A Pre-Prohibition Beer Dinner – Milwaukee Innovates
John Willy was English-born: Ilminster, Somerset. Online data suggests he came to America in the late 1800s at the young age of 20, without family or friends. Due to innate abilities he became a respected editor and author, and prospered. He specialized in covering the hotel sector.
His contributions to modern hoteling and the hospitality industry earned him an honorary doctorate from Michigan State University in 1937 – no mean achievement considering the few prospects he had when starting his career journey.
He began by reporting for a hotel trade magazine and later set up his own publication, called finally The Hotel Monthly. A key stage in his career was writing a book on the hotel facilities available in Chicago for attendees of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair).
It is refreshing to read issues of Hotel Monthly. Willy wrote in a clear style but often using vernacular English. His readers were hotel owners, restaurateurs, saloon-keepers. Not the upper crust, generally.
Willy’s breezy yet informative style was perfect for a trade magazine dealing with practical topics: hotel and bar supplies, sample menus, drink formulas, room layouts and furnishings, hotel staffing and meal service: all the minutiae that go to make a successful hotel and bar-restaurant.
Occasionally Willy lapsed into argot from his English youth, as when he referred to the ample “corporation” of a hotelier who organized a clambake in Chicago. It means an ample stomach, or girth.
Here is his account of a great outing and dinner:
The account described a trip organized by the Chicago Hotel Association for its members. They travelled to Milwaukee, to be received by their professional counterparts there.
Unlike the more learned and cautious types who wrote for the brewers’ and distillers’ trade press, Willy didn’t hold back from what happened. He didn’t pretend that alcohol was just incidental to the day’s events, in particular.
In a story of some 1500 words I’d guess the word whiskey appears 10 times, let’s put it that way. Willy reproduces the menus of two meals enjoyed by the party that day: a breakfast that was really more a lunch or brunch, and a sumptuous, German-themed dinner at White Fish Bay, Wisconsin.
Their boat was the SS Indiana, pictured. It brought the party from Chicago overnight and they arrived at destination at 7:30 a.m. Descending from the boat, the “four and twenty” were greeted by colleagues outfitted in “Dutch” costume, meaning large red handkerchiefs and small hats. Their hosts spoke Dutch, probably meaning here German.
Their new friends took them to mens’ stores to be outfitted in similar garb. The guests’ hats were “punched” to show they were members of a group being hosted. Thus festooned, off they went through city and vale. They travelled in a “tally-ho”, a carriage drawn in this case by six horses. Numerous amusing incidents are recounted, all revolving around alcoholic refreshment taken in a succession of hotel barrooms.
I think they stopped 10 times before dinner. Modern-day pub crawlers have nothing on them.
The drinks described up to the dinner point vary: whiskey, Champagne, and sparkling burgundy, a pre-Prohibition favourite in America. But the group posed finally the obvious question: where’s the beer, we’re in Milwaukee?!
A local replied: you won’t find much beer around Milwaukee. That was an odd thing to hear, for them and us today. Perhaps Milwaukeeans sold most of their famous beer for export, and took to other drinks. Or maybe the local was pulling their leg.
Nonetheless, when received for dinner at the expansive Pabst property at White Fish Bay, beer galore finally appeared. It was Pabst brewery-hosted, after all.
Not only that, three types were served: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bohemian, and Doppelbrau. The dinner menu mentions beers at different stages of the meal service. In other words, a particular brand suitable to accompany each course was served, as beer and food writers tell us today is de rigeur.
PBR was served with wieners and sauerkraut. The brand still exists of course. Whether it tastes as in 1898 is an open question.
The higher-grade “Bohemian” was reserved for the sauerbraten and potato pancakes. The presumedly rich, strong Doppelbrau was saved for last, served with Swiss cheese and German bread.
“Beer cuisine” is not new. It existed long before the 1980s when beer and food writers started to discuss it in books and articles. Still, there aren’t many menus before the craft beer era that pair beer with different courses as this menu has from 1898.
John Willy took evident pleasure in describing the revellers’ fun. Drinking was part of it, but not all. A 100-yard running race, speechifying, and some excellent eating contributed to the festivities. Not to mention good fellowship.
Having had a thoroughly good time in what was an object lesson for Temperance scorn and horror, the Chicago hoteliers returned to their boat on a “trolley”, probably a light train, and sailed home. If there wasn’t enough to drink in Milwaukee that day, Willy tells us they had a case of whisky on board! It was delivered by their never-failing Wisconsin hosts.
Supremely satisfied, the hotel chieftans alighted their craft at 10:00 p.m. and walked a straight line, said Willy, down the gangplank. Despite the best efforts of the Milwaukee crowd, the Chicagoans resisted getting “paralyzed”, as he put it.
I think in the end Willy wanted to portray his readers and clients as responsible businessmen, men who could hold their liquor. After all too they were his clients, his readers.
Anyway, he struck the right note. Even today we can say that.
Note re image: the first image above was drawn from the Chuckman historical postcards website. The second is from John Willy’s article linked above, via HathiTrust. The third is from the Wikipedia entry on SS Indiana, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.