McSorley’s Ale House – no Tin Lizzie

McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of the most chronicled American taverns in modern memory anyway. Apart from Joseph Mitchell’s landmark 1940 essay in the New Yorker, there are:

  • many shorter journalistic treatments
  • a recent, full-length history by Rafe Bartholomew, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me
  • a solid Wikipedia essay that cites the key sources.

Many beer writers have written about McSorley’s although more in the early days of micro/craft beer. I’ve referred to the place numerous times, usually in connection with 19th century hand pumps not in use since Prohibition.

In recent years, craft brewing has, or so is my impression, largely ignored McSorley’s. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the decor, if we can use that term, is old school to the max and does not attract a beer aware, hip crowd. Second, but related to the first point, McSorley’s has not gotten on the craft beer bus. It still offers, AFAIK, the old binary of “light” and “dark”, decent enough but mass market-type more or less. So apart from the history and louche atmosphere there is no reason to go, or write about it, although I suspect most beer scribes have made the pilgrimage when in striking distance.

That said, is there anything about McSorley’s that hasn’t been reduced to print? I think there is, in particular viz. news accounts from the 1920s and earlier that seem to have escaped notice. The onset of newspaper digitization makes it easier to find them. I’ll deal with a couple of these. I’ll start with a later one although an 1890s gem shows (I’ll get to it) that tavern hagiography, nay myth, had already embraced McSorley’s before 1900.

A sketch from 1922 is unusually well-written for the always-harried Fourth Estate, perhaps contributed by an associate of the Smart Set. Don Marquis, who wrote well on beer and New York ale houses, is a candidate surely. The writer was decorous to state that the place retained its old allure even though near beer was now served. Mitchell wrote that real beer was brewed by an ex-brewery worker in the basement, sometimes mixed with near beer, and served upstairs until Repeal. It may simply be the writer didn’t want to tattle on McSorley’s since it was early days after Volstead. Lawbreakers faced real risks. So there may have been some (rather literal) tongue in cheek here, but the mystery remains.

A Jazz Era piece, it makes a point applicable today if we substitute the beer hipsters of 2019 for the “Young Intellectuals”. By the way the term degenerate as used here is a period expression, it didn’t mean what many readers may think. It was a reference to changing mores in the form of the Flappers and jazzers. As ever, the old guard looks askance at new ways to have fun and design clothes, watering holes, cars, whatever it be. McSorley’s was the post-chaise of its day, let’s put it that way – no Tin Lizzie.

The story appeared in the New York Evening Post on March 21, 1922.

… we dropped in at McSorley’s, that gallant old saloon on Seventh Street. Alas, we have been untrue to our higher aesthetics; we have not been to McSorley’s nearly enough in recent years.  We know of no other place in New York with such genuine tavern atmosphere; with a pleasing whiff of the fine old-time saloon manners and self-respecting relaxation. In that dark, sawdusted, picture-lined taproom they serve the thin legal potations of Volstead with a dignity and manly courtesy that make them seem as rich and heavenly as tawny port or golden moselle. The Young Intellectuals never heard of McSorley’s; but to us it is the shrine of Literature and Art. It is a great happiness to us to see “The Old House at Home” go on quietly and legally flourishing in this degenerate era; and if this paragraph should even lure thither any of the younger set who know how to behave themselves in front of a glass of near-beer and a raw onion, we shall not have lived in vain.



Update on our Writing Projects

I’ve been writing a long beer article and hence the paucity of blog posts recently as I want to put full effort into that. Still, I’ll be doing a few posts based on current tastings and other topical matters. The article is not based on anything I’ve blogged on before.

Also, this summer the next issue of the food journal Petits Propos Culinaires is due out, PC #114. This is the food, food history, and culinary journal (in English, despite the name) edited by food authority Tom Jaine in England, and published by Prospect Books. For the website of PPC and full subscription information see this link.

PPC is one of the premier international resources on food history and food studies and is only available in hard copy form. It has come out three times yearly since the inaugural issue in 1979.

It typically contains five or six essays on a wide variety of topics, as well as thoughtful yet lively reviews of food books, historical and other. As well, there are compelling notes or observations in each issue by the editor on current issues or events in the food world. The issue now out, #113, has notes for example on a new book on the history of Devon orchards, on the Oxford Cultural Collective, and Leeds Food Symposium, 2019, among others.

Issue #114 will contain our full-length article on butter tart history. It is based on our blog posts of late last year but will be expanded and fully-referenced. We understand PPC #114 will also contain articles on the early history of Stilton cheese (an exciting new discovery, in fact), the early avant-garde chef Jules Maincave, and Mrs. Rundell’s relationship in the early 1800s with her publisher, John Murray.

Many years ago when PPC was edited by the late food historian Alan Davidson I contributed notes on a number of topics including Quebec’s cretons and la cipaille. I’m very happy to appear in PPC again, this time with a full-length piece.

I hope as well in this interlude of non-blogging (or very little blogging) to read some new or recent beer books. I will review here those I can find the time to read.

Stone Brewing Sells its German Brewery

I am writing a long beer article, fully referenced in the scholarly way, and anyone who has done the full Monty knows the incredible amount of time and patience it takes. So my blogging has slowed considerably until I finish it. But I’ll still blog here and there, mostly on topical issues or for beer reviews.

Stone Brewery, the craft beer icon of Southern California famous for its sassy advertising and gargoyle logo, started in 1996. Former CEO Greg Koch, now Executive Chairman, remains the public face of the company. He retains his youthful rock and roll look – indeed he was in that business before turning to brewing – but he’s a middle-aged man helping to guide a complex business.

In 2016 Stone, which has multiple facilities in southern California and a brewery in Virginia, set up a brewery and restaurant complex outside Berlin, in Mariendorff, Stone Berlin. A large ambitious facility, it can seat almost 1000 people taking in the indoors, private rooms, and large garden space.

The opening was accompanied by a splashy party where a big rock is said to have been dropped on cases of both standard German and other European beers. The idea was to show that Stone’s legendary IPA, the equally famous (here) Arrogant Bastard, and other highly flavoured or off-beat craft beers would liven up the German beer scene. In an interview around the same time Koch made statements about German beer that seemed to put it down although read carefully I don’t think he meant that.

But there’s no question he has a brash style and therefore, when it was announced last week that Stone was selling the Mariendorff facility to the fast-expanding U.K.-based craft brewer, Brewdog, there was the inevitable commotion in social media.

Many feel Koch got his comeuppance and when you are as brash as he is, in a sense he had it coming. He’d probably be the first to admit it though. I doubt it will set him back, it’s not his personality or the company’s image.

Koch is an outsize figure in brewing, he recalls the 19th century titans of brewing and other businesses who were partly showmen, who were selling the greatest show on earth. Exaggeration and super-confidence were hallmarks of American business then and Koch in my view reprises that tradition. He goes against the grain of modesty and humility expected in business today.

The fact is, there are many ways to skin the cat. Being low-key and serious of mien never hurt Ken Grossman who heads the even more successful and certainly older in chronology Sierra Nevada Brewing. Some CEOs manage to blend both traits, I think Jim Koch did in the past at any rate, of Sam Adams Brewery (no relation to Greg).

But I ask myself: How many customers or potential customers of Stone Berlin knew what Greg Koch thought about German beer? How many even knew who he was? I doubt his remarks and famous “attitude” had anything to do with the poor performance of Stone Berlin and resultant decision to sell the facility.

I think it had to do mainly with location. The place is far from the Berlin centre, a 40-minute tram ride and longer by bus, and at least a 10-minute walk from the stations in Mariendorff. In Germany, people don’t typically drive to reach a place for a beer session. And the capacity was very large.

There is an old adage in the real estate business. The three most important things about a property are location, location, and location. Some warned when the investment was first announced that the brewery’s distance from Berlin might be a problem. See this excellent article in 2015 by San Diego journalist Peter Rowe on the plan. Its sub-title was prescient: “This is a gamble”. The story mentions the potential access issue for Stone’s World Bistro and Gardens (as the German locale was ultimately termed) numerous times, in fact.

Stone simply overreached. Had it built a place half the size much closer to Berlin, it might be in clover today. While the bulk of Berliners by all reports still enjoys traditional German pilsener, craft beer is increasingly popular. Stone itself finally set up a tap in the Prenzlauer district of south Berlin, selling its own and other craft beers. The bar does well by all accounts and was not included in the sale to Brewdog.

German tastes are slowly attuning to trends elsewhere. Stone could have capitalized on this, as Brewdog hopes to and a handful of local craft breweries already have. Understanding this has nothing to do with dissing German beer. Few have greater respect for it than I, and for straight-off pilsener at that.*

Or, had Stone gone to the U.K. instead of a country with a language and culture quite different to Britain and America, it might have done much better there.

No one succeeds for decades without making a slip or two. Craft beer has such an emotional resonance among its fans that sometimes any set-back seems a major event or one requiring a special explanation. It’s just business, and things don’t always go to plan, even for well-established players.

I think Stone will recover from it, but even if the sale heralds some deeper issue (is cash tight in the crowded craft environment of 2019?), Stone has been with us for almost 25 years. That’s a long time in business. For any business to last that long at that level, in the Top Ten of craft brewers and making c.400,000 bbl a year, is a major accomplishment.

Whatever the future holds for Stone, whatever exaggerated claims Stone Brewing has made for the importance of Stone IPA and changing the taste of beer drinkers, etc., it has achieved a great deal. Stone forms a permanent part of American beer history. And for the most part, it makes great beers. That’s where it really ends and starts, for us.


* In fact, there is nothing bland or anodyne about German blonde lager – it has plenty of taste. Try even the large-selling Warsteiner, say, or Spaten – but the flavours differ from the typical craft palate, and are more narrow in range.





A Visit to The Old Flame Brewing Co.

With my friend Rick Radell, an ace commercial photographer, we visited the Old Flame Brewery Co. in Port Perry, ON last Saturday and were greeted by owner Jack Doak. Jack is originally from Newmarket, ON but long connected to Port Perry which is about 50 miles northeast of Toronto along Lake Scugog.

The lake was originally a shallow series of marshes that were flooded intentionally long ago to form a proper but shallow lake. Today it is a sport-fishing haven and part of the lake country that stretches into the Kawartha hills and lake system finally.

Jack explained the history of the handsome building which was a carriage-making house up to about WW I when for a short time it was a Model T dealership.

The building had multiple uses in succeeding decades and was purchased by Jack, who has a business entrepreneurial background, about a half-dozen years ago. He restored it to much of its original look including the ceiling with its beautiful fine oak beams and joists from the late 1800s. He installed a restaurant and small craft brewery.

Many of the counter and table tops are fashioned from re-purposed old Ontario wood rescued from a nearby barn. The effect is warm and evokes both past and present effortlessly.

The brewery, separated from the main room and bar by a wall, houses multiple fermenters, mashing and boiling equipment, and a compact canning line in an oblong room.

I tasted a number of beers of which my favourites were a California Common style and Perry Loves Mary India Pale Ale, for which the recipe has not changed since Day 1 said Jack. It is a malty, assertive West Coast style with a good lingering bitterness.

The place was packed on a Saturday afternoon and there was a singer-guitarist fully capturing the attention of all.

Jack emphasized that a craft brewery and restaurant, at least in his area, is as much in the tourism as the beer business as a lot of the clientèle is from outside Port Perry whether near or further afield like Toronto. Hence the Old Flame has relationships with other businesses in town, e.g. one supplies an excellent butter tart that uses some Old Flame beer in the recipe. The businesses try to help and support each other in overall support of the town which makes perfect sense.

I didn’t get a chance to meet the brewer but hopefully the next time. The list of beers is certainly “of today”, well-made, and were evidently enjoyed by the guests.

I didn’t eat anything but Rick loved his charcuterie plate shown in his wonderful photo above (the other is my certainly non-professional effort!). We sat at a table formed from a 1930s Maytag washing machine and Jack related the story how Fritz Maytag in San Francisco helped kickstart the craft revolution, and here was an actual artifact from the family business whose support made that possible.

What a kick to drink a California Common beer, i.e., made in the California steam beer style, using the top of the machine as a table. I wish Fritz Maytag had been there to see it.

Old Flame is an exemplary example of the modern brewpub: not fazed by all the competition and constantly seeking a way to stand out. I greatly enjoyed the visit and look forward to returning.


Core Draught Innis & Gunn Brands to be Brewed in Toronto

As confirmed in Canadian Beer News this morning, Innis & Gunn, the Scottish-based independent brewer, and Brunswick Bierworks of East York, Toronto announced that Brunswick will brew core I&G draught brands for the local market.

The parties state this will enable the draft, all currently imported, to be shipped to local accounts faster and fresher. I&G’s famous barrel-aging will be followed for brands that receive such treatment including I&G’s marquee, The Original.

Brands covered by the arrangement include Gunpowder IPA and Lager. The deal is expected to further brewing collaborations between I&G and Brunswick; there were a couple in the past for the Canadian market, but more should follow.

As someone who regularly tries I&G products and has studied their innovations with barrel aging, I welcome the announcement.

Today a beer can find a new home and taste like it does at the originating brewery. It’s not like 30 years ago when international, or indeed any, contract brewing was a more chancy proposition.

In 2019, technical ability and global logistics are such that given the will and investment, a beer can (almost always) be recreated in a distant location with great fidelity. I&G and Brunswick have pledged their utmost to ensure this result. Given the sophistication of the Brunswick Bierworks, which I have toured, I don’t doubt this will happen.

Certainly the closer a bar is to source of supply, the better off the consumer. One reason: it’s less likely the beer will be pasteurized, tightly filtered, or processed in a way that extends shelf life but may diminish flavour.

We enjoy the core I&G products and look forward to trying them in their “Toronto” iteration.


Weiss Beer in Truman’s America

Drive-in Theatres, Marilyn, Pedal-pushers and – Wheat Beer


Anglo-German beer since the 1700s at least has been significantly reliant on barley malt, with English beer later adopting sugar and other malt substitutes for a relatively small part of the mash. Germany has kept the tradition of all-malt for lager or bottom-fermented beer, at least where sold domestically, but allows non-malt additions for certain top-fermented specialities including porter.

Germany has a long tradition of top-fermented wheat beers. In recent times the Bavarian or weizen style, a blend of barley malt and wheat malt, dominates in that category, itself quite small in the total picture. Weiss beer in the Berlin style has survived even less well but craft breweries have given it a fillip (as for the Bavarian style). Weiss also relies on those two malts but usually in different proportions. Weiss also uses a lactic acid ferment in conjunction with top-yeast, which Bavarian wheat beer does not.

Other German styles that use wheat in the mash and are related to weiss beer have continued such as Pinkus Münster Alt, or been revived again by craft brewers. The term wheat beer at least outside Germany generally connotes the Berlin or Bavarian type. Belgian wit, an often-spiced wheat style that employs barley malt and, frequently, unmalted wheat, is not relevant to our topic but we mention it for completeness. The case of lambic and its unique spontaneous fermentation is not dissimilar – related but too distant for present purposes.

Below we discuss some under the radar weiss history in the U.S. especially after Prohibition, with glances further back as well.

Hampden Brewery’s Surprising Entrée Into Weiss Brewing

It is often assumed that after 1933 no weiss or wheat beer issued in America until 1984 when Anchor Brewery in San Francisco introduced its Summer Wheat Beer (as now termed). Evidently this is not so. In a post a few days ago I mentioned that the Hampden Brewery in Willimansett, in south-central Massachusetts, released a “Weiss beer” in 1949, as did a brewery in Albany, NY, Weber Star Bottling, in 1933. I referenced this splashy newspaper ad from Hampden in the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette in December 1949:

Numerous similar ads appeared in 1949-1950. Of particular interest is this full page ad which explains how weiss quality was maintained in the scientific brewing age. The ad appeared in the same Greenfield Recorder-Gazette, in June 1950.

Before WW 1 most weiss beer was unfiltered (see Wahl & Henius cited below) and almost certainly unpasteurized as a result. The beer had notably a gassy reputation which we think was assisted by continuing maturation in bottle.

In the ad above Hampden explains that an engineering firm in St. Louis helped it perfect pasteurization, evidently for the two brands pictured, one of which is the weiss. This separate ad is even more specific on the value of the process viz. the weiss brand. The concern was probably to ensure all residual yeast in the bottle was rendered inactive while preserving the delicate flavour of a wheat-based beer.

Now, pasteurization was not new in 1950 including for beer. But the ad explains that the process was improved via a method of quickly cooling the beer after heating, a feature claimed as unique. This probably enabled modern weiss to be pasteurized yet retain its pre-Prohibition taste qualities.

Amazingly – or to us it is – the company that developed the system still exists, under the same name, in St. Louis: Barry-Wehmiller. Now a multi-billion dollar concern, it is run by the son of the man who bought the company from the owner in the period discussed (see website for this background). In fact we think it likely the Hampden weiss beer recipe resides somewhere in Barry-Wehmiller records.

Hampden Brewery according to a couple of reliable brewery timelines, e.g., this one from Old Breweries, started as William Brierly Brewery in 1878. It was revived after Prohibition and merged later with Harvard Brewery in Massachusetts and Piels Brewery in New York, closing forever in 1975. Hence the current CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, who joined the company in 1969, may well have dealt with the successor of the c.1950 Hampden. You knowing the saying, from an (aptly 1951) novel by William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

Very little attention has been focused on this early post-Pro weiss beer. The only other reference I’m aware of is Tavern Trove’s commendable listing of the brand and reproduction of a label, see here and here. Tavern Trove has the weiss in the market from 1950-1956, but clearly it was first sold in 1949.

Weiss Beer Before Prohibition

Wahl & Henius’ c.1900 American Handy-book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, at pp. 817-820 , covers American weiss beer and then the Berlin form. The authors seem to consider American weiss an emulation of the Berlin style, not the Bavarian style, albeit Wahl & Henius do not mention the lactic acid bacteria signature of Berliner Weisse. However, it was likely too early as science was only just learning the composition of the mixed Berlin ferments.

Many accounts attest to the character of U.S. weiss which I would summarize as, low alcohol* if not sometimes actually a soft drink; gassy; sharp and refreshing. The drink had a lower social status than lager, somewhat akin to early steam beer in California.

It seems doubtful that no American brewer before Prohibition made a Bavarian-style wheat beer, but the dominant form of wheat beer was probably the Berlin style. Here you see an early example in 1865 in San Francisco, CA. It is actually called “Berliener weiss beer” but clearly a domestic product. This is not to say genuine Berlin weisse was not imported. In 1897 a dealer carried it in Ohio, see here.

Wahl & Henius state that sometimes American weiss employed malted wheat in addition to barley malt, but more often corn grits was used in lieu of the wheat. They state too American brewers often modified Berlin’s mashing and fermentation regimes. As always there were likely different qualities in the market.

In fact, if you want to know, a weiss beer from Chicago was awarded first prize at an “international weiss beer contest” held in Berlin, heartland of the style, in 1890. A Paterson, NJ paper, the Daily Guardian, reported the details. This is akin to the famous victory of California wines tasted blind with top French wines by Paris experts in 1976, but never heralded.

An 1888 news story in the New York Herald described drinking practices in Rockaway, entitled “Where They Drank Weiss Beer”. The writer considered weiss hardly different from lager in the large beer hall he described. We infer this type was the cheaper corn form mentioned by Wahl & Henius. The scribe writes:

… at the terminus of the Eighth avenue elevated road there exists several popular resorts. First to be found was the Atalanta Casino, which stands beside the 165th street station of the west side elevated system, which was yesterday afternoon and until midnight thronged with people. They sat at the three hundred tables and drank something that looked very like lager beer, and it tasted very like lager, but as everybody asked for weiss beer and numerous signs displayed on the walls an­nounced that only weiss beer could be obtained, of course weiss beer it must have been.

Whatever it was the well dressed and orderly crowd sipped their amber beverage and listened to music… Now and then the programmes were varied by xylophone and cornet solos, or songs, the latter rendered by a young woman who never seemed to grow tired and evidently expected the tumultuous encores which greeted her.

The waiters were kept busy supplying the demands of their guests and as fast as a hundred or two left the hall and departed in search of amusement elsewhere, their places were promptly taken by the steady tide of newcomers. Although the Casino has a seating capacity of over two thousand, it was unable to accommodate all who came, so the superabundant crowd went to Kessel’s Manhattan Park, a few doors away. Here were seats and tables for nearly one thousand per­sons, and, like the Casino they were all occupied as the visitors came and went during the day and evening.

But the most interesting feature of these concert halls was the picturesque audiences, who not only were well dressed, but behaved well. Not a single intoxicated person was to be seen in either place and, as the sexes were about evenly divided, perfect order and decorum prevailed…

Monday Monday So Good to Me

Weiss beer abounds in the late 1800s but by 1906 there is steep decline. The Paterson Morning Call noted that year:

WEISSBEER LITTLE DRUNK. Weissbeer, once a popular drink In New York, especially among the Plattdeutsch population, has almost entirely disappeared. Here and there in a German neighborhood may be found a saloon which keeps weiss beer on sale, but those who call for it are less numerous each year, says the New York Sun.

Weissbeer is a thin lager beer, produced by rapid fermentation. Lager beer is produced by slow fermentation. Both are flavored with hops, but while the saccharine properties of lager beer are developed through the process of manufacture, weissbeer is astringent and it has long been a theory that it is non-intoxicating except when taken in very large quantities.

Weissbeer has been known to have a sobering effect, and for that reason has been called Montag beer, or Monday beer…

It disappears after Prohibition except – thus far to our knowledge – for Weber Star Bottling’s sales in Albany, NY in 1933 and Hampden’s in the 1950s. In the craft era Anchor Brewery finally revives the style from 1984.

Anchor Brewing’s Wheat Beer

Anchor’s revival is a light interpretation, more a wheat ale, without a lactic Berlin or Bavarian clovey-bubble gum character. This page from Anchor Brewery’s website explains the make-up and character.

Anchor’s version served as spur to countless craft breweries to make authentic versions of Berlin or Bavarian wheat beer. Today, all these types proliferate in the market with many flavoured and other variations.

Avant la Lettre

The drinking public in Truman’s America was probably bemused by Hampden’s reintroduction of an oddball style of beer. It is hard to say at this remove if it was Berlin-style or Bavarian, I incline to the former. To all appearances it made no ripple in the sea of blonde U.S. lager. The country was just not ready. Maybe success would have come had a New York City brewer tried, or one in Chicago, former strongholds of the style, but this is far from clear.

What might have turned the ship was an influential beer writer, someone performing the role Michael Jackson et al. later did. In the 1950s he or she was nowhere to be found, indeed consumer beer writing as a genre did not exist. This is not to say weiss beer was unknown in pre-Jackson, 1960s and 1970s America. It was, as an import. I’ll return to this.


Speaking of le petit maître, as one obituary termed Michael Jackson for his stylistic innovations, if you want a primer on wheat beer Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (Duncan Baird, 1993) is the premier place to start.

Note re images: the first two images above are sourced from Fulton Historical newspapers as identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Between 2 and 3% alcohol, probably by volume not by weight, accordingly to analyses performed on seized goods in 1917. This is consistent with Canadian parliamentary testimony at the end of the 1800s, see here.


Amsterdam 1870 AK Bitter – Mark II Release

Last night the 2019 version of 1870 AK Bitter was released at Amsterdam BrewHouse on Laird Dr. in Toronto. This is the second year of a collaboration between me and Amsterdam Brewery, a pioneering Toronto craft breweries. The recipe is based on a recipe in an 1870 issue of English Mechanic and World of Science, see here.

At the launch the beer was served on both nitro dispense (a la draft Guinness) and regular, carbonated keg. No cask-conditioning was done this year. We did some “cask” last year and elected to try nitro’s soft carbonation as an alternative for Mark II.

This year we used Chevallier malt from Crisp in England, and whole leaf Kent Golding hops from Charles Faram there. Both varieties existed in 1870. In contrast, last year we used Maris Otter malt, Whitbread Goldings, and Fuggles hops. None of these existed in 1870 but are all of traditional U.K. type. This year, an English yeast (Wyeast 1099) was used, last year, a California one.

Last year, the idea was to use the hops in amounts close to the 1870 directions and basically showcase the English ingredients. This year, the same, but we went deeper to choose barley and hops in place in 1870, as far as can be done, that is.

In 1870 pale malt was kilned by direct-fired ovens using anthracite coal or coke for fuel. This gave malt a slightly “cooked” taste, but modern malt uses clean indirect heat. Read this page in full from English brewing scientist Charles Graham in 1874 to understand this historical taste and his contrast with air-dried malt, from a series of lectures he gave, the Cantor Lectures. This is just one example of many inevitable differences between Victorian brewing and modern brewing, as no malt today is kilned with coal to our knowledge!

But that doesn’t mean we can’t get close to what they did back then. It’s certainly worth trying, not to mention being a stimulating and educational experience.

In both year’s version of 1870 AK Bitter only one malt was used as required by the 1870 directions, which is atypical today for English bitter, a descendant of 1800s AK and IPA. Modern English bitter and IPA often use pale malt with caramel malt, and sometimes sugar, too. We used no caramel malt or sugar as the recipe didn’t call for it, and in fact caramel malt did not exist then at least not in commercial form.

The taste of 2019 AK Bitter is very pure, with a honeyed quality and perfumed (rosewater?) herbal intensity from the hops, especially if you drink it half-chilled at best. Some tasters gave an analogy of black tea. It’s what I call rosewater, some Orange Pekoe tea, or other tea, has it.

The beer is sweetish (1014 FG) in a different way than modern bitter though. The lack of a caramel or fudgy note is the main factor due to absence of caramel malt. And the absence of sugar means a fuller malt taste.

Craft pale ales can have similar malt properties but almost none in North America use similar hops AFAIK, especially leaf hops! Very few bitters that I tasted at the Great British Beer Festival last August had this degree of hop taste, in fact, which I put down to the quantity of hops used, mainly.

Some specs:

Original Gravity: 12.5 P. (1050)

Final gravity: 3.7 P. (1014) vs. target of 3.5 P. Some homebrewers report similar slightly higher attenuations with Chevallier.

Target alcohol: 4.9 ABV. Final ABV: 4.7

IBUs: 40 vs. mid-30s last year.

Goldings Alpha Acids: 2.8%, quite low. We used equivalent of 2 lbs/bbl, + 1 lb/bbl dry hopping but there is no great aroma. We forecast that as all the boil hops went in at start of boil per the recipe which states to add the hops “as soon as possible”. Not all bitter or pale ale has to have pungent aroma, and not all did in the past.

We felt 2 lbs/bbl fresh hops would equate to 3 lbs/bbl (minimum) per 1870 recipe as author stated to blend fresh and aged hops, a common practice at the time (but not invariable).

Burtonization with calcium sulphate.

Single rest infusion mash.

All beer as last year, except for the cask portion last year, centrifuged for keg and cans (a rough filtration). Last year when tasting cask and carbonated keg side by side at equal temperatures I couldn’t detect much difference, FWIW. I think temperature of consumption is the main factor in palate intensity.

In sum, an excellent “A/B” to explore facets of the historical pale ale taste.





Silentium – Bieryunge!

The history of the German beer contests or beer duels among student societies or Studentenverbindung is complex and recondite. While offering no model of emulation today – au contraire –  they have interest for the student of beer’s past.

Despite the foreignness of the subject matter the U.S. press introduced the topic in colourful stories in the last decade of the 1800s. I’ll review a couple of these, but first a prelude.

The beer duel is connected to the other tradition of the student societies, duelling by sword, evolved today as “academic” fencing, accomplished from a fixed position with no winner declared.

The beer duel, or bieryunge, was a contest spurred by a slight or insult. The offended party would demand a duel of the mugs, or it might be ordered by a superior in the club to settle a dispute between junior members.

If there was anything to be said for it, the drink gotten down was generally minimal –  just one beer unless some point of procedure was not followed, in which case more might be required. So not the perilous form of dozens of glasses although some students engaged in that too, as detailed below.

In the bieryunge two men drank down a mug as fast as they could. He who finished first sang out in triumph bieryunge! A referee decided the result. The implication of the exclamation was the loser was a “beer youth” – a tyro at the malt. Sometimes another word was mandated for the victory shout, often a nonsensical term.

A participant who spilled too much would be ruled the loser for “bleeding”. One sees here an implied analogy to sword duelling. Indeed it seems the beer contests grew popular as an alternative to that more dangerous practice.

Youtube has a number of clips called bierjunge which gives some idea of it, at least the speed and nonchalance, see e.g., here.

The bierjunge formed part of a complex ritual or code of beer drinking adopted by most student societies. Each group had a particular orientation: sporting, drinking as such, study-philosophical, religious, artistic, etc. The group of societies known as The Corps was always the most aristocratic and socially elite. Even in this constellation the groups differed, usually by rank in the social hierarchy.

Despite their great number the student societies always represented a minority of students. The majority could not afford the dues and other costs to participate. Incidentally the societies continue to this day but the competitive sword play, and we assume the glass duels and complex beer codes, are of the past.

In 1898 a number of northeast U.S. newspapers including in Atlantic City, NJ reported one bierjunge in arch, amusing terms. The story conveys well the fabulist and whimsical elements of the rituals. For example, they had their own measurement of time. Three beer minutes, say, was equal to four normal minutes. Members would be subject to humorous or absurd edicts from the society president or a “beer tribunal”. From the story:

“Silentium, for a beer contest between the beer honourable fellows Schulze and Muller.”

The referee takes up the weapons brought in and by sipping carefully sees that the columns of beer are at the same level in each mug. He then announces:

“The weapons are good and equal. Silentium. The beer duel begins.” ….

Schulze pours his beer with evident satisfaction down his throat, but Muller prefers to spill the stuff with impartiality over his shirt front and waistcoat as well. Schulze shouts in triumph:


Whereupon the referee announces icily, ”Muller has shed blood and must be considered second in the race.”

Muller’s defeat irritates him. He appeals instantly to a beer court, which, after consuming a number of eggnogs, rejects his appeal, condemns him to pay for the drinks and orders him to deliver within three beer minutes a beer speech on the text, “The immortality of June bugs and their importance in the outcome of the Greco-Turkish war.”

19th century articles by English or American travellers describe the clubs and their customs. These are easy to find for anyone interested. Within the confines of this essay, this second news report, in 1892 in Philadelphia, gives a fuller sense of it. The story points out that the standard bieryunge was usually, but not always, benign, and students engaged in other competitive beer drinking, too.

In the latter, some of the quantities consumed rivalled or even exceeded what the two brewers did in Union Hill, NJ (see my previous post) – hard to believe but apparently true. Unusually in such accounts, the brand of beer for one of the contests is mentioned: Schiefferdecker. The founder was a Bavarian who had relocated to northern Germany, near Konigsberg, now Kalingrad.

There he built one of the largest breweries in the north. This suggests to me the local market was inclining away from North German top-fermented specialties in favour of Bavarian-style and other lagers, a trend that finally dominated brewing world-wide. See this German account of the brewery, and this one in English.

It seems the clubs mostly sang songs. Perhaps at this remove one gets a distorted view of their character, as university couldn’t have been one long carouse. After all Germany was far from unsophisticated in the arts and sciences… The mug must have been left behind so students could graduate and follow their chosen calling. The last-mentioned account hints at this when it refers to senior students who had left their club and were writing exams.

Many reading will think of fraternity life in North America. I’m not that knowledgeable on frats so can’t offer even the beginnings of a comparison, but suspect there were more differences than similarities.

Note re image: The image above is from a painting by Georg Mühlberg and is believed in the public domain. It was sourced from this Wikipedia entry on the Bierjunge. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



From Weiss to Wasted

With so many subjects and limited time, a number of topics for the usual space today.

Weiss Beer After WW I

It is common currency in American brewing history that weiss beer disappeared after Prohibition. That is to say, the old top-fermented wheat beer, widely available before WW I (even though not always made with wheat), was not revived by brewers after Repeal. As one former customer in Buffalo mused (1938), “whatever became of weiss beer”?

Yet it was not for a lack of trying. With a new brewing landscape in 1933 Weber Star Bottling, connected to a venerable weiss producer in Albany, NY, advertises tentatively. The ad copy is not 100% clear but it seems the weiss was being sold again. For background on the pre-Prohibition Geo. Weber, see Gravina and McLeod, here.

In 1949 Hampden Brewing in Willamansett, MA issues a splashy three-quarter page ad for its weiss beer made with wheat and Saaz hops. Hampden lasted into the 1970s, the wheat beer did not. A pity as the bubbly prose offered much promise:

… Weiss Beer [is] … so delicious and refreshing — with such clean, clear taste and satisfying tang— early Europeans described the beer as, “Suffigkeit”. Meaning — “it invites to have another glass”.

Somehow, in the passing of years, the art of making Weiss Beer disappeared. With it went the deep pleasure of this rare brew.

Now, the Hampden Brewing Company has revived the precious art of making Weiss Beer — took time and patience to perfect it for American tastes. So here is Weiss Beer at last with all its full-bodied character.

Fresh Hop Beer 

In this post I documented the use of green or wet hops in early English brewing. This was centuries before Sierra Nevada and other craft innovators introduced their wet hop beers a few years ago.

Recently I found a page on Jess Kidden’s site about Tempo Beer from Blatz, mid-1950s. Blatz touted the beer as not made with the usual dried hops but rather fresh hops. Reading the account carefully, this was probably a steam-distilled hop oil, not wet hops as we understand it today. Ballantine Brewery in New Jersey used something similar after Prohibition. As early as 1871 an American patented a method to distill hop oil for use in brewing.

While not the same as wet hop brewing Blatz deserves marks for giving hop oil, or likely it was that, commercial application; and for marketing it as an innovation. Blatz was trying to stand out in a challenging market for regional brewers. Yet, the product to our knowledge was a damp squib; as for weiss beer, postwar America didn’t want to know.

Craft Beer

Discussions continue endlessly online on the meaning of craft (beer) past, present, future, I saw at least three this month. In this recent post I drew attention to Michael Jackson’s pioneering use of the term “craft brewery” in 1982 in reference to an old family brewery in England. Due to his elucidation of the phrase and the way American writers later used it, it acquired a connotation of small-scale, limited distribution, high quality.

But as I stated myself in the Comments, “craft” is used in discussions of brewing much earlier. In 1909 Heileman Brewery of Chicago described its beers as “the triumph of the brewer’s craft”. Its lagers were almost certainly made with grain adjunct, in an up-to-date plant. By 1902 Heileman was no upstart, it had operated for decades and was brewing upwards of 200,000 bbl per year.

There are continual references to the term brewer’s craft in the 1800s, e.g. here in Britain in connection with a German brewing school, and indeed stretching back to Henry V’s time in 1421. It’s a hop and skip from that to “craft beer”, “crafted beer”, “an honoured craft”, etc.

The influential Jackson charted a path that led finally to the Brewer’s Association conception of craft brewery. But given the wider history and continual evolution of technology and scale I’d regard any well-made, full-flavoured beer as “craft”. Pilsner Urquell is a craft beer because the recipe and process result in – are crafted to produce – a high quality product.

Small brewers have unquestionably formed the vanguard of quality brewing since the 1980s but came to notice by virtue of making distinctive, quality products, not by being small and feisty as such. Some small brewers make products styled to the mass market, for example, and some of them would disavow the term craft or are indifferent to it.

Beer Bust

19th century literature affords countless examples of uninhibited beer drinking, mostly in Germany.* The quantities gotten down often seem staggering. This was partly due to German beer having lower average alcohol than today, but maybe too men were built differently. An interesting example appears in the U.S. press in 1898. Two brewers were working for the same firm (not stated) in Union Hill, NJ. They were of German origin or the older one was, Mathias Sommermann, 50. They vied in a contest for biggest beer bibber.

The winner was Mathias. He got down 88 glasses of beer, specified as half-pint measure or eight U.S. oz. His much younger opponent, George Bertrand, stopped at 82 but also ate a huge amount of food. Given that Mathias had almost 30 years on Bertrand he was dispensed from eating, clearly.

Even if some foam is allowed, and even taking the beer at 4% ABV, that is an amazing amount of beer. It’s the equivalent of a couple of two-fours (58 beers @12 oz., 5% ABV. Take off 20% for 4% ABV, hence about 48 bottles). There is a note of pathos in the account as the winner’s wife did not approve Matthias’ involvement in the contest. Piteously, she tried to drag him away, without success.

Looking at who brewed in town in 1898 and for how long I’d think the brewery was William Peter. Compare the drawing of Sommermann in this related account to the men in the William Peter staff photo in Jay Brook’s account of the brewery. Is Sommermann in the second row, second from last to the right? Or if not, is he in the top row holding (appropriately) a glass of beer? It is one of them I think, probably the former.

The staff picture seems 1880s era judging by William Peter’s appearance. In 1898 Sommermann had worked in the brewery for 20 years, and William Peter started brewing before 1878, so it kind of fits.

Young contestant Bertrand ended on the sickbed from the caper but seems to have survived. He blamed the cigars and beef, natch. And Mathias? Fit as a fiddle, and not apparently drunk (?). Certainly he seemed hale in the drawing mentioned. A little zaftig, but nothing that would stand out. How did he do it?

Note re image: the image above is from the HathiTrust digital library as linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See eg. this travel report of reckless student drinking at 256-257.


Carnegie Porter: Drilling Down on the Black Stuff

According to this promotional site for Hotel Waterfront Gothenburg in the historic harbour of Gothenburg, Sweden, Eton-educated Scot David Carnegie, Jr. bought the Lorent Brewery (est. 1817)* in 1836. His uncle had traded in Gothenburg earlier but the nephew is the one associated with the brewery.

Part of the brewery is now a hotel, in other words. The page linked shows a dramatic rendering of the brewery in pen and ink at the height of Victorian influence.

Carnegie Brewery is now a unit of the Danish Carlsberg. The brewing of porter continues, at a Carlsberg facility in Falkenberg, Sweden.

As I documented earlier, there was a period just before WW I when Carnegie Porter was brewed in Copenhagen, an interlude that would benefit from further research.

There have been various tinkerings with the alcohol level, currently 5.5% ABV, and yeast type, but current reviews at the rating service Beer Advocate attest to a traditional quality. See especially the comments of “beergoot” on January 18, 2018. My own experience confirms his view. The message is: richness, sweetness with chocolate and toffee notes. There is every reason to think, given the heritage, good un-aged porter tasted this way in the 1800s.

There is the odd dissenting view, this enthusiastic Briton took Carlsberg to task for what he considered essentially a “brown ale”!

The hotel makes a specialty of the beer, understandably due to its history, offering a range of vintage bottles and other porters from its “porter pantry”. As Michael Jackson pointed out years ago, despite being pasteurized the brewery considers the beer can benefit from being laid down. Our own view is uncertain on this; perhaps Carlsberg will send a “vintage pack” to Ontario and we can decide from there.

The hotel offers an enticing series of porter tastings and tours. See here for a listing and image of a giant porter vat used for events. Now that’s living.

In 2013 Carlsberg and New York’s Brooklyn Brewery established a first joint venture inspired by Carnegie history to brew beers in a range of craft styles. Nya Carnegiebryggeriet, or New Carnegie Brewery, was opened the following year in Stockholm. The lapidary but informative website contains an interesting entry on the imperial stout, here.

(I had the chance to buy the inaugural beer, a version of Carnegie aged in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel, but passed as it seemed doubtful Carnegie used American oak barrels in the 19th century to store its beer. I gather it was a kind of New World-Old World fusion idea, so fair enough).

Returning to the 19th century, Carnegie Porter was reputed enough to attract attention from English writers, as this example shows from traveller William Hurton in 1851:

Carnegie’s porter is excellent, and I am assured much is actually sent to England, and sold as English porter!

In 1877 David Carnegie, Jr. himself, in Parliamentary testimony, likened the beer to English porter except for being less strong.

By the early 1900s it is being sent to various points in North America not to mention the likes of Cuba and Brazil. My research shows sightings in San Francisco (1913, Swedish language ethnic press) and Duluth, MN, (Duluth Herald, 1912). As I’ve discussed at length it was also sold in the same period in Victoria, B.C., with no Swedish cultural context. The Duluth ad is in English but the large Swedish implantation in the state can’t be discounted.

After Prohibition, it comes back, in New York as this fulsome ad shows for a range of beer imports in June 1933, i.e., just as beer is legalized again.

After WW II it flows anew to the New York area, as seen in this 1951 advertorial-style review in the Brooklyn Eagle:

Like good champagne, it pops the cork when properly chilled for serving. Abroad it is used as an aperitif, served in thin-shelled, chilled wine glasses. Here it is more frequently added to a good lager beer, to make a flavorful drink. Best proportion for most tastes is one-fourth stout to three-fourths beer. Mixed half and half with champagne it makes a drink known as “black velvet.” The 10.8 ounce bottles of this Carnegie stout retail at 39 cents, also at the Skandia shop, at Petzinger’s, 86 3rd Ave., and Dupper’s at 524 86th St., Bay Ridge.

The writer seems rather timorous how to use the beer, advising to mix it with lager in a rather modest proportion. This is probably under influence of 1930s and contemporary Guinness advertising which suggested that stout be mixed with lager.

I find it strange a country with a liking for strong-tasting, rich drinks – Coca-Cola, bourbon, root beer, etc. – would be so cautious on how to drink a dark beer. Once America lost its original tradition of amber-brown and dark lagers in favour of the blonde “Bohemian” type it never regained enthusiasm for dark beers. Craft brewing has only partly reversed this.

The Three Towns lager referred to in the 1951 piece is a story unto itself, I may return to it. Suffice it to say the brew was probably not a literal blending of beers from three Swedish breweries but likely a single, collaborative brew. The brand continues at least in Sweden as the popular “TT“.

It would be interesting to see the full text of this article in the Brewing Trade Review of 1962 on Carnegie Brewery, as it would shed light on the beer from a post-war, pre-craft perspective. If anyone can find it, that would assist porter historiography.

I’ve seen Carnegie Porter on the menu in one or two New York beer bars, The Gingerman notably. It appears here and there elsewhere in the country, distributed by the estimable importer B. United, see its listing.

Along with (Finnish) Sinebrychoff Stout, (English) Courage Imperial Russian Stout, and Lion Stout (Sri Lanka, the former British-ruled Ceylon), Carnegie was the face that launched a thousand vats – of black gold.

Carnegie continues, but in a kind of semi-retirement. It pulls out all the stops when broached, make no mistake, but is content to let its many craft progeny enjoy the limelight.


*Some sources state 1813.