A number of beer types can be considered distinct evolutions from the European lager, ale and stout (porter) which have dominated North American brewing since European settlement. These distinct types include California steam beer, Kentucky common ale, Pennsylvania “swanky” and Oklahoma choc or chock beer. Of these, choc beer has been least documented, but the reason for this will appear shortly.
I first read of choc beer, if memory serves, in All About Beer magazine about ten years ago.
Stan Hieronymous, the blogger and beer writer, has recently posted an informative piece which sheds doubt, correctly in my view, whether
the name choc beer is derived from the Choctaw Indians, as has been commonly supposed. This entry from an Oklahoma historical association states the etymology usually accepted, or assumed, for choc beer.
I’ll elaborate here on two comments I made to his post, which suggest an alternative name origin for the beer.
First though, what is or was choc beer? It was an alcoholic drink made, according to various accounts, from malt, hops, corn kernels, herbs, tobacco, and sometimes moonshine whiskey. A strange brew, at first sight. It was a folk drink, made by a range of residents in the Oklahoma Territory in the later 1800’s, native Americans included, but far from exclusively. As Stan noted, choc beer was particularly associated with miners in the Oklahoma coal districts. Oklahoma was a prohibition territory, even after it became a state in the first decade of the 1900’s. Therefore, choc beer was illicit, and this factor probably encouraged a non-standardization of the recipe. It was a home brew handed down by verbal tradition and recipes would have varied with the family who made it or area of production.
The traditional account of the name origin seems questionable on a number of counts. As Stan notes, the Choctaw Nation did not arrive in what is now Oklahoma until the 1830’s (to take up residence in what was called the Indian Territory. The Choctaw’s original territory was in southeast Mississippi and part of Alabama). Thus, an age-old tradition of hospitality to offer this drink, at least in Oklahoma, seems unlikely. It is possible of course the Choctaw brought the drink to their new land, but it is generally accepted that native Americans of the pre-Columbian era did not systematically use alcohol for recreational purposes. While it appears untrue that alcohol use was completely unknown in the pre-European era, the use such as it was was fragmentary and associated usually with religious ritual. To the extent alcohol was known, it was a weak beer or wine made from berries or grains, nothing comparable to the alcohol level of the European equivalents and seemingly different from the frankly intoxicating quality of choc beer. Of course, once introduced to social alcohol use by Europeans, native Americans did start to use alcohol, often with tragic results. It can’t be ruled out that choc beer was developed by native Americans in the mid-1800’s, but the following theories occur to me as more plausible:
- Choc beer comes from “Czech” – I elaborate on this in my comment to Stan’s post mentioned above.
- Choc beer comes from “shack beer”, is a corruption of this expression. Shack, an Americanism, may come from “jacal“, Mexican and southwest American Spanish for hut or shelter. An Anglo origin seems more likely to me since the “j” in jacal is pronounced as the “h” in “hut”, not the “sh” in “shake”. Shack may simply come from the word “shaky”, for the light construction, and have been viewed as a place typically associated with illicit alcohol drinking, similar to a shebeen, a Gaelic term familiar to the Scots-Irish and Scots as meaning an unlicensed drinking den.
- Choc beer comes from “chicha“, the word in Mexico for a fermented drink made from corn. Its etymology is unclear, but may well derive from one or more indigenous languages in central or Caribbean America. A “chock” in Chile, apparently a dialectical term of no certain spelling, means glass of beer. This suggests to me a likely connection to chicha, Oklahoma choc beer, and maybe even jacal for hut. See Ben Henry’s comment here to a post of beer blogger and author Alan McLeod about 10 years ago, which discusses the use in Chile of “chock” in relation to beer. One might think chock for beer in Chile derives from a Romance term related to the French “chope“, for a mug of beer. This is not likely since, apart from the fact I doubt the “p” sound shifts to a “k” in Spanish linguistics, jarra is the Spanish term for the French chope… (The English cup, though, is obviously connected to the said French word).
Some Choctaw did for a time reside in parts of what is now Texas, when it was still Mexico, that is. Their presence there was fairly minimal though and most left for the newly established tribal land in Oklahoma after the 1830’s. Given their origins in eastern U.S., and given also that Mexicans formed part of the corps which worked the aforesaid mines in Oklahoma, I’d think a Mexican Spanish or Mexican indigenous language source for choc beer is more plausible than the name coming from the Choctaw Nation. This article by Stanley Clarke, written in the mid-1950’s, not 1910 as I thought earlier, refers to the different ethnicities which made up the Oklahoma mining population. Both Slovaks and Mexicans feature in reasonable number in the breakdowns given.
Krebs, a town in Oklahoma associated with choc beer, has a brewery and restaurant called Choc Beer Co./Pete’s Place which makes different beers under the choc label: the “1919”, or “Basement Batch”, may well be similar to one of the home brew chocs of Oklahoma before National Prohibition came into force after WW I.