1971 was five years before the first true “craft brewery”: Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, CA. In 1971 McAuliffe was still posted with the U.S. Navy in Great Britain, learning about fine beer.
Washing machine scion Fritz Maytag in San Francisco had owned the venerable Anchor Brewery (founded 1899) since the mid-1960s and was well underway to restore the integrity of its Anchor Steam Beer. Anchor’s Liberty Ale and Anchor Porter, important, influential beers in the early craft history, were designed later in the 70s by the savvy, prophetic Maytag.
But what was the beer scene like in New York in 1971? Despite post-war industry consolidation and considerable levelling of the palate there were still breweries in or around New York, and lots of imports in the stores.
With consumerism in full march for decades attention was turning to wine, and slowly beer, as suitable subjects of gastronomic attention. The change, which started in small influential circles (wine groups, culinary societies), took time due to long-lasting Prohibition attitudes shaped by the 19th century Protestant ethic. Growing popular interest in wine and beer, increased travel, and a loosening of social attitudes finally caused a larger revolution in how beer and wine were viewed, commencing in the late 1960s.
New York tended to be open-minded in such matters anyway. The history of speakeasies during Prohibition is testament to that alone. And before Volstead the New York press regularly covered matters of interest to the beer drinker, as I’ve covered here earlier. And so this tradition broadened after Prohibition and especially after WW II.
As an example of loosening attitudes the pathbreaking Consumer Reports featured a beer-rating article in 1949. To do that in, say, Philadelphia in the 1950s-60s would have seemed impossible. In contrast, by 1971 beer in hip New York was cool, and warranted a closer look by a food-oriented consumer magazine.
New York magazine was founded a few years earlier by Milton Glaser and Clay Felker. It is the progenitor for the urban lifestyle magazines found around world today. The magazine’s short but illuminating beer article can be read here. It was titled, a little grandly but no doubt with New York irony, The Underground Gourmet’s 1971 Beer Olympics.
One is pleased to learn – it’s 45 years ago – that Milton Glaser at 87 is still active in the graphic design field. It is he who invented the “I Love New York” slogan and logo in 1977. Just the other day the New York Times interviewed him in this story. I wonder if Glaser still likes beer. Presumably yes, as he also designed another well-known logo, for New York’s Brooklyn Brewery, a craft brewing pioneer.
The Underground Gourmet’s ratings are interesting to consider. Many beers that did well are still available and probably taste quite similar. Of the beers one would expect to do well that did not, Dinkelacker from Germany, say, or Ballantine India Pale Ale, perhaps the bottles were too old, and the article mentioned the risk of over-age.
A hook for the tasting was to divide the panel into Blue Collar and White Collar. As the tallies showed though, the judges on either side largely agreed on their findings. Glaser and co-writer Jerome Snyder wrote that social and psychological factors probably influenced the results but were not “measured”. They may have meant that a taster with, say, an Italian background might be less likely to dismiss a beer coming from Italy. But all in all, the two Collars viewed the beers similarly. The men wearing ties perhaps liked dark beers a bit better.
Each panel agreed that a dark German Wurzburger earned the No. 1 place. The brand had a long import history in the States, which would explain in part the excellent quality.
The Dutch Heineken did well, New York was its first market in North America after Prohibition was repealed, so it was probably fresh and certainly familiar to Gothamites.
Watney’s Red Barrel, the bane of 1970s English “real ale” pioneers, did well too. Americans always liked Red Barrel. Next to the American lager norm it cut a swath, in any case.
Presidente from Dominican Republic was a top-scorer and indeed was an excellent beer then – I remember it – malty, with a vibrant, appealing flavour. Peroni from Italy did well, and is fashionable today – justly so when in good condition.
As mentioned earlier Ballantine India Pale Ale scored unusually now. How odd considering that I.P.A. is the toast of American brewing in 2019, the quality end anyway. Too much time had passed since the days of well-hopped, old-fashioned ales, one presumes.
No American beer ranked as Excellent except for a bock beer, Old Bohemian. Clearly it was an outlier since it wasn’t from a generally reputed source, to our knowledge. Beer can be like that, unpredictable.
The tabulated results seem to err at least once. The score for Prior Dark shows that each panel gave it 4 1/4, yet it’s listed in the Fair group. Prior was a small seller but a topmost quality beer: it couldn’t get a break.
Labatt Blue Pilsener from Canada made it into the Excellent category, though. I think “Blue” was better at the time, but that is speculative.
Someone should hold the same tasting again, and why not New York magazine? Collect all the beers still available in the market and substitute similar ones for beers no longer made. Send me an invitation, will you?
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 Old Bohemian Bock is from this breweriana website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.