An Early Beer Dinner


Pre-Pro Beer Cuisine – Innovation in Milwaukee

John Willy. Do you know the name? I didn’t, before today. But he should be remembered. Willy was born English, in Ilminster, Somerset. Information indicates he came to America in the latter 1800s at the young age of 20, without family, without friends. By dint of innate ability and drive he became a respected editor and author, and prospered. He specialized in covering the hotel sector. His contributions to modern hoteling and hospitality industry are such that a honorary doctorate was granted him by Michigan State University in 1937.

He started out reporting for a trade magazine on the hotel business and later set up his own publication, called finally The Hotel Monthly. A key stage in his career was writing a book on hotel facilities in Chicago for attendees of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair). I came across this book earlier when discussing brewers and distillers at the fair.

Having been used to reading brewers’ and distillers’ trade publications from 1870-1920, I can say they were generally authored by people of advanced education. You can just tell by the tone and subject matter.

It was therefore refreshing to read issues of Hotel Monthly. Willy wrote in a clear but often vernacular English. His readers were hotel owners, restaurateurs, saloon-keepers. Not the bon ton, generally. Perhaps most brewers weren’t either but the science which became increasingly important in the business meant the trade press assumed a serious tone. Also, the need not to offend the growing temperance movement made the liquor press very cautious about bruiting their product without reserve. Willy was in a different position: bars and liquor were part of hotels, and important, but never the whole story for his bailiwick.

Willy’s breezy yet informative style was perfect for a trade magazine dealing with eminently 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 making 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. Most of his readers had to be bemused: it meant stomach.


In 1898, Willy wrote up a trip the Chicago Hotel Association organized to Milwaukee where its members were received by their local counterparts. It’s a riotous evocation of one section of Gilded Age America.

Unlike the learned scribes who wrote in the trade press for brewers and distillers, Willy didn’t hold back from what happened, didn’t pretend that alcohol was only incidental to the day’s event. His account reminds me of certain unguarded news stories of the day, I wrote about one here not long ago concerning a burgoo party in Missouri.

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 the day-trippers enjoyed: a breakfast, but really more a lunch or brunch, and a sumptuous, German-themed dinner at White Fish Bay. There is detail of good social-historical interest in all this.

Their boat, the SS Indiana (pictured), brought the party from Chicago overnight and arrived at destination at 7:30 a.m. Descending from the boat, the “four and twenty” were greeted by colleagues outfitted in “Dutch” costume – large red handkerchiefs, small hats – who spoke Dutch (German?). Their new friends took them to mens’ stores to be outfitted in similar garb.

Their hats were “punched” to show they were members of a group being entertained. 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 dinner point vary: e.g., whiskey, Champagne, sparkling burgundy, a pre-Prohibition favourite in America. But the group itself posed finally the obvious question: where’s the beer, we’re in Milwaukee?!

An local replied that you won’t find much beer around Milwaukee. An odd thing to hear, for them and us, to say the least. Perhaps the Milwaukeeans sold most of the beer that made the town famous (after all) for export, and favoured other drinks. Familiarity can breed, well you know. Or maybe the local was pulling their leg.

Nonetheless when received for dinner at the expansive Pabst hotel property at White Fish Bay, beer galore finally appeared. Not only that, three types were served from the renowned Pabst Brewery: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bohemian, and Doppelbrau. In fact, the dinner menu mentions the beers at different stages of the meal service. In other words, a particular Pabst brand was felt suitable to accompany a specific dish. PBR was served with wieners and sauerkraut.

The higher-grade Bohemian was reserved for sauerbraten and potato pancakes. The Doppelbrau was saved for the end, and served with Swiss cheese and German bread.

Did the famed beer scribe Michael Jackson (1942-2007) introduce “beer cuisine”? No he did not, it was being done long before him.

1280px-ss_indiana_1873John Willy took evident pleasure in describing the enjoyment the revellers had, the fun. Drinking was part, but not all of it. A 100-yard running race, speechifying, and some good eating formed part of the festivities. Not to mention good fellowship. Oh, the Windy City won the running race, to the exasperation of their more sober hosts.

Having had a thoroughly good time in what was an object lesson for Temperance scorn and hatred, the party returned to their steamer on a “trolley”, a light train perhaps, and sailed back to Chicago. If there wasn’t enough to drink in Milwaukee that day, Willy tells us they had a “case of whisky” on board delivered courtesy their never-failing Wisconsin hosts. Indeed, Willy reports it was well-used, the case.

The gambol ended and supremely satisfied, the hotel chieftans alighted the boat craft 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”, a conclusion Willy delivers with some satisfaction, clearly. I think he wanted to portray those who after all were his readers and clients as responsible business men in the end, men who could hold their liquor. Anyway, he struck the right note.

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 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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