Beer Just Ahead of the Craft Wave

A good snapshot of the immediate pre-craft scene appears from the cheerful, generous menu of Leona’s, an Italian-American restaurant in Chicago started in 1950. Leona’s was classic “family-style”, a genre that is evergreen although the phrase is now falling out as a description/category.

Leona’s name endures in the city, as a chain of pizza delivery houses. The full-menu, sit-down restaurant on North Sheffield Street that was the hub no longer exists though. Some years ago, the pizza outposts were sold with the name. A descendant retained the original restaurant and menu, renaming it Lina’s, but it closed after a couple of years.

The menu dates from 1987. Some may wonder how that can be pre-craft when the first modern craft brewery, Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion, started in 1976-1977 (dates vary depending on the account. In The New World Guide to Beer, 1988, Michael Jackson gave the date as 1976).

Certainly by 1987, there were approximately 80 craft breweries in America, of which about a third were brewpubs. An article in 2014 by Stan Hieronymus in All About Beer magazine gives the exact numbers. Goose Island Brewery in Chicago didn’t open until 1988; Leona’s menu shown is from the year before.

The 80-some microbreweries spread through the country in 1987 had made no dent on the national beer consciousness. They were too small and far-flung, craft beer was the passion only of a very few.

Except for a tiny number of people including at bars such as Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., great beer meant top domestics produced by large breweries or old regionals and, often, a sprinkling of imports.

Leona’s menu reflects therefore the perspective of 10 years earlier. Even the best beer lists of the day were almost always similar. A handful of bars might, in New York, say, offer New Amsterdam Amber beer, but there was no brand comparable in Chicago in ’87. Good beer in Chicago meant the mid-west regional favourite Old Style, offered on the menu, or e.g., Stroh, with some under the radar picks.

Yet glimmers of the future existed. Quality brands were carried from the old-regional Huber in Wisconsin (now Minhas Craft Brewery, owned by a Canadian family). This is the second-oldest American brewery still in operation.

Erlanger, originally from Schlitz, later a Stroh brand, was made at Dubuque Star in ’87, an all-malt, Euro-type pils beer.

Andeker, not shown, was another high-malt, European-style lager, introduced by Pabst in the late 1930s.

With Michelob and others, these were “super-premiums”, progenitors of the all-malt craft lagers that soon became a niche, especially Sam Adams Boston Lager.

The menu looks ahead as well with its early taste notes, perhaps rather basic (the Anchor Porter one focuses on colour and fizz, nothing else) but still of interest. It is doubtful Michael Jackson had been engaged to write them – he took such work occasionally – but perhaps the wholesaler supplied a few notes, or a bartender at Leona’s.

The rather qualified reference to Anchor Liberty Ale, that it is excellent “as American ales go”, seems to depreciate the new American hop taste, or maybe it was just a turn of phrase. The fact that Anchor Brewing was covered at all, a proto-craft brewery, is another signal of the future.

Yet another harbinger: the menu’s beer offerings are all-American – no imports. This presages the localism trend that grew with vigour from the 1980s. I’d guess the classic imports were still available if requested, perhaps Heineken, Bass Pale Ale, Guinness Stout, but no import actually appears on the menu.

What about Lowenbrau? Since the mid-70s it had been brewed under licence by Miller Brewing. To include the brand in a list headed American Brews was a bit of a dig, as was the tart comment under Miller High Life, inviting the drinker to decide if it was the Champagne of Beers.

Countless restaurants offered similar beer lists well into the 1990s. It took time for the idea of craft brewing to impress on the national mind and enter normal distribution channels and mainstream restaurants and bars.

What were the super-premiums like? At their best, excellent, e.g., Andeker. Rather improbably, you can taste it again: a recreation is offered at the new Pabst brewpub in Milwaukee. The grist and hop bill are not identical to the 1970s version but reviews are positive.

See here a former Pabst brewmaster discussing the aging and grain bill for Andeker. Ed Reisch explains that the grist was originally all-malt but had been changed to 20% corn “to make the beer more stable”, meaning probably to maintain its brilliance under all packaging and storage conditions. This fact though separated beers like these from Sam Adams lager when they became available.

Erlanger was on the dry side as I recall. Augie, from Huber in Wisconsin, was rich and clean. I never had Dubuque’s Rhomberg, but the (surely) faux-European name was promising.*

As much as iconic Anchor Brewing, the super-premium class was a predecessor of the modern craft era. Canada had a few including Brador from Molson.

(Menu extracts are from the menu archive at www.nypl.org).

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*The producing brewery in fact, according to a number of sources including Michael Jackson’s 1986 The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, was originally called Rhomberg (and much later, Pickett’s, which some still remember), so the name would appear genuine in this sense. I’ve known the brewery as Dubuque or Dubuque Star, in Iowa of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Beer Just Ahead of the Craft Wave

  1. In interesting menu and excellent commentary. I think this menu is representative of restaurants that were paying attention to to beer drinkers of the time. I have fond memories of Andeker, Erlanger, Augsburger and Special Export. I remember Special Export as being comparable to European lagers; grainy flavor and well hopped. Special Export is still brewed, although it might be a different recipe. I’ve not seen it on the shelves where I live so I’ve not tasted it recently.

    • Thanks for this. You may remember as well Christian Moerlein from Hudepohl in Cincinnati. Not really a progenitor of craft as it started in the early 80s, but same idea.

      And Waldech, can’t recall who made that. Stroh Signature, too (not that good in my recollection). Matt’s Premium, all-malt apparently which most of these were not. But even Matt’s didn’t have a pronounced taste, probably it used a low final gravity.

      I remember liking some but in general they didn’t really add up to the best imports or crafts, hence in part opening the door to them. Even Andeker at the end used corn adjunct (not initially). The old-school was prepared to go only so far, basically…

      I’ll check into Special Export, I do recall the name.

      Gary

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