Fritz Maytag in San Francisco had owned the venerable Anchor Brewery for some years and was well underway to restore the integrity of Anchor Steam Beer, but Liberty Ale and Anchor Porter were on the distant horizon, glimmers in his eye at best.
What was the beer scene then in North America? Despite post-war consolidation and considerable levelling of the beer palate, there were still many breweries, and lots of imports available especially in major centres like New York City.
With consumerism in full march for decades attention turned to wine, and slowly to beer, as subjects of public gastronomic interest. Formerly, they were mostly ignored due to lingering Prohibition attitudes and the Protestant ethic. Popular interest in beer, increased travel, greater availability of imports, and a loosening of social attitudes in the 60s finally caused a larger revolution in how beer as viewed.
New York tended to be open-minded in such matters anyway. Many of the brewery tour and other pieces on alcohol in the press before 1920 came out of New York City or Brooklyn. I’ve mentioned some of them here, with more to come. And so this tradition continued there after Prohibition and WW II.
As an example example the pathbreaking Consumer Reports (based in New York), of which I’ve written earlier, featured a beer-rating piece in 1949. Whereas to do that, say, in Philadelphia in the 1950s-60s would have seemed incongruous if not likely to elicit dismayed letters from bluenoses. In contrast, in 1971 hip New York a beer piece was cool, and anyway it was July.
New York magazine was founded a few years earlier by Milton Glaser and Clay Felker. It was the progenitor for the consumer-focused urban magazines found all over the world now. The short but illuminating beer piece can be read here. The mag called it, a little grandly but no doubt with New York irony, The Underground Gourmet’s 1971 Beer Olympics.
Quite astonishingly – it’s 45 years ago – Milton Glaser is still active in graphic design including for publishing, at 87. He invented the I Love New York logo in 1977. That guy. Just the other day the New York Times interviewed him, here. I wonder if he still likes beer. He must, I think, for one thing, he designed the logo for Steve Hindy’s and Garrett Oliver’s Brooklyn Brewery. That’s a nice transition, from the old beer world to the new.
The Undergound Gourmet’s ratings on the whole are pretty sound. Many of the beers that did well are still available and most probably taste quite similar today. Of the beers one would expect to do well that didn’t, e.g., Dinkelacher from Germany, probably the bottles were too old, and the article adverted to this risk.
A shtick used for the tasting was to divide the panel into Blue Collar and White Collar. As the tallies showed though, they largely agreed on the results. Glaser, who authored the piece with Jerome Snyder, wrote that social and psychological factors probably influenced the results, but were not “measured”. He may have meant that a taster with, say, an Italian background might be less likely to diss a beer coming from the old sod, or, er turf, no I mean madrepatria. But all in all the two Collars viewed the beers similarly. The Blue guys perhaps liked dark beers a bit better.
Both panels agreed Wurzburger, a dark version, was No. 1. This beer has a long import history in the States, and at the time, I believe Anheuser-Busch was importing it in bulk and bottling it here. This would explain in part the excellent quality.
Heineken did well, New York was its first market in North America after Prohibition ended, so it was probably fresh and certainly familiar.
Watney Red Barrel, bane of the English real ale pioneers, did very well too. Americans always liked Red Barrel. Next to the local adjunct norm it certainly cut a swath.
Presidente from the Dominican Republic was a top-scorer and indeed it’s still an excellent beer, malty and with a vibrant appealing flavour. Peroni from Italy did well, and it is fashionable today, justly so when in good condition.
Ballantine “India ale” (India Pale Ale) scored at the bottom of both Collars’ lists. What’s wrong with you guys?? Too much time had passed since the saloon era and days of the well-hopped old-fashioned ales, I guess. Glaser might be interested to know that Ballantine India Pale Ale is returned to the market albeit it’s not what it was in ’71.
No American beer ranked in the Excellent class except for a bock, Old Bohemian. Clearly an outlier since it wasn’t from a generally reputed source to my knowledge. But beer can be like that, a good thing.
However, surely those who tabulated the results made a mistake. Look at the score for Prior Dark, each panel gave it 4 1/4. Yet it’s listed in the Fair category. Poor Prior, both its light and dark iterations were some of the best beers in America but it couldn’t get a break.
Labatt Blue made the Excellent category though. I think it was better then, but who knows.
And so on. Peruse the list, decide for yourself what the New Yorkers got right and wrong. But it was a different time, eh? No women in the panels. No IPA as we know it today. No light beer except for Gablinger, a light forerunner – it got a low score, the panels got that one right. No wheat beer. Someone should hold the same tasting again, collecting all the beers still available and substituting similar ones for beers no longer made. Send me an invite, will you?
P.S. What was an apparent Gallic production, “Paillette”? Beeretseq’s memory is one of the longest in the beer blogosphere but I never heard of it, if anyone knows, s.v.p. communiquer avec moi sans délai.
Note re images: The image of Times Square in 1977 was sourced at Wikipedia here and is by Derzsi Elekes Andor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. The image of I Love New York was sourced in the New York Times article of two days ago on Milton Glaser, linked above. The image of the Brooklyn Lager bottle is from Brooklyn Brewery’s website. The image of the Old Bohemian Bock can is from this breweriana website. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.