An Early (1898) Beer Dinner


A Pre-Prohibition Beer Dinner – Milwaukee Innovates

John Willy was born English in 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. It was called finally The Hotel Monthly. A key stage in his career was writing a book on the hotel facilities available in Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair).

It is refreshing to read Hotel Monthly. Willy wrote in a clear style but often with vernacular English. His readers were hotel owners, restaurateurs, saloon-keepers. Not the upper crust.

Willy’s breezy yet informative style was perfect for a 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 fine outing and dinner:


The account describes a trip organized by the Chicago Hotel Association for its members. They travelled to Milwaukee to be received by professional counterparts there.

Unlike the more learned and cautious authors who wrote for the brewers’ and distillers’ trade press Willy didn’t hold back from what happened. He didn’t pretend 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 gave details 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 SS Indiana, pictured above. 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 in “Dutch” costume, meaning large red handkerchiefs and small hats. The hosts spoke Dutch, perhaps meaning German, here.

Their new friends took them to mens’ stores to be outfitted in similar garb. Guests’ hats were “punched” to show they were members of a hosted group. Thus festooned they sallied through town and vale travelling in a “tally-ho”, or 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.

They must have stopped 10 times before dinner. Modern-day pub crawlers have nothing on them. The drinks described up to dinner point vary: whiskey, Champagne, or sparkling burgundy, a pre-Prohibition favourite of America. But finally the group pose the obvious question: where’s the beer, we’re in Milwaukee!

A local replied that 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. Or maybe the local was pulling their leg.

Nonetheless, when received at dinner at the expansive Pabst property in White Fish Bay, beer galore finally appeared. It was a Pabst brewery event, 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 for each course was served, as de rigeur today for beer dinners.

PBR was served with the wieners and sauerkraut. The brand still exists of course, quite famously. (Whether it tastes as in 1898 is an open question). The higher-grade “Bohemian” was reserved for the sauerbraten and potato pancakes. A presumably rich and 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 writers and breweries started to promote it. Still, there aren’t many menus before the craft beer era that pair beer with different courses as this menu from 1898. It may be the first ever to do so, and certainly is the first of which I’m aware.


John Willy took evident pleasure describing the revellers’ fun. Drinking was part of it, but not all. A running race, speechifying, and excellent eating were a big part. Not to mention good fellowship.

Having had a thoroughly good time in what was an object lesson for Temperance scorn, the Chicago hoteliers returned to their craft 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, delivered by their never-failing Wisconsin hosts!

Supremely satisfied, the hotel chieftans alighted at 10:00 p.m. and walked a straight line down the gangplank. Despite the best efforts of the Milwaukee crowd the Chicagoans resisted getting paralyzed, as he put it.

In the end Willy wanted to portray his readers and clients as responsible businessmen, 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.


2 thoughts on “An Early (1898) Beer Dinner

    • Thanks Jan. He authored many books on the industry too, and his 1893 Chicago hotel guide on the world’s exposition is very interesting, much of this is on HathiTrust.

      There are countless menus in the Hotel Monthly, some representing specific occasions as in this case. They are useful also as they often pair wines and other beverages with the meals.


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