Lager – Made in the Shade

Above is the wine list that accompanied a special dinner held by the Princess Hotel in 1927 to commemorate George Washington’s birthday. The item is preserved in the menu archive of the Culinary Institute of America.

Wine you say during Prohibition? The hotel was, and is, in Bermuda.

Long a resort of monied tourists especially from North America, Bermuda was a favoured destination particularly in the winter. While still under British dominion and housing an important naval base and garrison, income was generated by the 1920s in no small measure from tourism.

American Prohibition enacted in 1919 gave a huge impetus to that trade. The island was reached by boat as commercial air service did not commence until the later Thirties. Lots of thirsty Americans with money and time steamed over to Bermuda for good times.

This online account of the still-thriving hotel states:

From the moment it opened, The Princess was considered the gem of the island. With long shady verandas and a blue slate roof, the four-story building comprised 70 rooms, each equipped with gas lights, hot and cold running water and a five-inch mirror to allow guests to primp before stepping out for the night. Staff dressed in white jackets and waving pink handkerchiefs greeted luxury liners.

As word got out, celebrities started to appear. Mark Twain, a regular at the hotel, loved to smoke cigars on the veranda and wartime guest Ian Fleming is said to have used its fish tank-lined Gazebo Bar as a motif in his novel, Dr. No.

The beers offered at the Princess are, from an historical standpoint, very interesting. They pivot between the old Victorian era when British productions ruled in U.K. fiefs and the new era when European lager, especially blond lager, would become the dominant form.

True, it took until the 1970s for lager to make significant gains in the U.K. itself. Much earlier though it was increasingly consumed in places of U.K. influence in preference to pale ale and stout.

From Canada to India, Australia to (finally) Cornwall, Singapore to Hong Kong, in short from the West to the East, Victoria’s beers steadily lost writ for her 20th century man. The sun may never have set on empire but lager was very happy to be made in the shade.

Lager was initially the burgher’s drink in Bavaria and especially Munich. Later it became the toast of the world due to rubbing shoulders with elite and governmental society including the army and navy. It became smart, in a word.

When you see pictures of British rock bands partying on tour c.1970 they drink Skol, Carlsberg, Heineken, Coors, even though it would have been easy to bring pale or Scotch ale on the road. It finally clicked with the man and woman on the British high street – this is our drink too.

Now, to be sure the large contingent of American visitors to Bermuda had an ingrained preference for blonde lager. That explained in part the make-up of the list. Still, the shape of things to come was clear and the Princess’s bar steward understood that.

He chose lagers from countries that in time, in most cases, would prove key elements in world lager exports: Danish Carlsberg, pilsener from St. Pauli, Bremen, another Bremen pils (one or both would have been Beck’s), yet another pils from another German port, Hamburg, and two Dutch lagers, one certainly Heineken or Amstel.

There is also an early international sighting of London-brewed Barclay’s lager. It was never to be a Heineken but U.K. brewers were starting to notice.

Perhaps hedging his bets the steward ordered two Munich dark lagers, the original form of Bavarian lager. And certainly John Bull favourites were included: two Bass bottlings, the newish Simonds milk stout, and two bottlings of Guinness.

Things have a way of mutually re-inforcing. Long familiarity with these beers by Britons outside the country, officers being entertained in the Princess’ ballrooms and gardens, say, set the stage for a broader acceptance at home. The success of British pale ale in India in the early 1800s and later in Britain itself is an obvious parallel, not without some irony here.

Still, up to the 1970s the market for U.K. lager, with exceptions including in Scotland, was largely export-oriented (see Watts, H.D., Lager Brewing in Britain, in Geography Vol. 60, No. 2 (April 1975), pp. 139-145 (accessible by JSTOR)).

But the U.K. caught up to the rest of the world. Craft brewing has only partly reversed the seemingly inexorable rise. The reason craft beer appealed was that lager became increasingly uniform in style and bland in taste, especially in the U.S. which after all had innovated in its early development.

Craft brewing responded initially by restoring and extending the earlier top-fermentation tradition but in time will help restore lager itself. We see it with the recent growth of the Camden Hells brand in Britain and similar products that are craft in taste.

A premiumization of lager is taking place such that, for example, Stella Artois is now the default mass market lager of AB InBev/Labatt in parts of Canada. While not a craft beer it replaced beers that many would argue were inferior in taste, Labatt Blue, say.

Peroni, an all-malt beer in its export form, is growing, so is Pilsner Uquell, and there are many brands similarly positioned. Heineken led the way not just by marketing savvy: it is all-malt and a good drop of beer all things equal.

Much of the impetus started on menus such as the Princess’ in Bermuda in 1927. The U.S. of course had sparked the trend, outside Europe I mean, much earlier. But its resolute focus for most of the 1900s on adjunct, low-hopped lagers kept it behind, finally. The result: most of its marquee names stopped brewing or became internationally-owned.

 

Note re images: The first and last images were sourced from the Culinary Institute of America’s digital menu archive identified and linked in the text. The St. Pauli Girl label was sourced at the label collection and brewery information site, www.taverntrove.com, hereAll intellectual property in the sources used belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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