The title is the caption of some drinking notes the author and critic H.L. Mencken included in one of his Prejudices books. A six-volume series from the 1920s, it presented essays on politics, literature, and society. The German means portrait of a lovely time, or era.
A selection of the essays was published in 1958 by author James Farrell. It was reprinted at least once, and the pieces are amongst Mencken’s most remembered writings.
Short as it is, the Bilder provides a capsule of memorable evenings out in pre-Prohibition America. Pabst’s “very dark” Kulmbacher is memorialized. So is musty ale in Washington, the ditto at Keen’s steakhouse in New York, different American forms of lager, Chianti in New York, a gin-and-vermouth cocktail, and much else.
The beer was often “got down”, as Mencken would put it, at sessions of the Saturday Night Club. This was a group of friends – doctors, professors, professional musicians, writers – who met to drink beer and often to play music. An image of the group c. 1914, drinking from lidded steins in Baltimore hotel, is preserved in the Maryland Digital Archives. Mencken is at the far left.
The Herr Abner referred to ran the Abner-Drury brewery in Washington. The way Mencken refers to him suggests the brewery’s pilsner rivalled Mencken’s king of beers, the true pilsner of Bohemia. Abner’s beer was probably Royal Pilsen, which appeared after Repeal for a time. Generally, Mencken was lukewarm on American lager and therefore, those he mentioned must have been particularly good. He didn’t omit Michelob, a rich all-malt beer which, as I have speculated earlier, must have tasted close to fine Czech lager.
Even in these brief notes, the Mencken humour surfaces. He mentions “twenty or thirty” Bass Ale nights, and then “five or six hundred” pilsner nights, showing where his brewing sympathies lay, but also a glimmer of his well-known anti-“Anglomania”.
It’s the same, or more so, when he mentions “two or three hot scotch” nights, as Scotch whisky came low on his totem of libations.
In this vein, beer is barely mentioned in the London chapter of his book Europe After 8:15, although Mencken gives English ale a partial compliment by likening its “acrid grip” to a fine Munich bock. George Sala used the same term, acrid, about 60 years earlier to describe London porter in a gin palace. I’d guess Mencken knew that reference and reprised it. In any case, and in this light, acrid suggests simply very bitter from English hops, not anything spoiled or sour. It is indeed not a surprise English beer had this character then – some of it still does.
I wonder what Mencken would think of the restored, and then some, American beer scene of today. He might, first, express surprise the Republic still exists, as in a 1930s article he projects that it will “blow up” (meaning simply, dissolve or end) within 100 years. As a firm supporter of all-malt beers from Bavaria and Bohemia, I think he would find many of the tastes favoured today, in his inimitable words, like “hot acids and lye”. But everyone’s bilder is relative to time, space, and taste – maybe even the curmudgeon of Baltimore would allow that.
Note re image: The image above is from the Washington, D.C. paper beer label pages at www.chosi.org, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.