Further Thoughts on Descriptions For Lager, Ale And Porter

Regarding my post of yesterday, I am not suggesting the term “lager” was not used by American brewers and brewing writers from, say, 1875-1975 to describe bottom-fermented beer produced at cold temperatures: of course it was. Similarly, the brewing industry always knew the sub-distinction between mild ale – ale not stored, meant for immediate consumption – and beers proper such as porter, stout and pale ale, stored for a time and with a higher hop rate than mild ale. However, based on my reading, the American brewing industry often used the term beer to mean specifically lager. That is, for day-to-day purposes including production, sales and marketing, “beer” was lager – usually a blonde lager in the light American style, but not ale or porter/stout.

One sees evidence in numerous references in A.L. Nugey’s mid-1930’s brewing manual, for example. I’d have to think Nugey was repeating something familiar to the pre-Prohibition brewhouse given the halt in production from 1919-1933. And this usage was paralleled in the market at large which included finally some restaurant menus as we saw in the early Rector’s example.

Did the usage begin in the market and filter back to the brewhouse and distribution channels? Entirely possible. It is interesting that Rector’s did not include the term lager in its listing of bottled and draft lager beers – “bottled lager” would have been a more correct heading to use to contrast with the bottled ales, but this wasn’t done. I believe as well that most beer labels at the time, i.e., later 1800’s until about Prohibition, didn’t use the term lager. In the colour plate section entitled “Pre-Prohibition Breweriana Advertising” contained in Michael Weiner’s The Taster’s Guide To Beer (1977), one sees e.g., Miller High Life Beer, Seipp’s Extra Pale Beer, Providence Brewing Co.’s Bohemian Beer, National Lager Beer, Moerschel’s Sedalia Beer, Wiener Blatz, Falk’s Export Beer, Feigenspan Bock Beer, Busch Beer, and so on.

As always, there is the exception: H. Clausen on its label advertised Export Lager Beer. The West End Brewing Company in Utica, NY, still going strong under a different name, advertised its Pilsener and Wuerzburger brands on a beer tray. That is not the same thing as using the term lager – beer was often described, indeed internationally, by reference to a town or area of origin. In about forty-five ads in Weiner’s book “lager” was only used on a couple of labels. Not a scientific sample, but still.

Only much later did lager, as a term to describe the main American beer type, enter the general market and in advertising. In a word, it had lost its foreign connotation and strangeness by then.

It may be noted that this uniquely American usage of “beer” was the obverse in the same period of British usage: there beer meant porter/stout, pale ale/bitter and (finally) the mild ale which in the 1800’s had been considered apart. Lager was the term used to describe the Continental blond beer, served cold and fizzy, which was a relative newcomer to the British scene until finally there too all forms of malt beverage could be called, or by most, beer.

Once again I don’t for a minute say that some people in the Anglo-Saxon world weren’t always pleased to call any form of malt-based alcoholic beverage beer, of course they were, but it is also true that for a long time in common and trade parlance, the term beer meant something more specific.