Coming out of a steamship office here, several years ago, I felt thirsty and asked a bobby where I could get a glass of good ale. He recommended a little “pub” a few blocks away, and there I went. And there I met Isabel. She was behind the bar and she gave me a pewter tankard of ale. I sat down on a cushioned seat and chatted with her while I drank.
Ever since then, when I come to London, the first thing I jot down on my daily list is to drop into the “pub” at 11 a.m. (that’s when it opens) and have my tankard and a chat with Isabel…
The extract above is from a charming little squib in the Times-Union of Albany, NY in 1932. It was written by Bruno Lessing, the pen name of Rudolph Edgar Block. It has the air and style of the Lieblings, Menckens, Bemelmans’, that whole group of prewar writers who affected an air of sophistication and “European” light-heartedness. He was born in New York City in 1870, of Jewish background. He died in 1940 in a sanatorium in Arizona. A death notice in an Arizona newspaper described him as a respected New York Sun and long-time Hearst journalist and writer, and noted:
Writing his column took him many times around the world, roaming into strange and out-of-the-way places. He delighted in describing the scenery, life, folklore and gastronomic bits he found in his wanderings.
The piece above – read the whole thing for the full flavour – appeared in his column known generally as Vagabondia but called here, A Vagabond Abroad.
Block’s is only one of many inter-war reports on English inns, public houses, and hotels by American journalists eager to chronicle the drinking life in countries not distinguished by a Volstead Act. Indeed the visits start in the post-Civil War and seem to quicken in intensity and coverage with the growth of the Temperance movement.
Many such accounts note the tankard of ale, or musty ale in pewter, as an emblem of the English drinking place but almost none mention its temperature. Most were simply unconcerned with the ale’s degree of coolness, tepidity, fizz, or what have you. For them, the house and atmosphere were everything. To borrow a line from an early Beatles song, the general reaction can be described as “I’m so happy just to dance with you”.
Now, Block would have known ale in New York, in the old Manhattan and Brooklyn ale houses, many of which I’ve described in these pages. And the beer there, especially from a wood keg on the counter, would equally have been of varying temperature. The reports on record don’t linger on those details either. It just wasn’t a concern, I think because an arctic temperature was not expected of such beer, in contrast of course to the Germanic lager beer.
The American ale houses were regarded as extensions of the British originals anyway, so drawing cellar-cool but non-refrigerated ale was business as usual. If on occasion it came tepid, well that came with the territory.
As we will see, the obsession with warm beer abroad seems to start in military circles. There are one or two indications (I’ll report soon) that civilian culture was starting to notice the same thing before 1939, but it’s nothing akin to the post-1945 press stories that regularly grouse about “warm” beer in England.
Block was your old-time boulevardier, hence not inclined to micro-manage details of foreign cultures anyway. Still, his reaction was typical of American travel reportage up to WW II. The beer was duly noted and often highly approved, but temperature and other serving details were not deemed worthy to report to wide-eyed readers back home.
Of Isabel though, he had more to tell.
Note re image: The image above, of Rudolph Block, was sourced from his entry in Wikipedia. Believed in public domain. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.