1971 was five years before the appearance of the first true “craft brewery”, Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion in Sonoma, CA. In 1971, McAuliffe was still 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-60s and was well underway to restore the integrity of its Anchor Steam Beer. Anchor’s now-famous Liberty Ale and Anchor Porter, important in the early history of craft beer, were still to be devised by savvy and influential Maytag.
And so what was the beer scene like in 1971 New York? Despite post-war brewery consolidation and considerable levelling of the beer palate, there were still active breweries, and lots of imports available, in or around New York.
With consumerism in full march for decades attention was turning to wine, and slowly to beer, as subjects of public gastronomic interest. This was novel due to formerly dominant Prohibition attitudes and the strictures of the 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 was the progenitor for the urban lifestyle magazines now found the world over. The magazine’s short but illuminating beer piece can be read here. It was titled, a little grandly but no doubt with New York irony, The Underground Gourmet’s 1971 Beer Olympics.
Quite surprisingly – it’s 45 years ago – Milton Glaser is still active in graphic design, at 87. Its as he who invented the famous “I Love New York” slogan and logo in 1977. Just the other day the New York Times interviewed him, see here. I wonder if Mr. Glaser still likes beer. He must, I think, as for one thing he designed the well-known logo for New York’s Brooklyn Brewery, a craft brewing pioneer.
The Underground Gourmet’s ratings are interesting to parse. Many of the beers that did well are still available and probably taste quite similar today. Of the beers one would expect to do well that did not, Dinkelacher from Germany, say, or Ballantine India Pale Ale, perhaps the bottles were too old, and the article mentioned the risk of overage.
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 his 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 guys wearing ties perhaps liked dark beers a bit better.
Both panels agreed that the German Wurzburger, it was a dark version, was No. 1. The beer has a long import history in the States and at the time I believe Anheuser-Busch was importing it in bulk for bottling here. This would explain in part the excellent quality.
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 the Dominican Republic was a top-scorer and indeed it was an excellent beer then (I remember), malty with a vibrant, appealing flavour. Peroni from Italy did well, and it is fashionable today – justly so when in good condition.
As mentioned, Ballantine India Pale Ale scored unusually now. How odd considering “IPA” is now the toast of beery America. Too much time had passed since the saloon era and the days of well-hopped, old-fashioned ales, presumably.
No American beer ranked in the Excellent class except for a bock, Old Bohemian. Clearly it was an outlier since it wasn’t from a generally reputed source, to my knowledge. But 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 category. Poor Prior, it was a small seller but top beer at the time, still it couldn’t get a break.
Labatt Blue from Canada made it into the Excellent category though. I think “Blue” was better then, but that is speculative at this point.
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 the Brooklyn Lager bottle is from Brooklyn Brewery’s website.The image of the Old Bohemian Bock can is from this breweriana website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.