Why Did American Beer Tend to Blandness Prior to the Craft Era?

I haven’t read the book which is the subject of this interesting Atlantic article, but would like to offer some thoughts.

First, even post-Prohibition, American beers must have had plenty of taste. Look at A.L. Nugey’s table of beers circa-1936 I posted a few days ago. Those beers were hopped at .5 lb to upwards of 1 lb per (American) barrel, which is much, much more than the modern norm – I’m speaking here of the typical mass market beer, not the craft segment. It’s rather more than English bitters were achieving in the period leading up to the craft beer onset in the U.K.

Even though most of those beers used some rice and corn adjunct (or sugars), they had to be far more impactful on the palate than the typical modern light beer or standard macro offering. This is due both to the much larger hop content than today but also the probable average lower percentage of adjunct used as compared with modern mass market beers.

Sam Adams Boston Lager uses about 1 lb hops per U.S. barrel and is based on an 1800’s recipe of the founder’s ancestor: would anyone claim it is bland? Would anyone claim Pilsner Urquell, the “first” blonde lager and 4.4% abv as it was in the 1800’s, is bland? The American Budweiser in the 1800’s surely tasted much closer to both these beers than it now does… I don’t see that German immigration or lingering Volstead attitudes had much to do with the decline of beer flavour. The lowest alcohol level permitted in some states after 1933, 3.2 alcohol by weight, is about 4% by volume, fairly respectable. Foster’s lager, a large-selling brand in English pubs, is currently 4% abv. And many states post-Volstead had higher limits on beer abv or no limits.

I believe the blandification of North American beer started mainly in the post-war era and gathered pace from the 1950’s in particular. This was for a variety of reasons: cost-savings under more sophisticated business strategies (use less or less costly materials = make more money), expanding the beer market to include more women and young people, and foremost, industry consolidation. Also, the U.S.  and Canada had a corn crop, thus corn (or rice) became acceptable to use as an adjunct to barley, for which too there were technical brewing reasons at the outset, e.g., they promoted clarity.

The UK has a lower-alcohol, inexpensive lager-based beer culture.  So does France, Spain, many other countries. Well how did they get there then? No Prohibition, no huge German influx. I think the same factors explain the watery mass market taste as occurred in America after WW II. I do agree that a lot of lager was on the weaker side in the 1800’s, but this was so in Germany too at the time – the achievement of the circa-5% abv norm only occurred somewhat later both in the U.S. and Germany. This was probably connected, or in my view, to reduced multiple unit consumption vs. the later 1800’s, something which made sense both in light of greater health knowledge but also the increasing urbanization and mechanization of society. Of course this discussion is largely of a historical nature since the craft beer segment now ensures a range of very characterful beers (as the Atlantic piece noted), but still I thought it useful to indicate some thoughts in reaction to what I read.

August 5 2015 Recreation of Historic New York Beer Tasting

IMG_6947                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Image courtesy Rick Radell, Toronto)


[Below is the printed version on which my speech was based, inevitably it wandered a bit from the strict text but not the spirit.  It was a great evening].

Thanks to everyone for attending this event, very much, and to John Maxwell for believing in this project and making it happen “on the ground”. No one could do it better, due to John’s unquestioned status as one of Toronto’s premier restaurateurs. John, also, has been a long-time supporter of fine beer, and fine local wines, in Dora Keogh’s, and Allen’s next door, in our fair city.

I am a full-time business lawyer in Toronto and research beer and brewing history as a pastime. I found the 1944 beer menu recently when perusing historical menus uploaded to the New York Public Library’s online menu archive. When I saw it, I realized we had to recreate that event as a time machine to enjoy some rare gastronomic history.

As John observed to me recently, beer was always part of gastronomy and always appreciated as such. But until recently, appreciation at the level of investigation and reflection was restricted to a few privileged groups, mostly in London and New York (the same applied to wine, for that matter). In addition though, to organize any kind of epicurean event at the height of WW II took some doing.  After all, wartime involved food shortages, rationing, and other privations both imposed and voluntary. Still, the organizers found a way to mount a very respectable tasting by any definition. Indeed, the same Society had organized a similar but even more lavish beer event in 1942, also at the Waldorf. That menu has twice the number of beers of the 1944 tasting and many more foods and taste notes. After two years and some of hard slogging in the war and countless sacrifices, I think the organizers of the 1944 event felt they should be more restrained. Still, the intricacy of their menu speaks for itself and once again, the mid-40’s was very early times for this.

Many of the foods presented at the 40’s beer tastings of the Waldorf were regional American specialties. They included Virginia ham, Mohawk Valley, NY Limburger and Swiss-type cheese, NY sharp cheddar, “Nova” Salmon, Smoked Black Cod, various smoked lake fish, whole-grain breads, Saratoga and Devonsheer biscuits and crackers, and the rather modern-sounding shrimp chips. Many of these were from New York State or prepared there. While these were cold foods, it is notable that many distinctive American dishes were featured. In the 1930’s and earlier, cuisine more typically was an imitation of French or other European cooking.

What of the beers (18) chosen for the 1944 tasting? Many were from the greater NY area, in particular Brooklyn, a brewing powerhouse until the 1970’s. Most were blonde lagers, but there was also dark lager, different types of ale, and two black stouts. Even the blonde lagers could be divided between the original Germanic, all-malt type and the Americanized, lighter version which used grain adjunct or sugars. The menu in its subject headings made an attempt at a logical style division but the actual listings didn’t follow it strictly, due probably to the haste with which the event was organized, or last minute changes to the selection. Well before the mid-1900’s, lager beer had become the dominant American style, acquired via German immigration in the 1800’s, and had displaced largely the ale and porter of the English colonists.

Some beers at the tasting were sourced from Pennsylvania and Maryland, and one or two other states. Guinness Stout, almost certainly Foreign Extra Stout, was the only import.

The strong focus on domestic beers and distinctively American foods may have resulted from sentimental or practical reasons, or both. Whatever the explanation, we can infer that, from these 40’s tastings, a new appreciation of “local” was gained. The “locavore” and food and wine scenes of today have their origins distantly in events such as the 1940’s Waldorf beer tastings and the other tastings (usually with wine) held by the pathbreaking Wine and Food Society, Inc. from the 1930’s through the 60’s. It was not alone of course but played a large role in the history, in my opinion.

I’d like to close by saying, one of the first people I sent tonight’s Program to said to me, “Gary, you say in here the Wine and Food Society, Inc. of New York in 1944 was instrumental in the tasting of beer as a, quote, ‘aesthetic’.  That may well be. But I’ll tell you one thing the Society was not instrumental in”.

I said, “What’s that?”

He said, “Tasting beer as an anaesthetic”.

Have a great evening.





1930s American Beer Styles at a Glance

Brewing Formulas !! (Rotated)

A few days ago I drew attention to A.L. Nugey’s important, 1937 book Brewing Formulas, and his hand-drawn “compositive table” for some 16 beers. It is actually more since he gave alternate versions for most of the styles. The document is above for further detail.


Lager and Ale

It occurs to me that a good subject for those monthly hosting sessions – where a blogger selects a topic for longer treatment by the Faculty – would be thusly: if you could choose on every outing to have the perfect beer experience, would you? Or would you rather negotiate the twists and turns of many bar sorties, i.e., where some or all of the beer inevitably is disappointing or middling? I think I’d opt for the former. When all goes right it induces a particular well-being rather beyond the efficacies of mere alcohol. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for seeking the wilder shores of beerdom: the inevitable founderings, and dull destinations, are off-set by the El Dorados found.

FullSizeRenderDurham XXX

A pint of County Durham XXX on hand pump today at Bar Volo was as perfect as cask can be: limpid at the sight, low bubble but just enough, full-tasted with English tradition written all over it. Not a single fault (oxidation, over-age, etc.) to mar the experience. Durham, long-established as a quality ale purveyor at the city’s eastern edge, rarely disappoints, but this particular pint of XXX was surpassingly good.

Later, in the Pilot a few blocks north, the new Mountain Lager from Side Launch Brewing Company in Collingwood, ON stunned by its rich clean malt qualities and complex, just-right Noble hop underpinning. The hops had a decided peppery note, not sure which sub-set of German hop mastery was employed here but the brew was like a fully-realized art work, in a word the apotheosis of the helles tradition.  Amongst the many qualities, there was no hint of DMS, a taste traditional for some helles and other blonde lagers to be sure, but which does not enhance top quality, IMO.

Side Launch Can

And so it was a two-run homer out there in the brewing fields.  The fine Canuck rock song, Kim Mitchell’s Lager And Ale, was ringing in my mind as I departed down the aluminum stairs, my decisions this time gave the very best results.

The metallic-theme decor of the Pilot reprises the look of the original location on Yonge Street, not far away.  During the war it was a resort of RCAF and other fliers training in the area, hence the all-time-zones 40’s-style clocks which festoon the main room and other period touches.

The Pilot, Toronto Image



(Thanks to my buddy Rick Radell for his kind help to improve the first image above).


Pilsner Urquell, a Towering Beer



Urquell is on top of the city, Toronto in this case, which is not to suggest it is the best beer in the city, but it is amongst them, certainly.  The rich, bitter-sweet taste, enhanced by a bare two months from packaging (per date code on base), is pretty much unique and also gastronomically very satisfying. There is a typical barley character to it, I recognize it in some other beers, that, matched with the Saaz herbal/flowery taste, is a unique stamp, one I recognize since starting to drink the beer in the 70’s.

We have never gotten it here in better condition, in fact. In James Roberston’s “The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer”, Caroline House Publishers, 1982, he described it thusly:

“Deep yellow color, huge malty hop aroma [compared to AAL, he meant], heavy body, marvellous malt-hop flavor with an attractive sour dryness, excellent balance between hops and malt. A fine beer, worthy of its reputation”.

True then, true now.