Max Henius, Star of American Brewing Science


It’s Chicago, November 16, 1935, a Saturday. Daily Trib on the table. Paging through leisurely – it’s a weekend – the obituaries appear. A compact article, with photo, announces the death of Dr. Max Henius, at 76. He died on a visit to Denmark, his homeland. He had lived in America since his early 20s and had a notable career there. Once past 40 he took an increasing interest in the country of his birth. He did much to foster Danish-American relations. For example, with others he bought land and deeded it to the Danish government. Save during the wars, a celebration is held there each 4th of July.

Max Henius was probably America’s greatest brewing scientist, in any era. Yet he is virtually unknown to most beer and brewing fans, even those with some historical knowledge.

He co-authored in 1902 the American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades. The other writer was Dr. Robert Wahl, an American Max had studied with in Marburg, Germany. The book was a stupendous achievement, a fat tome of 1200 pages with every conceivable aspect of commercial brewing operations covered. Many questions of science and theory were addressed but in a way accessible to practical brewing men.

Henius had studied under Professor Emil Hansen, a legend in world brewing science for his work on pure yeast cultures. Henius extended his work in America.

1593-2Anyone who investigates brewing historical questions runs into the book sooner or later. The modern beer writer, Michael Jackson, who developed the basic schema for craft brewing, almost certainly read the book. Jackson’s basic classification of types seems based on Wahl & Henius, not just the “ur” distinction between bottom-fermentation, top-fermentation, and spontaneous fermentation but the main beer types under those heads.

Even with Wahl’s participation, Henius must have written a good part of the book himself, and the English is always impeccable. English was perhaps Henius’ third language after Danish and German, or maybe his fourth or fifth. European scientists then could easily work in four or five languages. I’d guess he knew French well before English, for example.

But who really was Max Henius?  How did he get to the United States? The obituaries I’ve been able to find are relatively short and don’t hint at his background. The Wikipedia entry on Max Henius has proved more helpful.

He was born in Aalborg, Denmark of a Jewish family originally from Poland. Beeretseq finds this of interest as there were relatively few Jews in the various branches of brewing (despite the German and Czech “brewing star” which looks rather like the Star of David, I may discuss that topic soon). Brewing and its auxiliary areas were a German and Anglo-Saxon business, for the most part. (Distilling is a different story, at least in North America).

There are always exceptions, at least one noted brewery in Alsace was Jewish-owned, there was a prominent one in Vienna (Ottakringer), and one or two in Germany. In the U.S., Rheingold of the Liebmann family was Jewish-owned in Brooklyn, NY.

Henius Sr. had moved to Denmark in the 1830s and established an acquavits business, now owned by Pernod-Ricard. After acquiring a doctorate in chemistry from Germany, Max emigrated to the U.S., I’d assume the family funded the move since his father sold the distillery around this time. Max’s brother stayed in Denmark and later headed up an export trade association.

Max took up residence in Chicago. At first he owned a drugstore, you see him in the image above on the left. The other figure is probably Wahl. They are the picture of the young ambitious entrepreneurs.

Later, Max founded with Wahl a brewing school. It was called by different names in different periods, one was the Wahl-Henius Institute of Fermentology. With the Siebel Institute of Brewing established earlier in Chicago, and the Brewing Academy in New York, the Wahl-Henius Institute was a premier centre for brewing studies both in the U.S. and internationally.

Henius married a fellow Dane who was related to some notable figures in its history. Some of their distant progeny have distinguished themselves in a rather different endeavour: acting. Perhaps you have heard of Robert and Keith Carradine, their mother was a Henius. (Their late half-brother through the paternal line, David, was not a Henius descendant I believe).*

The Siebel Institute is still going strong but Henius’s venture did not outlast Prohibition. It merged with a school of baking studies, as fermentation of course is vital both to bread and beer. Henius worked patiently in this allied field, but with the glimmer of Repeal in the bibulous skies of 1932, he opened classes again to brewing students. A newspaper account, somewhat arch in tone, describes the effort and shows a picture of the grey-haired Henius at work again with some younger men.

Don’t worry, it told readers, your sons and daughters won’t be frosh in Max’s new classes. The curriculum was reserved for those intent on practical brewing after Repeal, it’s a different demographic, to use our vernacular.

Maybe the classes continued after beer came back but as Henius died in 1935, they likely ended that year unless perhaps the family continued the business. Henius did have a son, Henry, later a brewmaster and executive with Lucky Lager in San Francisco. Perhaps he continued the teaching work for a while.

Picture.aspxSomewhat improbably, Henius was something of a Prohibitionist. He wrote a number of works advocating tight controls on alcohol. Of course, he decried the t-total solution of the Volstead Act but certainly he was firmly anti-saloon. The beer he taught his new students to brew in ’32 was maximum 3% abw, what we would call light beer today (4% abv).

(I once knew a designer of brewing and distilling equipment, now deceased, who claimed a study once showed the perfect alcohol percentage in beer was under 5%, I think 4.6%. It produced the perfect taste and effect on the system, he said. Wish I could find that).

In the 1902 Handy-Book, Henius described non-judgmentally beers which were much stronger than that, especially English types. But he plumped for relatively weak beer in his heart evidently, and argued for restricted distribution. The German and American lager of the 1800s was generally under 5%. Perhaps it struck him as the perfect form of beer. Even in England in this time, the German product had achieved a strange power over brewing technologists although I think in part growing Prohibitionist sentiment was behind it, unconsciously in most cases.

The patrons in the pubs paid no mind to all this, probably a good thing, else we’d have no double stout, or saison, or Burton Ale.

In the 1932 article on restoration of his brewing classes (“dusting off old recipes”), Henius was quoted that beer should be sold in supermarkets and drugstores, no doubt recalling his youth retailing liquor in that controlled environment. He hoped the beer he was training his students to make would not appear in saloons with swinging doors, as he put it.

Well, bars did return, with beer and yet harder stuff, if not quite the saloon in its old glory (?). You can’t have one without the other, really. But Henius’s idealism is understandable. Ever the international academic and man of affairs, he knew alcohol should be treated with caution. Probably he felt ambivalence about devoting his professional life to it.

I think some professionals in the business today might feel the same although few would aver to it publicly.

Note re images: The first image above is from this Danish website. The second, from this website. The third, from historicalimages com. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All images or intellectual property therein belong to their lawful owners or authorized users. All feedback welcomed.


*An earlier version misstated the Carradine acting descendants in part and I believe I have it correct now. Also, I said earlier Keith had passed, that is not so, it is David who passed away some years ago. Apologies for the slip.