other words, present use beer as termed in the 19th century.

And now in a mundane business feature of an 1874 New York newspaper, I see validation of that view. The February 25, 1874 issue of the New-York Daily Tribune contained price quotations for numerous agricultural commodities. Hop prices were included for an impressive range (1874) of national and international hops. I think the pricing code meant for so many bales (the first number), hops were x cents per lb. (second number). So e.g., 40 bales of Californian hops @ $0.45 /lb.

New York (“State”) and new Californian hops fetched the highest prices, even over English and German hops. A pause for thought there, but bitterness yield – ‘alpha’ potential in modern brewery parlance – probably had a lot to do with it. Perhaps too after the long unrefrigerated shipment and handling the European hops didn’t much resemble what stayed at home.

Here is the part of real interest, in a passing reference to current barley prices:

It is thought that the high price of barley will prevent brewers from manufacturing stock ale largely, and for some time to come sales will be mainly to supply wants for early use.

The statement is particularly noteworthy because there was still a good month left in the season to brew stock ale. In the 1870s American stock beers (top-fermented) were brewed from October to March, as in Britain whence the tradition came. See this article of March 14 in the same year, in the same newspaper, for confirmation.

So we see what is really happening. Stock ale was made when barley prices were low, because brewers had stock later to sell at a higher profit than new beer made from more costly malt. True, it cost money to lay away beer, hence the development of large kettles and Bunyanesque storage vats – economies of scale – to minimise the extra cost. Hence the use of cheap brown malt as Pryor noted. More hops too, yes, but clearly it paid in the final analysis. Ergo porter and fine old vatted ale.

In time the flavours imparted by such necessities of business became epicurean delectation. Necessity is the mother, not just of invention, but gastronomy. Of course tastes do result from custom and long habit. It’s not exactly a one-way street, but it’s always good to remember what really drives things. Maybe Pryor will study next how porter tapped out so to speak later in the 19th century. The malt pricing structure had something to do with it, I’d guess.

With apologies to A.E. Housman: price does more than palate can to explain the ways of malt to man.*

Note re image: above image was sourced from Christopher Klein’s (excellent, recommended) article on the London Beer Flood at the history.com website, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*We speak of the general market here. Niche markets always existed and always will, with different drivers, not all economic in nature. The presence in particular of sociological factors – markers of social status and such – plays a larger and often decisive role here.