A Yankee Views Askance The Lager Beer of New York

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The euphoniously named Junius Henri Browne was a 19th century journalist and author. He was well-enough known to be remembered in a short entry in Wikipedia. He is known mainly for a book on his experiences during the Civil War. He was a Union war correspondent who was captured and imprisoned at Salisbury, NC. He spent two years in a rebel jail before his successful, hair-raising escape.

He also wrote, in 1869, a 700-page depiction of New York where he worked in journalism. It covers virtually every aspect of its life: religious, civic, ethnic, business, the social classes, Fifth Avenue, and includes some penetrating biographical portraits.

It is written in a confident, straight-ahead way, like someone beating his way through an endless mountain thicket as Browne had on his escape from the Confederate jail. The opinions expressed are likewise forthright, not nuanced, and not without prejudice in some cases. Interestingly, in the matter of religion he wields no brickbats, and was favourably impressed by reverends of the faith he met including the Catholics and Jews.

He devotes a full chapter to the subject of lager beer culture in New York. Here, he seemed little impressed whether the establishment was a low dive, quiet bar, or the huge “beer garden” typified by the (mostly indoors) Atlantic Garden which held thousands. The Atlantic Garden was built in the Bowery, next to the storied Bowery Theatre.

Above you see the Garden in its early days, and a surviving part of its roof when the later-modified structure was demolished to build a hotel.

Browne seems to stereotype the Germans in general although he concludes (quite accurately) they were solid citizens who would blend into Americana in time and lose distinctiveness. It’s hard to tell if he was of the Temperance mentality or just didn’t like German taverns and lager beer. He makes a point of critiquing the lager of New York, and says it was the worst in the country. He says it tasted of aloes, brown soap, and long-standing Croton water. Aloes has been described as an old vegetable and onion taste… (perhaps DMS in unaged beer?).

Croton was a reference to the Croton viaduct, so he is evoking an image of fetid river water here.

This disagreeable picture seems at odds with many contemporary depictions of lager culture in New York, including not a few in New York newspapers where his colleagues scribbled. Maybe Browne was just an out of sorts type.

Below I include some pages from his chapter to give the flavour… Speaking for myself, I think a spell in the Atlantic Garden after a hard week would be fun.

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Note re images: the page images immediately above are via HathiTrust from the Browne volume linked in the text. The first two images were sourced from the New York Times, here. All copyright therein or thereto belongs solely to their owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.