In Memorium: American Ale, 1600s-1904

LESS DEMAND FOR ALE

One of the oldest ale breweries on the west side of town after having been established more than half a century has gone out of business owing to the competition of the lager beer breweries. This is in line with a general diminution in the sale of ale through the city … the demand for ale has been declining except among the old fashioned who frequent New York saloons but whose patronage gets less important every year.

The article from which this is drawn, printed in 1904 in the New York Sun, is the culmination of some 30 years of journalistic investigation of the brewing industry in the New York press.

I have cited most of these articles in recent posts. The tenor is that lager beer proved by far the bulk of production by the 1880s, whereas 20 years earlier ale (which would take in porter) was still a dominant trade. The 1904 piece explains the main reasons for the change: a reduction in immigration to the city from Britain and the supply by the lager brewers of a substitute for ale as a winter drink.

The articles in toto explain that ale was favoured in the winter for its heating properties, meaning essentially its greater alcohol content vs. lager. There is an implication ale had more body as well, which may reflect that more ale was all-malt than lager by this time (1885-1905). The warmer temperature ale was served at suited this warming function as well.

The 1904 piece stated that lager brewers devised a “strong beer” to compete with ale as a winter staple. While this was not specified, the Salvators, bocks, and doppel beers appearing in period ads make it clear lager was not always the relatively weak, benign drink its ardent defenders liked to suggest.

The German brewers outclassed the old stock American ale and porter brewers, in a word. Lager completely dominated the summer trade and found a way to compete with ale in cold weather. And the influx of Germans and other non-Britishers inclined them away from a drink which, as the article explained, was designed for “moist and humid localities” (read British) rather than America’s extremes.

An earlier article (1886) pointed out that some ale brewers were devising their beer to be drunk cold and free from “discoloration”, or the cloudiness so prized by today’s generation of beer fanciers. Indeed this form of ale – sparkling, cream, or fizzy present use ale in brewers’ terminology – was the main surviving form of ale up to Prohibition. It came back with Repeal.

Ballantine XXX, still sold but marred by too much adjunct IMO, was a poster child in New York for this type. Even this adapted ale was a small part of the revived trade, under 10% nationwide by 1940.

The ale brewer was able to survive, but he had to make a lager-like beverage to do it. The IPA of olde England, exemplified by Ballantine India Pale, was a rarity in post-Repeal America, a weird survival as if preserved (quite literally) in amber. There were numerous such beers in the market, especially in the northeast, but they had an insignificant sale in the overall picture.

The New York newspapers realized, as the gas-lit era took hold, that something was being lost, and in their way they memorialized it. They would be amazed at the revival of ale drinking today. Indeed sometimes ale and stout are drawn by the very “pullhandles” and “goosenecks” which the journalists had noted, with no sentimentality one might add, had practically disappeared from the nation’s bars by the 1880s.

Perhaps in a different time these scribblers, counting no doubt a few ale fanciers, would have campaigned more ardently to save the remnant of New York’s ale heritage still operating. But looming Prohibition dissuaded them, surely. Even in New York, trumpeting an alcohol interest was not a smart thing to do no matter the historical and cultural trappings brought to assist.

In all the articles mentioned, not one comment is made about simple palate: that lager tasted different than ale irrespective of alcohol content and serving temperature. This is in stark contrast to the post-Michael Jackson way of writing about these drinks. It was understood and mentioned that ale was brewed by top-fermentation and lager by cold-, but no suggestion was made that ale had a uniquely estery, and arguably more complex, character.

Not until the 1970s would people value and strive to restore the ancestral taste. Ironically, their surnames reflect a United Nations of ethnicities: (Fritz) Maytag, (Ken) Grossman, (Jack) McAuliffe, (Bill) Newman, (Charlie) Papazian.

The reason this could happen is a fundamental change in how people looked at the ale heritage. In sociological or cultural history terms, one might say they viewed it mythologically. This was made possible by a relatively prosperous period, one which favoured reflection, looking back, and blending past with present (“Back to the land”). The emerging information era played no small part, as well.

All this was embryonic amongst the newspaper fraternity c. 1900. And any proto-Michael Jacksons among them were cowed by a wave more powerful than any which poured from a busy lager brewery: the Prohibition sentiment. It proved unstoppable, after a fashion to be sure as the alcohol business did continue in New York and elsewhere. But the sub rosa form, and later, depression and world war, meant an old brewing tradition could not be restored until 1970s prosperity and Marshall McLuhan’s global village made it possible.

“At the speed of light there is no sequence; everything happens at the same instant”. (Marshall McLuhan, 1976).

Note re image: the Ballantine advertising image herein was sourced from Pinterest, here. Image appears for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the source resides solely in its lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcome.