Clausen’s of New York Disses the Competition

Imported Lager in Early Australia – A Curate’s Egg?

A short advertisement appeared in an Adelaide newspaper in 1888, for Clausen’s Champagne Lager from New York. Evidently American lager was being imported to South Australia in the 1880s, either taken by steamship from New York to and under Africa, then over on the Indian Ocean, or across America by rail and thence over the Pacific, in either case a voyage of many months. The ad reads:

Of garlic, copperas, and over ripe eggs may be supposed to tickle the palate with a taste like unto that of some of the vaunted brands and cheaper sorts of Lager Beer. There is no immediate harm in it, perhaps, only it is not pleasant, and evil is sure to result from a prolonged devotion to any brand in which the peculiarity is noticeable. The purest Lager Beer in the world is Clausen’s New York Champagne Lager. It was so pronounced by the experts at the Philadelphia Centennial, and from that day to this it has had no equal.

Pasteurization of beer was usual by this period and so the product probably arrived in acceptable condition – at least it would not have soured although one wonders about oxidation damage. Even today drinking beer brought overseas and packaged six months earlier or more is not uncommon, so something similar would have occurred for the Clausen’s lager sent to Adelaide.

Where the short ad differs from almost any I’ve seen is its discussion of how the competition tastes. The ad states that many “vaunted” lager brands taste of garlic, copperas (iron sulphate) and old eggs. The ad calls the taste “cheap” and promises that Clausen’s beer is “pure”, meaning probably that it tastes of malted grain and hops only.

Very early, consumers and brewing experts in the Anglo-Saxon world noticed that lager, being promoted endlessly as the new thing, tasted of garlic. Given the traditional aversion to garlic in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic circles (something now révolue), this perception had a certain weight.

One would think the trait would have consigned lager early on, outside its heartland, to the would-be category of history. Not at all. Pale lager became the world’s dominant style and to this day, many famed brands have that taste to a greater or lesser degree. I notice it Heineken, Grolsch, PBR, Molson Canadian, Creemore, most German lagers, and countless other beers.

It does characterize some ale too, and traditionally something similar exists for Burton pale ale, but the taste is not typical of top-fermentation, IMO.

Yet, not all pale lagers have it. Pilsner Urquell does not. Coney Island Mermaid Lager does not. Budweiser does not, nor Coors Light, Amstel Light or Tsingtao, say.

The taste is not invariable, therefore, but is frequently experienced. The flavour is usually attributed to dimethyl sulphide or another sulphide. It occurs from the reaction of certain lager yeasts with chemical precursors in very pale malt. Since modern lager yeast derives from single cell yeasts isolated in the late 19th century, there are only two or three essential forms of it, and all the world’s lager yeasts are examples, more or less. Hence the frequency of the taste.

Some brewing scientists in the late 1800s and early 1900s spoke about how to reduce the taste. Long aging was felt important to this end as the off-flavours would dissipate or be re-absorbed by the yeast. Later, CO2 was used to “wash” the taste out of young beer; the great fermentation expert and designer, Leopold Nathan, advocated this.

Nonetheless much of the world’s lager still has the taste, one that has been no bar to its great expansion since the 1800s.

Clausen’s was saying, our beer doesn’t have it, and was seeking a leg up in the market. Clausen Brewery c. 1875 was selling 90,000 barrels a year, and ranked in the top 10 of brewers then. But many competitive beers surely had the taste, including from brewers who well-outsold Clausen. People just accepted it, or perhaps felt it went well with food. As garlic is a seasoning, it makes sense a DMS-influenced beer accompanies food well, especially the relatively under-seasoned German and Anglo-American cuisines.

I have never really accustomed to the taste. I can drink it, but find it at bottom “not pleasant”. Yet I like a moderate taste of garlic and onion in some food. I just don’t associate it with beer. This may be completely learned behaviour, with the obverse occurring in Germany, say. But I do think when lager was much longer-aged than today, it didn’t have the taste, or in much lesser proportion than today. Clausen’s perhaps aged its beer for nine to twelve months, or if not, it achieved a clean palate in some other way. It would be interesting to ask the Urquell people about this, incidentally.

By 1911, one reads of garlic in lager in a benign way, as here for the English-brewed Peter Walker’s lager, then being promoted in Australia. The article correctly notes the taste comes from the fermentation process. It was not, as some speculated, from pitch-lined casks. I should add, by mentioning the garlic taste as “peculiar”, the article did not mean to deprecate it; rather in this period peculiar still could mean “particular” or “specific”.

For whatever reason, the taste became accepted. Whether modern Australian and NZ mass market lagers have it I can’t say, I’d guess some do, in fact I did have a Foster’s not long ago, and recall a whiff of it.

Clausen, which was located at 47th street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, made classic Anglo-American styles too, like IPA and stout. It didn’t seek to sell these in Australia, as far as I know. One doesn’t bring coals to Newcastle, so to speak – and so to speak.

Note re images: The images were sourced from the following websites: the first, from Tavern Trove, here; the second, from an historical playing cards site, here; and the third, from the Library of Congress, hereAll intellectual property in or to these images belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.