Mr. Wade Comes to Robertson County

This is a follow-up to my post of some years ago on Tennessee’s Robertson County whiskey. In a reminiscence of notable U.S. political figures from the Civil War and early post-war era printed in the St. Landry Democrat of Opelousas, LA in 1887, drolleries were shed on a number of topics interwoven by the writer: deportment, dress, oratory, intellect, and (you knew it) Robertson County whiskey.

No one beats the Victorian southern Americans at this kind of writing, indeed a book could be written on that topic (you knew that was coming, too).

It’s all about Ben Ward’s immediate enrapture with Robertson County whiskey, and Schuyler Colfax retaining a keg sent his way despite being a strict temperance man. Some interesting technical points emerge, such as that the best RC whiskey was given some (post-charcoal vat) aging – this ties into what I wrote earlier – and also it was mashed using spent beer, a topic I extensively wrote about earlier as well, where the residue of distillation is used in place of water to mash and a spontaneous fermentation arises. No yeast is added to ferment the distiller’s beer, that is.

It’s all easy, down-home, wry (not rye, here) and not a little humorous. See the article, here.

A sample:

Mr. Wade had often given ear to panegyrics upon the superiority of this strain of whiskey, but had never tasted the ambrosia. The consequences of this
indulgence may be better imagined than described, especially by those familiar with Mr. Wade’s personal habits. The fiery Ohio senator succumbed to
the insidious but no less agreeable influence of “Robertson county,” but as no headache or disagreeable effects ensued on the “inglorious next morning,” he
pronounced it absolutely the best whiskey he had ever sampled.

For a handsome ad of 1876 for aged Robertson County whiskey, from Woodard & Moore in Springfield, TN, see here.

Griesedieck Beverage Co., St. Louis: 1920-1933

As I’ve discussed in recent posts Prohibition did not spell disaster for all breweries. Some adapted to new conditions and continued to prosper. Anheuser-Busch and Coors are two examples at the mega-brewery level. Trommer’s and Pittsburgh Brewing are smaller examples that kept their plants in spanking order ready to supply beer when 3.2% ABW beer was legalized from April 7, 1933.* There are other bright spots I will canvass in the future.

A story perhaps more typical is described by Alvin Griesedieck, who in 1952 authored an early history of Falstaff Brewery, The Falstaff Story. I’ve discussed Falstaff in other contexts, but not its early decades. The Prohibition years are well-described by Alvin, son of founder Joe Griesedieck, from the front lines.

The Griesedieck family had owned saloons and various breweries in the St. Louis area since patriarch Anton arrived from Westphalia in the late 1860s. The two main forms were Griesedieck Brothers Brewery, which was inoperative during Prohibition but re-started in 1933, and Griesedieck Beverage Co., established by Joe Griesedieck and helmed by son Alvin and brothers after Joe’s death in 1938. Griesedieck Brothers was a venture of cousins, absorbed by Griesedieck Beverage’s successor Falstaff Brewing in the 1950s.

Joe bought a closed brewery, Forest Park Brewery, not long before Prohibition so the first part of Alvin’s career (b. 1895) was working for a legal, Prohibition-era brewery.

He gives a detailed account of his experiences in the book, see especially from Chapter Three. It shows that the company’s near beer Hek – the name was taken from the ancient Egyptian word for cereal beverage – was potentially a profitable business for Griesedieck Beverage and initially enjoyed good sales. Alvin ascribes its decline, not necessarily to the rise of illicit home brewing although it played a role, but to other business factors.

He explains that the company struggled with old equipment in the short boom that followed WW I to meet increased demand. By the time it set up a decent sales and distribution network and could finance improvements to plant, the country entered recession and demand sank.

Hek, like Trommer’s and Pittsburgh Brewing’s product, was a fully fermented beer with the alcohol removed in a final stage of heating and vaporization. Alvin states that Bevo, Anheuser-Busch’s initially successful near beer, was an inferior product due to being made by “check fermentation”. This meant it was fermented just far enough to produce the legally permissible amount of alcohol (maximum .5%), and then filtered and stabilized for sale. Still, it sometimes re-fermented or “spoiled”, and was sent back for refund.

Another factor favouring Hek was that it “took” alcohol well. Alvin explains that some near beer did not blend well with alcohol, to make that is a makeshift beer in speakeasies and homes with illicit grain alcohol. This shows that near beer makers were well aware their beer was often “needled” to make it closer to the real stuff. Sadly, the moral inflexibility of the Prohibition scheme drew even upstanding, law-abiding citizens into conflict with the law; it couldn’t be avoided. Alvin does not discuss the ethical issues on this point: it is clear it was a matter of survival for the near beer makers, and that was that.

And so all said, Hek was well-poised to rival Bevo, perhaps even overtake it (Alvin implies) but business factors that might have been different, weren’t, and precluded this success.

What to do? Diversify, but before that, in a brilliant stroke Joe bought the Falstaff brand from Lemp Brewery, a major St. Louis brewery that closed in 1920 after failing with its near beer, Cerva. The main reason for the purchase was to own a gold-plated brand name, which Falstaff was both locally and further afield, so that on repeal of Prohibition the company could enter the legal beer stakes with high credibility and make money quickly. And that is what finally occurred.

But still the company had to survive until 1933. Apart from near beer it made a line of soda drinks. And it made, perhaps oddly to our ears, cured bacon and ham: vats and the refrigeration system at the brewery facilitated that business.

These new businesses allowed overheads to be covered and nurturing of the prize purchase, the Falstaff name. Alvin records that before Prohibition while mighty Anheuser-Busch sold 1,000,000 barrels per annum of widely distributed beer, Lemp sold 800,000 barrels mainly in St. Louis and nearby regions. In other words it had enormous good will for a St. Louis-based business, which served the Falstaff brand in good stead after 1933.

Much of the book is devoted to describing business and financial transactions, but much of it too deals with the human level. The last brewing Lemp tended to be a cold and calculating businessman, but Alvin thought he sold the Falstaff name to Joe out of personal regard, finally. The Lemps had all become wealthy in brewing and didn’t need to continue their business. Joe, relatively late in life, was starting anew with the former Forest Park brewery. Being offered the Falstaff name at a firesale price was, Alvin implied, a notable gesture by a man in Lemp’s position.

One is impressed by Alvin’s description of his father. Confronted with many obstacles through his career especially connected to financing the Griesedieck and Falstaff companies, he never gave up and maintained a positive mien. For this reason he had many friends in St. Louis, at all levels, as shown by the impressive floral arrangements sent to his funeral, by every level of society and business. Alvin’s description of his father’s qualities suggests a rather different business and social culture, for better and worse, to today’s world.

But netting it down, what did the survival of Griesedieck Beverage mean during the Volstead years, financially that is? As I’ve mentioned, overheads were covered and Alvin states this included a “small salary” for himself. So it was profitable in this sense, but barely. Alvin writes he had thought at times of abandoning the business for something more remunerative. He didn’t, largely because Joe had invested everything – all the family’s wealth – to build a business for his progeny. That loyalty proved rewarding in the end, but it was, and remains, a value unto itself.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from a 1918 Arkansas newspaper courtesy Chronicling America, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*In my recent post on N/A beer and Trommer’s I described the re-introduction date as June 7, 1933; this has since been corrected.

The Cup and the Frog

The “frog mug” is perhaps an unlikely subject for Wikipedia, but so great is that resource I have learned not to minimize it. Indeed a well-written history appears just on that subject, authored apparently by a botany expert.

The mug took different forms, as a cursory image search shows, but the classic type has the little animal crouched at the base, looking up to startle the drinker when the drink descends far enough to see him. In the old days alcoholic drinks were often cloudy – ale, cider, perry and the like – so the drinker did not suspect a jape until thrust upon him or her. The world turns – cloudy drinks are in vogue again – so perhaps the frog mug is due for a revival.

The essay noted explains the mug as a simple joke, originating in the mid-1700s in districts where pottery was produced. Clearly a macabre humour is at work here, but there has to be more to it than that to explain the origins of the practice, one that quickly spread to the New World, as numerous accounts refer to the mug from American Colonial days and into the present.

Going deeper, one explanation, offered in Cheshire Notes and Queries of 1883, states the practice derives from a northern superstition. A frog was sealed in a pot of some kind, over which an invocation was chanted to place ill wishes on an enemy. The idea was the animal would expire slowly and hence too the object of the curse would take sick and wither in parallel. The writer projects that makers of mugs then had the idea to place a frog in the mug for a sly visual joke, and states servants quarters in gentlemen’s houses often featured the item.

Yet Jane Perkins Claney, in her 2004 book-length study of Rockingham Ware in American culture, states the frog, less the toad though, was a fertility symbol in some cultures and the frog mug may be a beneficent practice to recall this early belief.

In this 1878 issue of the The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, it is explained (without reference to frog mugs as such) that a mother of vinegar was added to some cider to hasten its conversion to vinegar. A mother of vinegar is a mass of cellulose and Acetobacter, a bacterium that produces acetic acid under the influence of oxygen. The account likens the mother to the scum on a stagnant pond, known popularly, it states, as “frog spittle”.

Other accounts confirm the popular term frog spittle to describe growth on a pond, which is vegetative in origin, nothing to do with frog emanations as such.

So perhaps (Beeretseq thinking here) cloudy, yeasty beer or cider reminded drinkers of this pond matter, and from there, someone had the idea to place a “swimming” frog in the base of the pot to complete the analogy. Indeed a 1970s joke among those not enamoured of “real ale”, the unfiltered, still-fermenting beer form fancied by connoisseurs, was the “pond matter” often drifting in the beer.

Yet another explanation occurs to us: a toadstool is a mushroom, which is a fungus. Yeast, which ferments apple juice into cider and a boiled cereal mash into beer, is also a fungal organism. The idea of toadstool/mushroom transferred to placing a facsimile of a toad or frog in the beer pot, to make a punning style of joke.

These various explanations may have merged over time with the true origins being forever lost.

On Twitter recently the U.K. beer writers Boak and Bailey mused about fashionable pub names that seem derived from a non-pet animal and an item of common household use, eg. (my own devise) the “Bench and the Bee”.

I propose for the next “arch pub”, as the new-generation pubs are sometimes called, the name “Cup and Frog”. A Thameside location, or indeed along any water, would be apposite.

Note re image: the image shown is drawn from the Wikipedia account referenced above and is used pursuant to the terms of the Creative Commons License No. 4.0 here referenced.





Brewery Success During Prohibition

The fate of American breweries during National Prohibition (1920-1933) is a topic that, by my canvassing, is largely elided by general brewing histories. The distilling industries are similar.

One reads often of “x” number of breweries at the outset of Prohibition (about 1200), the number that survived until repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment (about half), and the production of non-beer products during the Volstead era. Soda pop, near beer limited to .5% abv, ice cream, ice, and malt extract were all examples, stratagems to survive local or national Prohibition.

Some near beers were well-known in their day, Anheuser-Busch’s Bevo brand is an example.* The other day I examined Trommer’s near beer in New York which enjoyed notable success.

(It is possible that some regional brewing surveys, or specific company histories, are an exception to the limited brewing historical interest in Prohibition).

To the extent Prohibition-era brewing is examined it tends to be of illicit production: bootlegging, Al Capone (of “I don’t know what street Canada is on” fame), speakeasies, and home brewing. Legal breweries are sometimes mentioned where they produced real beer contrary to Prohibition laws.

The restricted attention given the national industry is understandable, however: beer history is concerned with beer! The dark days are comparatively unimportant compared to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and restoration of legal beer from April 7, 1933.

Yet, the story of breweries’ lawful activities between 1920 and 1933 is absorbing. Indeed a book could easily be written on it. In these notes I’ll refer to two poles or facets of that experience, one economic, the other an excursion in human interest (or, as viewed from 2019, social history).

First, the economic/business side: Carlos Eduardo Hernández holds a UCLA doctorate and is a professor of management studies in Colombia. In 2016 he wrote a paper on how American breweries adapted during National Prohibition and earlier when beer was banned under local option.

The study can be seen here, “Adaptation and Survival in the Brewing Industry during Prohibition”. In part reliant on sophisticated math and econometrics, it concludes that breweries confronted with local prohibition years before National Prohibition adapted better than those for whom the latter was the first shock.

He argues the case through various metrics including an analysis of inputs used by breweries, especially equipment purchases. He concludes in part:

… [The] historical context allows me to follow breweries throughout an initial shock of heterogeneous intensity (local prohibition), followed by a common, larger, shock (federal prohibition). By studying survival throughout both shocks, I show that adaptation – the making of irreversible investments in response to the first shock – increases the ability of firms to survive the second shock, even if selection  – the exit of the least productive firms –  also occurs in response to the first shock. My novel dataset on machinery acquisition and product diversification corroborates the testable implications of the adaptation mechanism.

The key components of my mechanism – irreversible investments and multi-product firms –  are present in many industries of today. For example, firms that span multiple industries account for 81 percent of the manufacturing output and 28 percent of the number firms in the US (Bernard et al., 2010).

While many might consider the typical modern brewery a single-purpose business, one need only think of Samuel Adams’ aka Boston Brewing Company’s forays into cider and hard seltzer products to see the justice of Hernández’ analysis. Today too, the advent of kombucha, sake, N/A beer, and marijuana-flavoured beverages shows that breweries can benefit from non-beer beverages and preserve competitiveness in an evolving market.

Considering too the steady numerical decline of American breweries even before National Prohibition – from about 1800 in 1905 to c.1200 in 1920 – the trend may have continued even had National Prohibition never occurred. Local option probably played a small part in the drop before 1920, as in 1915, as I’ve discussed earlier, national beer production was at an all-time high. It subsequently fell under war-related materials restrictions and finally the laws implementing the Eighteenth Amendment.

Business efficiency surely played a leading role in the pre-1920 process, as it did for the long-term cull of breweries commencing from 1933. By 1976 there were under 100 breweries in America. Therefore, had National Prohibition never occurred it is likely in my view that not more than 600 breweries would have survived to 1933 anyway.

A further notable example of brewery success during Prohibition is Pennsylvania’s Fort Pitt Brewery, which had a 51-year run starting in 1906.

In this December 1932 article in The Pittsburgh Press, the writer profiled the brewery and its Czech immigrant brewer, Joseph Vokral. Vokral had worked for many years in the legal industry before Prohibition, in Chicago, arriving in Pittsburgh relatively late in his career in 1925.

He was taken on due to his brewing skills and ability to make a saleable near beer, its production is described in the article. It sounds much like a traditional pilsener except the alcohol was removed in the last stage, similar to Trommer’s product in New York.

The journalist found Vokral’s college education a novel element. Most brewers in those days received either on-the-job training or perhaps a stint at one of the (fairly new) brewing schools in the country.

Vokral was clearly a partisan of Czech lager brewing, preferring (understandably) his birth nation’s hops. His near beer was probably very good, it would be interesting to try it alongside the current crop.

Of course real beer came back the following year. Fort Pitt Brewery had many ups and downs after, by some accounts never fully recovering from the decease in 1935 of its main shareholder Samuel Grenet, a charismatic politician-businessman.

While many breweries foundered during Prohibition – of that there is no doubt – the twin pole analyses of economic and social history help illuminate a period often thought of as one long disaster for American breweries: it wasn’t.


*Its greatest success was the early to mid ’20s but the brand faltered finally due, it has been suggested, due to the concurrent successes of organized bootlegging and homebrewing. In contrast, Trommer’s all-malt near beer sold so well Trommer invested a large sum to expand production at the end of the ’20s – see the source cited in my post on near beer and Trommer a few days ago.



A Primer on Pouring

Tiny Bubbles 

Some trends in brewing are cyclical, some are specific to a time. Before craft beer, despite or maybe because the beer palate was so uniform, advertisements tended to focus on ancillary issues.

Before World War I clarity was pushed as desirable, following presumed – or at least claimed – consumers’ diktat. In the 1950s until the late ’70s, how to pour a beer was a key issue in beer circles. It was the subject of numerous beer ads. Every beer book in that time addressed the pressing issue.

Here, in 1959 in Clinton, NY you see the spin Utica Club placed on the topic. Walter Matt, owner of F.X. Matt Brewing, gave advice to readers in the form of the ad mentioned, part of a series of folksy, “armchair” chats the brewery had with customers. Part of the ad states:

Open a bottle of Utica Club beer. Pour one glass straight down the middle, with a thick head; the other down the side of the glass, with little or no head. Taste them both (with a soda cracker in between). I think you’ll be amazed at how much more mellow the beer with the head tastes. No bitterness. Very much like a glass of draft beer that’s been properly drawn.

Creating a beer with a thick, creamy head — the kind with the tiny bubbles that lace the side of the glass going down — this is the thing that a brewmaster takes the greatest personal pride in. Especially if it’s a natural head, like Utica Club’s, not one that’s artificially carbonated. We go to a lot of trouble and expense to get that natural head, aging the beer for months instead of for weeks.

So you can understand why it breaks my heart to see someone pouring Utica Club beer on an angle to cut down the head!

Was Walter Matt correct? I think yes, but it is intuitive for most who drink beer regularly to pour it, if not straight in as he advises, then in a way to produce a nice head. The beer is less gassy and for many will taste better. Less bitter though? I’m not sure of that, and anyway lack of bitterness is no longer an obsession of most brewers, not craft producers anyway.

In his day when beer was stored ice-cold and thinnish from cereal adjunct as well, it was easier to pour straight in without the glass overflowing or head too high. Today, richly malted beers, probably served warmer on average than back in the ’50s (ditto for draft), must be poured a little differently to keep it stable in the glass. Still, we take his overall point.

Yet many still pour a can or bottle gingerly to produce no head; they seem to like it that way. I see this regularly in the bars and taprooms of the land. That’s okay too. It’s a free world, do your own thing.

Today, everyone decides for themselves such matters. Canadian media and technology guru Marshall McLuhan wrote, not many years after the F.X. Matt ad, that there are no passengers on spaceship earth; we are all crew. Think about it.


No-alcohol Beer – the World Turns

When Life Gives you Lemons, Trommer’s of Brooklyn Makes “Lemonade”

With burgeoning interest in N/A beer (no ethanol presence), it is interesting to “go back” and see the experience of previous generations. Of course N/A beer is not new. In Prohibition days countries had some version of it, with alcohol ranging from trace amounts to 2.5% ABV. Before modern N/A beer there was “small beer” in the U.K. and U.S., some of which was very weak, and not dissimilar beers on the Continent. We can go back yet further to Mumme and the “seafaring” beer taken out of north German ports on voyages, some of which was without alcohol.

The Malta of the Caribbean, and similar products there, are an early modern form. Henninger when it had a brewery in Ontario in the 1970s made a N/A licensed from Birell in Switzerland. Henninger in the home base of Frankfurt had its own (non-Birell) version in the same period.

The fashion goes in cycles and as recently reported in the Guardian even in Germany interest seems at a high point. In the market generally large brewers such as Heineken with its 0.0, Budweiser with its Prohibition, and smaller players are in on the action. (The Guardian seems quite attached to the idea of N/A by my perusal, with a series of articles in recent years).

Partake Pale in Ontario is a craft example, a beer on my list to try. A notable development (international) is that different craft styles are employed, not just the traditional, lager-style “light” or “dark”.

A variety of reasons explains this: health primarily, the desire too to market to populations that traditionally abjure or frown on alcohol. The legalization of cannabis in Canada and elsewhere may see the success of non-alcohol, cannabis-flavoured beverages; time will tell. There are two sorts of these, those with the active cannabis agent THC, those without. And those without might contain alcohol.

In principle to me beer should be alcoholic, but more power to those who can sell, and who want to buy, a N/A. I am interested in the matter primarily historically. One of the most interesting cases is Trommer of Brooklyn, New York, which had unusual success during Prohibition. Trommer had about a 50-year run until its sale in 1951 (the Trommer brand continued for some years after under other ownership).

Contrary to the usual tale, rather than wither under Volstead and see its near-beer dying on the vine (!), Trommer flourished with exactly that. It made three “brews”: a light, dark, and “October”. Each of these, in accordance with American law, could not contain greater than 0.4% ABV. A concise news account in Long Island City’s Daily Star in December 1932 describes how the founder’s son, George Trommer, did it.

Details of his Prohibition success have been reported by other beer writers, notably Will Anderson in his 1976 history of Brooklyn breweries. The accounts I’ve seen state that George Trommer financed hot dog stands in New York exacting an obligation in return to carry his N/A beer.

The 1932 account refers rather to “lunch counters”, so I think it was more than hot dogs: sandwiches, soups, stews, chops, burgers, and the like. Feltman’s famous Coney stands were surely part it, but I think to be successful on Trommer’s scale the N/A had to accompany a broader menu. The blackboard menu shown in restaurant historian Jan Whitaker’s 2013 examination of the pre-McDonald’s lunch counter shows a variety of egg dishes, sandwiches, and short orders, for example. As well, George had expanded considerably the restaurant and beer garden at the brewery, which was responsible for many barrels of near beer sold.

This 1934 ad, by a local grill, supports the above reasoning. The grill, which also advertises Trommer beer, is clearly an example of George’s 1932 forecast that his lunch counter accounts will switch to full-strength Trommer’s after Prohibition. It is highly likely the grill was a Volstead era account of his as well.

In 1932 Trommer’s could produce 300,000 bbl of near beer a year. Trommer’s had, as mentioned, unusual success with the product, but was a notable brewery in other respects. Both before and after Prohibition it brewed all-malt, contrary to usual American practice then of adjunct brewing. Trommer’s N/A line was no different, the brews just had the alcohol removed.

As well, Trommer’s is a later implantation in German-American brewing. The great names of American lager brewing founded breweries in the mid-1800s, but Trommer’s Prussian immigrant founder, John Trommer, bought an interest in the Evergreen Brewery (est. 1894) in 1896, after years of working for other brewers.

John Trommer died in 1897 but not before buying out the residual interest of the Evergreen Brewery’s founder, named Breitkopf. The brewery then became Trommer’s Evergreen Brewery. Eldest son George, only 21 at his father’s death, expanded the business before, during, and after Prohibition. George died at 80 in 1956 in Manhattan, having retired (bachelor) to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel after the business was sold.

Trommer White Label advertised its all-malt attributes strongly in the 1930s and 40s but to no avail, ultimately: the business couldn’t survive past 1951. Competitor Piel’s bought the Brooklyn Trommer’s in that year. The Liebmanns – Rheingold of Brooklyn – took over a larger, related Trommer facility in Orange, NJ, purchased by George in 1933. These disposals followed ruinous NYC area labour strikes in 1948-1949.

But Trommer’s remains an inspiration, indeed is a progenitor of the craft revival along with Henninger in Ontario and Prinz Brau in Alaska (owned by Oetker Group, Germany), both in the 1970s.

The takeaway is, there are no iron rules in business. You can make it in different ways, even, for a brewer, selling a beer that isn’t a beer. So successful was Prohibition-era Trommer that had legalization not occurred, the brewery might still exist today. Nonetheless the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, which George saw coming, and he adapted to the new reality.

Brought back from pre-Pro times was his English-styled, now fully alcoholic Brown October Brew. And so, a classical German brewhouse in America made not just lagers, but British-style ale. I would think the beer was top-fermented, not a bottom fermented imitation of ale, as later in the 1930s Trommer’s advertised ale as such. This ad (source: Jess Kidden’s Google Beer Pages) confirms such a product:

While not mentioned in the ad, Kidden states that Kent hops, meaning imported English hops, were used in the ale. Indeed Trommer’s trumped the British by using all-malt. By the 1930s British beer usually employed 20% or more sugar or raw grains. At the same time, our research suggests the ale was a late-1930s addition to the Trommer line, so I can’t rule out that Brown October Brew was not technically an ale. Post-Repeal ads do not use the term “ale”, but possibly the terms “brew” and “beer” were retained because the N/A October Brew never used the term ale.

In 1934 in Yonkers’ Herald-Statesman, Trommer’s advertised the restored full-strength brew, as seen below. Now that’s a beer we’d buy.

Note #1, re images: the images above are drawn from the digitized news, or other, sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.
Note #2 on  sources: our account relies in part on a 1984 Trommer Brewery series in the Ridgewood Times of Ridgewood, NY, available courtesy Fulton Historical Newspapers. As an example, here is the second article. No author is identified, but we think Will Anderson may have contributed or assisted with the article as we understand he lived in New Jersey, broadly part of the New York conurbation.



Brodi’s Brought Back

Most of us can recall special moments from “way back”, music we heard, art we saw, a building, a landscape, something that resonates for years, and rue how difficult is the recapture. Marcel Proust made a career of it.

For example, in the period when I visited the Brodi’s club in Plattsburgh, NY in the early 1970s, I greatly enjoyed the house band. To my memory they were tight, accomplished, pros in every way even though doing mostly (or so it seemed) cover material.

It’s a memory I must nurture as without a time machine, how could I go back and hear it again? Fortunately and against all odds, I can, and did. Former members of the band US uploaded two tapes from exactly the period I knew, on You Tube, this is one. And it is just as I recall, listen to the great version of Chicago’s “I’m a Man”, near the end.

If I turn it up, dim the lights, in a way I am at Brodi’s again, all I need is a can of PBR. (Well – I’ll skip that part. You will forgive me, I know).

I stated earlier that the drive each way was 1.5 hrs. My friend Charles – he did the driving, so he should know – told me this morning we often did it in 1 1/4 hrs, hitting 75 mph at times.

I don’t recall ever meeting anyone at Brodi’s, ever speaking to anyone. I just watched the band and sipped a beer or two. It must have been two, Charles says I sometimes dozed on the way home.

So I don’t have any sizzling memories of the place, it was all very correct. After all too we were in a foreign land and careful not to get into arguments or other awkward situations. We needed to get home for Monday’s classes in Legal Philosophy, say. The Hart-Fuller Debate and, oh never mind.

Others surely have more exciting memories of Brodi’s. An American sportswriter, Bill Tangen, recorded his in 2005, you can read them here in his book Choices: Memoirs of a Sportswriter. It has to do with two dates he made in one night at the bar, spaced to avoid overlap, but one girl was late…

My experiences were more anodyne, yes. Still, I value them: interesting new beers; U.S. cigarettes (Venus to our Mars of Virginia blends); the band; the dancing couples; even the local accent – there is one, even such a short distance from Canada. Plattsburgh then was like being thousands of miles from home. Parts of London or Paris today resemble Toronto more than any part of Plattsburgh did then.

Good times, not least the music. And I can hear it all again. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee, thank you, ex-members of the band US for your wonderful upload, something only made possible through magic McLuhan “circuitry”.

Of course the building has another use now, the restaurant, band, and bar are gone. Charles told me he remembered the metal fencing on the landing. It is still there.

Note re image: the image above was drawn from a video on You Tube of performances by an earlier band, the Starfires, at Brodi’s, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Brodi’s Bar and Restaurant, Plattsburgh, NY

Of Big Birds and Less Big (but Interesting) Beers

I mentioned on Twitter yesterday a long-closed bar and restaurant in Plattsburgh, New York, Brodi’s. That was in fact the spelling, not the more commonly encountered Brodie or Brody.

Using digitized news and other sources, I pieced its history pretty well. First though, how did I know about the place? I grew up in Montreal, about 70 miles to the north over the international border. On weekends sometimes we drove down to hear the music and drink a beer, as Brodi’s was known for its live bands. Even the jukebox was great as it was a golden era for rock and roll, so you couldn’t miss.

At that time, traffic was much lighter than now, we did the trip in about an hour and half allowing for the border (usually just a wave-through). We might leave at 6:30 pm., spend a couple of hours in Plattsburgh, and were back before midnight. We used to eat something first, or after, so the actual time at Brodi’s may have been just an hour or ninety minutes.

From the centre of Plattsburgh you had to drive over a bridge, past Air Force barracks on South Peru Street. Brody’s was on McKinley Street and the area today is fully urbanized but at the time was quite sparse in buildings and amenities.

Brodi’s was a hangout for airmen of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command base for the “big birds”. Of course the war was on and there was a lot of activity in Plattsburgh.

I recall going to Brodi’s only with Charles, a good friend who now lives in Las Vegas. This was between 1970 and 1973. After I got married I don’t think I went there again, maybe once or twice. We still made the drive but usually during the day for shopping and to try different restaurants. The first McDonald’s I went to was in Plattsburgh and I still remember the taste, the pink mayonnaise from the Big Mac.

My early interest in beer was definitely kindled at Brodi’s. The reason simply was the different beer range one saw – brands like Genesee, Piel, Utica Club, Ballantine, Schaefer, Budweiser, Pabst. The glowing curved signs made an impression as well.

I can’t recall ever drinking a dark beer at Brodi’s, but even regular lager and ale seemed noticeably different to Canadian beers. Unlike today when mass market brands are available internationally, each region had its own brands. Eastern Canada as a whole had a different style of beer than lager or even ale in the U.S. In fact, Michael Weiner, in his 1978 Taster’s Guide to Beer, states that “Canadian sparkling ale” was a distinctive type as worthy of notice as other international styles of renown.

Had the style been maintained in its mid-20th century integrity, it may have sustained the Canadian industry longer than actually occurred. Signature brands were Molson Export Ale, Labatt 50, O’Keefe Ale, Brading Ale, Labatt India Pale Ale, Molson Stock Ale. But in time the brands got lighter or were supplanted by light-tasting lagers. Finally American brands appeared, Budweiser and Miller Lite were the first. Ironically, today that older Canadian style can be tasted again via the craft brewers, Beau’s Lugtread Ale is a good example.

Despite circa 1970 Canadian ale being ostensibly better than American beer, one is always attracted by the new, or different, so I tried the beers at Brodi’s and liked them for that reason. I remember Schaefer being particularly good with a lingering bitterness in the throat.

Brodi’s was originally owned by Mike and Beatrice Brodi, now deceased. It started as a ranch-style bar and steakhouse, outside the centre of Plattsburgh, with a later addition for dancing, which became the nucleus of the club.

According to this 1975 news report in the North Countryman of Elizabethtown, NY the founders sold Brodi’s in 1969 to two brothers in a band, Deane and Dale Tremblay. In turn they sold it in 1973, so the time I recall at Brodi’s was under their ownership. It makes sense as the music was particularly good and clearly it is their house band I recall.

Here is something I have no recollection of, but in retrospect may have helped to stimulate my interest in beer history. The North Countryman states that Dale Tremblay liked Genesee Beer and:

While playing at Brodi’s, [Dale] and bass player Spencer Bosworth (also a staunch Genesee man) would often do important spoofs of the Genny ads.

I must have seen these, and would have known the ads because Plattsburgh TV stations could be viewed in Montreal via aerial antennas and Rediffusion.

It was a way of looking at beer differently, anyway. It’s funny the things you learn 50 years down the road.

On Google Maps you can see well the geography and how we travelled there. Plattsburgh is between broad Lake Champlain (Vermont to the other side) and Interstate #87, which took us down from Montreal. The big airfield in the centre was the Air Force’s, and is now Plattsburgh International Airport.

The site of Brodi’s is now a dancing school. As far as I can tell, the buildings are original. I’ll elaborate in a future post.

For a second part to this post, see here.

Note re image: the image above is from the April 25, 1970 issue of the Press-Republican in Plattsburgh, NY, sourced via Fulton Newspapers, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs to solely to its lawful owners, as applicable, and is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



“Conviviality’s Firmament”

New York’s Boîtes in the Golden Days

In a December 1934 article in the New York Sun Martin Green described the notable bars and saloons of pre-Prohibition New York.

Green was a 1930s journalist for the Sun, Herald, Jewish Post, and other newspapers. He recounts that G. Selmer Fougner, the New York food and drink writer, asked him to record pre-Prohibition New York saloons to show, we might say, “the way things were”. Hence it is a kind of guest column for The Wine Trail, Fougner’s daily chronicle in the Sun between 1933 and 1941.

Green stressed that he only offers highlights, yet still mentions 40 or 50 establishments. While essentially a catalogue and important to drinks historians, Green also includes amusing and even cautionary asides. He notes that his erstwhile cohorts, while presumed to have iron constitutions and kidneys, ended with the “iron machinery” “rusted” and “disintegrating”.

Some of the old friends “went on the water wagon”, and those who did not, were no longer present to muse on Green’s account. A few, as clearly Green himself, survived the old days quite well, probably due to observing more than absorbing…

Most or all of the old Manhattan bars we have discussed in these pages, such as McSorley’s, The Grapevine, and Billy’s Bar, are not mentioned by Green. I think the reason is, he covered more high-end resorts, alluding often to their “classy” or “very classy” nature. (Here we focus resolutely on the beer bar, a resort of the hoi polloi almost by definition).

Hoffman House is a good example, remembered to this day for its lurid wall paintings and great and good (or not so good) patrons. This 2013 post in the blog Ephemeral New York sets out the essentials well.

Green describes the great ambition of south Manhattan bar crawls: to reach Hoffman House or another storied aerie. But 14th Street proved the limit every time, even for the iron-lined bon ton.

When you read enough about American bar and liquor customs into the Prohibition period, you get a sense that there did seem to be a licentiousness at the core. A drink or two wasn’t enough, it seems, for much of the clientele. The idea of excess and a certain riotousness seemed writ into the system, and this is reflected in Green’s piece.

Another way we know this is reports of people, and post-Prohibition Ontario is no different, on the new legal beers whose strength was held to around 4% ABV. Press stories regularly reported complaints of not being able easily to “get drunk”.  Taste was remarked too as I discussed earlier in the context of Fougner’s investigations, but the main problem was to get drunk without undue cost, or to order enough beer at one sitting to get the effect faster. In Ontario in the mid-1940s waiters could only serve one beer at a time to the customer, whence a mini (?) social crisis ensued.

This atmosphere is what the Temperance people aimed to stop, and while the ambition was flawed – Green calls it a “blight” – the practical reasons impelling it were hard to gainsay. Industry self-interest could not, and cannot, disguise this.

The answer of course was reformation, not abolition, and this in fact did occur finally. Tight controls were placed on the post-Prohibition bar, including in Canada, with as well a continuation of dry policies in large parts of both countries.

Still, to have been a fly on the wall for one of Green and Co.’s sorties… “I’ll have a schooner of still ale or India Pale Ale, please, and maybe a bourbon to follow, but no more, Mr. Green. An electric cab awaits me at 5th Street”.

Obs. The Russian vodka ad in the same issue shows that the Slavic drink was gaining traction well before Russian emigre Rudolph Kunett and New Jersey’s Heublein Inc. made their mark with Smirnoff commencing c.1940. Between 1934 and 1938 Kunett produced vodka in Connecticut but did not succeed, it was too new (although probably available in tiny amounts before Prohibition, I did not check).

An exacerbating factor though was surely the presence in New York of the Russian original.  The brand shown seems clearly to be what was later known internationally as Moskovskaya.



The Zombie Cocktail: Invented in Chicago During World War I? (Part V)

In Which we Introduce the Zamboanga

A few more comments on the Zombie. First, my interest is in its origin more than the drink itself. That said, I was surprised by the drumbeat of opinion, G. Selmer Fougner leading the pack (1940) that the Zombie is a clunker of a drink. Canonical cocktails man David M. Embury weighed in to similar effect (“overadvertised liquid hash”) in his 1948 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.

Some exception is made in the literature for Donn Beach’s original 1934 version as elucidated by Jeff “Beachbum” Barry (the acknowledged Tiki drinks and culture authority), but otherwise many writers seem to apologize for giving a recipe.

I made a Zombie from a generic recipe of the 1950s: a couple of rums, pineapple juice, lime juice, one or two other things. It was great. I mean, what’s not to like?

So why the critical disfavour? I think because the Zombie was relatively new, only coming to prominence in 1940 in New York, and earlier to be sure on the West Coast but New York “made” the drink without question. Also, the drink used rum, always behind whisky, brandy, and gin in the prestige ranking of liquors, then and today still, probably.

The Martini, Manhattan, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, whisky-and-soda had 19th century roots – pedigree. The Zombie wasn’t going to enter the pantheon so fast, and in fact the hostility of its early chroniclers helped speed it to an early demise, IMO.

Objectively, there is nothing in the recipes I’ve seen and now tasted that seems inferior to any of those aristocratic mixtures. The Cuba Libre and of course The Daiquiri are exceptions perhaps but used up the available territory allotted rum by mid-20th century drink arbiters, for status I mean.

While I continue to believe that Donn Beach and Harry Quin are the main claimants to the original Zombie, other explanations should be mentioned.

Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s great volume on cocktails in 1939 mentions a Zombie and ascribes a Haitian origin to it. See pp. 138-139, here, in Baker, Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. 2, “Being an Exotic Drinking Book”. His ingredients are mainly cognac and coconut cream, although Baker suggests that a substitution of rum for part of the cognac is an improvement.

Of course the zombie as a figure – the dusty automaton brought from the dead by witchy summons – was part of African-influenced folklore in Haiti. So it makes sense a drink with that name became known there, but did it originate there? I don’t think so.

I am not suggesting by any means that Baker, Jr. made up the story. I think though Donn Beach’s drink, or quite possibly Harry Quin’s if he did invent it, made its way to American circles in Haiti, literally or simply by reputation, whence Baker’s friend Christopher Clark returned via Pan American with a now localized recipe.

Here is one intriguing thing though, which as for Harry Quin’s account, no cocktails historian has hitherto raised as far as I know. On the same p. 138 Baker, Jr. gives a recipe for a Zamboanga “Zeinie” cocktail. He explains on p. xiii that he had travelled to an area called Zamboanga, and found the drink there, in the Sulu Sea as the recipe itself states. From p. xiii:

We found additional evidence [of beverage alcohol in remote places] after three voyages to Zamboanga in Philip­pine Mindanao…

Is “Zeinie” a diminutive for Zamboanga? To my mind it doesn’t scan all that well. Note too (see p. 138) the asserted origins of the Zamboanga “Zeinie”, which wended from Manila to Zamboanga in south Philippines through the Islands.

Baker introduced the recipe as follows:


This drink found its way down through the Islands to Mindanao from Manila, and we found it in the little Overseas Club standing high above the milk-warm waters of the Sulu Sea, on the suggestion of a new friend, just met…


While it seems the actual name of the drink was Zeinie, at least as heard by Baker, the association with Zamboanga may have lent its name as an alternate term. And Zombie is quite plausibly a diminutive of that word.

Did the Zamboanga “Zeinie” reach the California coast in the 1920s or early 30s…? Remember that Ching, who worked initially for Donn Beach in Hollywood and later Monte Proser in NYC, claimed (March 15, 1940, New York Sun) to introduce the Zombie in California as a legacy of an alleged Tahitian background. Maybe he did and the name was shortened to Zombie?

More plausibly perhaps, Ching encountered the drink somewhere in pan-Asian circles and presented it to Donn Beach, his California employer, in 1934. Then, or earlier on the path the name was shortened to the cute-sounding Zombie, and only later did the embroidery of the Haitian meaning attach.

I find it interesting that two key ingredients of the Zombie feature in the Zamboanga “Zeinie”, pineapple, in syrup form here, and lime juice. True, the syrup is only three dashes, but that would be concentrated, and originally probably real juice was used.

It is not much a stretch that in California, a Tiki-minded barman would elect rum to replace Cognac due the tropical, warm seas commonality of two otherwise unconnected, widely-separated regions, and maybe for cost reasons as well. And the Cognac of the Zamboanga “Zeinie” was probably originally an indigenous hard alcohol, as Baker, Jr. implies in his fuller remarks on p. xiii cited.

It always struck me as odd in fact, and probably not only me, that Caribbean rum ends as signature of a drink so intimately connected with Tiki culture.

To my mind, the most persuasive accounts on origin are either Harry Quin’s – a story I like for a number of reasons, including Quin’s relative insouciance toward the drink – or the Donn Beach/Don the Beachcomber origin story.

But I’m now thinking as well if Donn Beach introduced it, the Zamboanga “Zeinie” may lurk in the history. Spelling and pronunciation too would have varied when the drink was simply in oral tradition; it is not much of a leap to think the diminutive Zombie emerged, just as Coke did for Coca-Cola.