Welsh Rabbit in Literary Lights


“Welsh Rabbit … Autocrat of the Lunch Table … It Scorns All Alliance…”

Foods have long been the subject of literary appreciation. Fruits, vegetables, and many prepared dishes have been eulogized, as have many drinks: wine pre-eminently but also beer, cider, and more. Even Coke has been spotlit by the literary pen – poet Frank O’Hara’s.

This optic excludes narratives for cookery instruction, social-historical, and advertising purposes, as these have essentially practical purpose; we are in the realm of the aesthetic, here. Some examples:

A few years ago Stacey Harwood of Saveur magazine gave her 13 favourite pieces of food poetry. Sample names include Virgil, Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden.

In 2012, Kevin Young issued The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. It collects encomia on food and drink in bardic form. Many names are equally well-known, for example Yeats, Beaudelaire, Heaney, Wilbur, H.D., Ginsberg. Young provides many contributions himself, in the form of an ode series. Ode to Chicken is one.

Of course, food and drink have also received aesthetic appraisal in essay and other non-poetry form.

The ineluctable fact of food and drink in human life attracts interest of the visual arts, as well. One need only think of still-lifes of table offerings that range from soup to nuts. Perhaps the difficulty of many artists to provide satisfactory hearth and home inclines them to a keener appreciation of life’s eatables. But also, or in many cases, it’s an example of a heightened sensibility, or a different one anyway.

So, one way or another, artists of all types have not ignored the quotidian of food. Even the general culture knows the signal examples, Charles Lamb’s ode to roast pig, say. In his book, Kevin Young was so taken with artistic expression of the edible porcine, he thought the book should contain a section just on that topic, although space limitations seemed to preclude this.

Yesterday, I asked if people know what Welsh Rabbit is, and gave my thoughts on the venerable dish. I can add more, as follows. In his 1899 Welsh Rabbit at Hildreth’s, the American Charles N. Miller delivered a high panegyric on his cheesy subject.  It’s well written and wryly funny, not a poem but a short essay. Hopefully future collections of arty paeans to food and drink will see fit to include Miller’s work which seems inexplicably overlooked to date.

Few dishes, or ostensibly, seem less apt for such treatment. Welsh Rabbit emerged from the remote vales and stolid crofts of distant Britannia. It moved with Empire to places and climes far removed and was appreciated especially by emigrants (and their descendants) with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic blood. Welsh Rabbit has resonance in other cultures – the French in particular appreciate le Welsh – but otherwise has stayed within anglophone precincts. To say it has remained low-key would be an understatement, and if anything has declined in culinary importance. This has more to do with the vagaries of food fashion than anything else.

The dish is primal food: cheese and bread gussied up only a little, and homely (the word is telling) with its irregular edges and puffy, white look. One can see that before the food industry developed a thousand and one treats needing only a zap in the microwave, Welsh Rabbit had appeal due to simplicity of preparation. And even if made poorly as often it was, by many accounts, still it was nutritious and stuck to the ribs, not the least of its merits in the old days.

Yet, if various pig parts, Quebec’s poutine, Buffalo chicken wings, and earthy kale can rise to world foodie prominence, why not Welsh Rabbit? Particularly as it admits of endless variations, is not expensive, and suits high society (pace Miller) or any other rank you like.

The success of the craft beer movement must only encourage marquee, nay Bourdanian treatment of Welsh Rabbit. Beer was the primary liquid always added to it and drank with it. Virtually any kind of beer can be used, too. But if need be a cider or wine rabbit works well, indeed Britain knew variations of these types, sometimes under names such as Golden Buck, Scotch Woodcock, English Rabbit.

Call the new culinary star Le Welsh if you want. Things always sound better in culinary French, or bastardized French.

Rabbit of Wales, the happening menus of the world await your hopping in.

Le Welsh est, ou sera sous peu, chic. I see it studded with truffle, with kale, with Berkshire bacon, strewn with gold dust in resorts of the super-rich, or served plain Jane. The cheese used will include cloth-wrapped Somerset cheddar, Ontario’s cheddar, New York or the Irish brands, and other of the English hard cheeses.

A hyper-authentic variety will employ Welsh cheddar. I’ve mentioned before that Costco distributes an excellent brand through its vast network.

One only hopes the enthusiasm doesn’t go too far, Emmental or Cantal, should be restricted to fondue and raclette. Food traditions must develop and change but Le Welsh is too old a dish to confound with cheesy specialties of the Swiss cantons. Mais voyons donc.





Do You Know Welsh Rabbit?

A Famous Beer Dish – Or It Was

In the early years of the beer renaissance, when the subject of beer in cooking came up, two dishes were invariably mentioned. First, Welsh Rabbit, sometimes called Welsh Rarebit. Second, the Flemish beef carbonnades, which is beef stewed in beer, mustard, sugar, and vinegar.

Almost all beer fans knew these, or at least one. They were iconic for beer used in the kitchen. Today, I’d wager most people under 40 who follow the beer scene don’t know what they are. At least, my informal polls in recent years suggest this. And after all times change. But it’s something of an irony that as beer has widened its reach in society, knowledge of its iconic dishes recedes.

Of course to the dedicated fan of beer and food, it becomes clear that traditional brewing cultures had other examples to blend food and beer in cooking. Carp was often cooked in beer, and shellfish. Beer was used in batters of various kinds. Chicken was cooked with it in some beer countries, and meats other than beef. Some who looked back far enough saw that ale was a standby in refined kitchens in the Middle Ages.

By about 1900, in Western gastronomy, the two dishes mentioned, Welsh Rabbit and carbonades of beef, were the main dishes associated with beer. Perhaps beer soup could be added, and carp in spiced and sweetened beer. Also, oysters or clams in beer has been an acknowledged combination.

Food writing and popular literature in Anglo-America – Britain, U.S., Canada, Australia, etc. – frequently mentioned Welsh Rabbit. (Oh it’s melted cheese and beer, nothing to do with rabbit, need I say?).

I have no need to explain its origin or the etymological question whether the Welsh Rarebit is the true name. It’s all laid out crisply and accurately in Wikipedia, just look under Welsh Rabbit.

My interest is more to know a good recipe, as I’ve had signal failures in the kitchen trying to make it. The cheese rarely melts correctly, in particular. The rubbery strands flavoured with bitter hops seems an odd treat even if it is handed down through the centuries.

A real rabbit, bunny I mean, can be stringy too now that I think of it (fibrous). I wonder if the presumably English wag who named the dish was poking fun, not so much at the Welsh for not having rabbit to cook and being satisfied with cheese, but for having a dish which resembled the average rabbit casserole. Who knows.

Anyway I do like a good grilled cheese sandwich. A grilled cheese well-made is nice, and it seems a derivative of Welsh rabbit, same general idea but without a beer or other liquid addition. Kraft process cheese in fact makes the best one. You can add different things to it, I can abide the tomato, but that’s it. It was a student standby at the cafes near McGill University in the 70s. There’s another dish you never see any more, yes?

As for Le Welsh, as the French call it, I think I’ve never used the right cheese. The French probably always get it right given they have 1000 cheeses there; they will find the right one, certain. The French are long-time partisans of Welsh rabbit despite its Britannic origins.

Probably the stuff I’ve used isn’t aged or dry enough, and perhaps being pasteurized as most cheese is the cooking is affected somehow. I happen to have some reasonably aged Welsh cheddar at the moment, Costco offers an excellent type and well-priced. This would seem ideal to try the dish with. As for the beer to go in it, any kind would seem about right although in the recipe discussed below, the author makes a point of insisting on American lager.

The recipe uses egg yolk, a rich addition I’d have thought unnecessary given that cheese is high in butterfat to begin with. But maybe I’ll use it, for authenticity. As for many recipes in the 19th century and earlier, the egg is barely cooked though. Eating raw egg is never a good idea, at least I think so. Anyway, I’ll persist in the name of authenticity.

Now to the beer, any lager would do I guess. I’ve got some Old Tomorrow lagered ale which sounds about the right compromise anyway between American and English beer, so I think I’ll go with that.

The recipe is from 1900, in John Willy’s Hotel Monthly, look under that raft of drink names (interesting unto themselves: Willy was promoting a book by a cocktails specialist).

The recipe does seem rather generic, yet as Willy reports its proponent proclaimed it as the best ever and the guests subjected to a test fully agreed. I wonder what the secret was … maybe all that salt, one teaspoon, worked some magic. Cheese is pretty salty as it is, though, I think I’ll omit it entirely. Paprika sounds right though. And the mustard, they are classic additions. But corn starch? Who knew.

Welsh Rabbit was often eaten as a late-night snack. It was associated with light meals in general, and often taken after theatre at the cafe. It’s in all the cookbooks, it was “in the air”.  Today the dish is almost forgotten, even in beer circles. Strange are the ways of history and culture but it was always thus.





America – Culinary Desert Before 1920?


At 12th and Vine With a Bottle of … Paulliac Wine

Something taken for granted back in the 50s and 60s was North America was a desert for refined eating. To be sure there was good solid food, everything from steak to roast chicken to salads, potatoes and pie. Some areas offered noted regional specialties, New England, say for its clambakes and chowders. But appreciating food for its own sake was a rarity and often regarded as frivolous.

A few restaurants in any decent-size city carried the flag for good eating – steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a Chinese one or two, maybe a fish house , there wasn’t much more. Of course in New York and some other coastal cities more variety was offered, including the surviving ethnic restaurants like German ones, but again choice was restricted.

Things started to change with the arrival of James Beard, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Jehane Benoit in Canada, and numerous others. Their tv appearances often caused a sensation. Discussion of wine started around this time. Earlier, such appreciation was restricted to tiny groups, the Wine and Food Society of New York, say (still going strong, it started in ’33 with Repeal).

I’ve written earlier also of The Gourmet Society, another small New York-based group intent on exploring international and regional American foods and interested in wines including American ones. Such inchoate interest barely registered in the larger culture.

Thus, it came as a shock to page through issues John Willy’s Hotel Monthly from 1898 to 1920 and find accounts of the most luxurious banquets imaginable. These were not the preserve of tiny gourmet clubs in cosseted Eastern cities or a wealthy elite wherever found. Many such affairs were held in the midwest and hosted by provincial associations of hoteliers or brewers, say.

7500d16b3a49cb23ab9064a5c0c7ad96In their menus you will find the finest emblems of haute cuisine: caviar, oysters, preparations of fish or beef from the pages of Escoffier or Carême, elegant consommés, expensive or rare morsels such as turtle, wild birds, imported cheeses, and the finest French and German vintages to accompany them.

First- and second-growth Bordeaux make regular appearances at these dinners, as did the finest marques of Champagne (Ruinart, Mumm, Veuve Cliquot), sherry and brandy. (To the Americans’ credit, you often see too “whiskies” added to the liqueurs at meal’s end, or “rye and bourbon”).

Consider the shebang thrown in 1900 by Kansas City lawyers and judges, described in the page above reproduced from Willy’s Hotel Monthly of that year. I need hardly elucidate; the luxury speaks for itself.

The other dinners on the page are hardly derisory. Some don’t mention alcohol but that is usually explained by the group involved, e.g., anyone involved with a quasi-public service like railroads or shipping, or government or a public service group (e.g., YMCA).

I can cite 20 more dinners like the Kansas City one, all held in the American regions. The Kansas City do was distinguished also by its creative displays of flowers and fruits, but the food and drinks served were typical for many groups and associations which, unlike perhaps the Missouri bar, hardly occupied the top rung of society.

How could this be? Clearly the hotels Willy wrote for had chefs and a brigade to create European-level haute eating with wines and liquors to match. Why was Julia Child needed c. 1960?

The answer must be: the reign of King Volstead between 1920-1933. With alcohol removed from the equation for 13 years, fine dining lost a lot of its appeal. Food returned to its utilitarian roots, even that is amongst a class who formerly knew differently. The Depression also quite naturally delayed a return to an older tradition. Then the war did. By the 50s, people forgot what great food and wine were all about; it had to be re-invented.

Another factor IMO is that until about 1920 when America tightened its immigration laws, huge numbers of incomers arrived from Central and Western Europe. Many had worked in fine European restaurants and hotels, indeed in the era when France in particular was developing the very concept of the haute in dining, service and wines.

Such skills were eminently transferable to an American context, counter-intuitive as it may seem. This was not just in large city hotels, but regional ones in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and other states often called today the red states. These regularly held banquets and dinners of a sophistication that is arresting when considering the state of national food and dining in 1955, say. By then, the sons and daughters of those master chefs and wine stewards were doing something else, dentistry, accountancy, or seeking tenure in the expanding college and university system.

I’ll revisit a further pre-1920 Willy banquet or two in the next post, and you will see the almost Lucullan Kansas City dinner was no one-off.

Note re images: the first image above, via HathiTrust, is from a 1900 issue of John Willy’s Hotel Monthly. The second image, of Kansas City c. 1906, is from this Pinterest collection of historic Kansas City photographs. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





An Early Beer Dinner


Pre-Pro Beer Cuisine – Innovation in Milwaukee

John Willy. Do you know the name? I didn’t, before today. But he should be remembered. Willy was born English, in Ilminster, Somerset. Information indicates he came to America in the latter 1800s at the young age of 20, without family, without friends. By dint of innate ability and drive he became a respected editor and author, and prospered. He specialized in covering the hotel sector. His contributions to modern hoteling and hospitality industry are such that a honorary doctorate was granted him by Michigan State University in 1937.

He started out reporting for a trade magazine on the hotel business and later set up his own publication, called finally The Hotel Monthly. A key stage in his career was writing a book on hotel facilities in Chicago for attendees of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair). I came across this book earlier when discussing brewers and distillers at the fair.

Having been used to reading brewers’ and distillers’ trade publications from 1870-1920, I can say they were generally authored by people of advanced education. You can just tell by the tone and subject matter.

It was therefore refreshing to read issues of Hotel Monthly. Willy wrote in a clear but often vernacular English. His readers were hotel owners, restaurateurs, saloon-keepers. Not the bon ton, generally. Perhaps most brewers weren’t either but the science which became increasingly important in the business meant the trade press assumed a serious tone. Also, the need not to offend the growing temperance movement made the liquor press very cautious about bruiting their product without reserve. Willy was in a different position: bars and liquor were part of hotels, and important, but never the whole story for his bailiwick.

Willy’s breezy yet informative style was perfect for a trade magazine dealing with eminently practical topics: hotel and bar supplies, sample menus, drink formulas, room layouts and furnishings, hotel staffing and meal service, all the minutiae that go to making a successful hotel and bar-restaurant.

Occasionally Willy lapsed into argot from his English youth, as when he referred to the ample “corporation” of a hotelier who organized a clambake in Chicago. Most of his readers had to be bemused: it meant stomach.


In 1898, Willy wrote up a trip the Chicago Hotel Association organized to Milwaukee where its members were received by their local counterparts. It’s a riotous evocation of one section of Gilded Age America.

Unlike the learned scribes who wrote in the trade press for brewers and distillers, Willy didn’t hold back from what happened, didn’t pretend that alcohol was only incidental to the day’s event. His account reminds me of certain unguarded news stories of the day, I wrote about one here not long ago concerning a burgoo party in Missouri.

In a story of some 1500 words, I’d guess the word whiskey appears 10 times, let’s put it that way. Willy reproduces the menus of two meals the day-trippers enjoyed: a breakfast, but really more a lunch or brunch, and a sumptuous, German-themed dinner at White Fish Bay. There is detail of good social-historical interest in all this.

Their boat, the SS Indiana (pictured), brought the party from Chicago overnight and arrived at destination at 7:30 a.m. Descending from the boat, the “four and twenty” were greeted by colleagues outfitted in “Dutch” costume – large red handkerchiefs, small hats – who spoke Dutch (German?). Their new friends took them to mens’ stores to be outfitted in similar garb.

Their hats were “punched” to show they were members of a group being entertained. Thus festooned, off they went through city and vale.

They travelled in a “tally-ho”, a carriage drawn in this case by six horses. Numerous amusing incidents are recounted, all revolving around alcoholic refreshment taken in a succession of hotel barrooms. I think they stopped 10 times before dinner.

Modern-day pub crawlers have nothing on them.

The drinks described up to dinner point vary: e.g., whiskey, Champagne, sparkling burgundy, a pre-Prohibition favourite in America. But the group itself posed finally the obvious question: where’s the beer, we’re in Milwaukee?!

An local replied that you won’t find much beer around Milwaukee. An odd thing to hear, for them and us, to say the least. Perhaps the Milwaukeeans sold most of the beer that made the town famous (after all) for export, and favoured other drinks. Familiarity can breed, well you know. Or maybe the local was pulling their leg.

Nonetheless when received for dinner at the expansive Pabst hotel property at White Fish Bay, beer galore finally appeared. Not only that, three types were served from the renowned Pabst Brewery: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bohemian, and Doppelbrau. In fact, the dinner menu mentions the beers at different stages of the meal service. In other words, a particular Pabst brand was felt suitable to accompany a specific dish. PBR was served with wieners and sauerkraut.

The higher-grade Bohemian was reserved for sauerbraten and potato pancakes. The Doppelbrau was saved for the end, and served with Swiss cheese and German bread.

Did the famed beer scribe Michael Jackson (1942-2007) introduce “beer cuisine”? No he did not, it was being done long before him.

1280px-ss_indiana_1873John Willy took evident pleasure in describing the enjoyment the revellers had, the fun. Drinking was part, but not all of it. A 100-yard running race, speechifying, and some good eating formed part of the festivities. Not to mention good fellowship. Oh, the Windy City won the running race, to the exasperation of their more sober hosts.

Having had a thoroughly good time in what was an object lesson for Temperance scorn and hatred, the party returned to their steamer on a “trolley”, a light train perhaps, and sailed back to Chicago. If there wasn’t enough to drink in Milwaukee that day, Willy tells us they had a “case of whisky” on board delivered courtesy their never-failing Wisconsin hosts. Indeed, Willy reports it was well-used, the case.

The gambol ended and supremely satisfied, the hotel chieftans alighted the boat craft at 10:00 p.m. and walked a straight line down the gangplank. Despite the best efforts of the Milwaukee crowd, the Chicagoans resisted getting “paralyzed”, a conclusion Willy delivers with some satisfaction, clearly. I think he wanted to portray those who after all were his readers and clients as responsible business men in the end, men who could hold their liquor. Anyway, he struck the right note.

Note re image: the first image above was drawn from the Chuckman historical postcards website.  The second is from John Willy’s article linked above, via HathiTrust. The third is from the Wikipedia entry on SS Indiana, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Union 52 Canadian Whisky

cwrws0pxeaumlkl-1Word is out that Wiser is releasing in B.C. its Union 52 Canadian whisky, part of its Collector’s Series. Reports indicate it blends a 15 year old base whisky with the last barrel of a 52 years old (!) Highland malt scotch whisky. Here is the listing from the B.C. liquor authority.

This is an instance, but particularly expressive, of blending the Canadian way. A base whisky, which I’d assume is not neutral but mild in character and aged 15 years, is married in this case with a very long-aged 100% barley malt, pot still Scotch. The proportions of the blend were not revealed but I’d think relatively little of the malt was used given its rarity and well-matured character. That is, a little will go a long way to informing and enriching the base.

One could do this as well with some very old bourbon, or batch rye whisky (the more typical addition in Canada), even rum. The result won’t taste like any of those on its own, it will taste like a blended whisky, a Canadian method handed down since the late 1800s.

It may surprise some to think that Canadian whisky can result from combining a Canadian-distilled and aged whisky with an imported Scotch malt. But that is perfectly within the Canadian tradition albeit you won’t see it done every day with a 52-year old malt.

a84920b71696ed1a347b5669fde0d9c5There is an example from another whiskey tradition where a foreign and domestic whiskey were blended. In the 1930s Jameson of Ireland launched in the U.S. a blend of well-aged Irish (pure pot still) whiskey with a presumably much younger batch of American whiskey. It was called “Irish American Whiskey”, an ostensibly appealing name in the American context.

If I read/interpret the label right, in that case they blended 25% 20 year old Irish pot still with 75% U.S. straight whiskey. But the idea is similar, which is to marry a base which can benefit from an impactful addition with a smaller amount of powerfully-flavoured malt, rye, or other whisky.

Jameson’s advertising at the time stressed that the product was neither Scotch, nor Irish whiskey, nor rye or bourbon, but a unique taste. AFAIK, the product wasn’t marketed past about 1939, perhaps because by then enough aged stocks of U.S. bourbon and rye were available, that is following restoration of distilling in 1933. It’s hard to know though, and maybe had the war not intervened the product would have taken off.

Anyway the logic of this kind of blending is very sound. Whisky is made from cereal grains and e.g., a bourbon mash typically consists of different grains provided it is at least 51% corn. Pot still Irish, called now single pot still, contains both malted and unmalted barley and used to contain small amounts of other grains too – including rye. Grain (base) whisky – Scots, Irish, Canadian, American – often is made, or was, from a mix of grains.

Combining different whiskies from these sources simply extends the idea (IMO) of a whisky mash bill of mixed grains. All that matters anyway is that you get a good result – therein lies the blender’s skill. Wiser’s master blender is renowned for his expertise. For Union 52, the unusual nature of the malt addition, not so much being a barley whiskey but being Scottish-distilled and in particular very long aged, will surely lend a unique stamp.

I hope some of the product will reach Ontario, I’d love to try it and was surprised at the price, about $70 which isn’t a lot considering the rarity of 52 year-old malt whisky entering the bottle.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Twitter today, the second from the Pinterest website. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their owners or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.



Americans Improve An English Design


The Bell In Hand tavern in Boston, which I discussed in my last post, was mentioned in a number of popular and social histories of Boston into the mid-20th century. One is Rambles Around Old Boston by Edwin M. Bacon (1921), from which the above illustration is taken. (Image courtesy HathiTrust).

The pub carries on to this day and is certainly one of the oldest continuing licensed establishments in the country if not the oldest.

In my last post, I mentioned that an early owner, John Leischman, was credited in a 1915 trade article with installing ale hand pumps from England in 1851, and indeed that these were first of their kind in the U.S.

billies-bar-1936Earlier, I have written of hand pumps in famed McSorley Ale House in New York City. The pumps are still there, but haven’t been in use it seems since c. 1914 – this is based on information given me by a server there some years ago. Also in the link above I wrote of a Manhattan pub called Billie’s Bar. A handsome 1930s photo (included here from that article) shows a set of hand pumps on the back bar in a curved housing of mid-1800s English design – McSorley’s has the same – but it is unclear if they were still used to dispense beer.

The use of hand pumps to raise beer from the cellar in the United Kingdom accompanied, indeed facilitated, continued service of cask-conditioned ale. This is beer allowed to complete a secondary conditioning in its container of service, unfiltered and unpasteurized (but generally fined to drop clear), with no CO2 or other gas added. Since ale brewing in the U.S. is as old as the Republic and before that was a Colonial practice, it is natural English equipment would have been used occasionally to dispense it when available.

The hand pump operates on a vacuum-and-piston method, similar to the iron pumps used to raise water in the country. An engineer called Bramah perfected it c. 1800 and its use developed from about then including for porter. 1851 seems perhaps late to bring the equipment to America, but we must take sources as they are and failing further information, we have authority that their first use was in 1851 at Bell In Hand in Boston. (A brewing trade journal is not a bad source and Western Brewer must have had a confidant with a long memory, probably the current owner or a long-time customer).

McSorley’s was established in what is now the East Village, Manhattan around 1860 – the founding date differs in various discussions. Certainly though neither McSorley’s nor the predecessor to Billie’s Bar existed in 1851 much less 1795, date of founding of The Bell In Hand.

In the (seemingly) pen-and-ink drawing above made some time after 1851, three hand pumps are shown. They are not immediately noticeable even to a practiced eye, but interested readers should click twice for a full resolution.

The bartender is drawing a pot of beer from the pull to the left (his right). In the 1800s the Bell In Hand used pewter mugs, as did many public houses in England at the time. You can clearly see the mugs and the spouts from the taps.

From left to right, the first two handles are shorter and wider than the third. The first on the left bears a smiling face, Toby Jug-style. A unique feature of these hand pumps is that a goose neck metal lever is fitted operated by an oval handle probably made of wood. Clearly the bartender grasped the small wood handle to move the vertical lever rather than holding it directly. Why was this done?

The standard levers were probably too low to be easily manipulated by tall American men, and/or the retrofit allowed a pull with less effort than grasping those handles. When hundreds of pints were being served in a day, efficiency in service was an important consideration. Also, note how low the counter was, probably reflecting late 1700s designs. According to various accounts, at least for its first move the bar took its furnishings and re-installed them at Pie Alley, so the original height may have been maintained.

In a British brewing journal in the 1900s, in fact one I’ve discussed earlier on compressed air dispense of beer, it was noted that the hand pump design was deficient from the point of view of what we would now call ergonomics. It is no surprise that it was adapted in some cases, although the pre-Prohibition Bell In Hand may be a unique example. I have seen a patent from the later 1800s claiming rights in a scimitar lever design – again the idea of an easier pull on the beer. Whether it came into use I can’t say. Certainly today the typical hand pump looks like the same you see in countless 1800s and early 1900s illustrations.

How was beer served in Boston before the hand pumps? It had to be straight from the barrel, either in the basement with pot boys bringing beer in pitchers to the bar, or if there was room on the main level, from a convenient place there. Some cask beer is still served straight from the wood today. Sometimes the barrel is placed on the back bar or the front bar, but generally it is too large for that. Some bars order a smaller keg (sorry) so it can be placed somewhere on the bar.

In the 1915 Western Brewer article, the hand pumps in the “comfortable and cozy” Bell In Hand were made the subject of particular comment and called “treasured”. This was indirectly a tribute to the worth of cask-conditioned ale and porter, beers the English brought to America and some other parts of the world where Empire penetrated.

In the result, the palatability and consistency of draft lager proved a more marketable proposition than ale and porter. German-American brewers ran with it and the boon companion, sediment-free bottled beer. But ale and porter never quite left the American scene. With the revival of brewing from the 1970s, ale in general including as cask-dispensed has come back big time. There are many places around the country, and Canada, you can get it with the accompanying hand pumps – the same equipment John Leischman brought to Boston in 1851 from the old sod.

Footnote: in this study (1925) of old Boston inns by Mary Harrod Northend, the author makes an amusing reference to an old Boston custom, this would be pre-Revolutionary days. Inns offered a free drink to a new customer. The mug was gaily festooned with a flowers design. After draining half the beer, the drinker saw in the base a green frog leering up at him! The little animal was harmless, of porcelain, but no doubt the punter received a shock. An insight into early Yankee humour, perhaps. Presumably such practices fell away by the 1800s when lager made the Americans … sociable.







An Alehouse, the Old Sod, the Hub

image-2“The Pothouse Parliament”

Ballantine Brewery was probably America’s premier ale brewery of the period 1840- 1971. But there were many other ale brewers, before and still after Prohibition, including numerous in the old city of Boston. They tended to predominate in New England and environs, a natural circumstance given the stock of the original settlers.

Recently I surveyed a c. 1900 publication from Ballantine which, in an increasingly anti-alcohol atmosphere, looked back to an earlier day. Conjured was the time the brewery came to Newark, NJ (1840), when the alehouse and tap-room inherited from Colonial America still flourished. The brewery used this device to swath beer in a gauzy, romantic dress, no doubt hoping to divert the attention of the moral arbiters who wished the closing of saloons and indeed the end of beverage alcohol.

Certainly, Ballantine’s evocation of the old-time alehouse and its typical denizens was idealized. Still, can we conclude that there wasn’t an element of truth in it? That the English beer house transplanted to new sod thousands of miles away by people of the same blood didn’t by and large serve its community? That it wasn’t withal a force for good or at least benign?


I submit there is no reason to conclude any of that. The survival of the public house in England and the appreciation of its best virtues show that the pub has a deep taproot so to speak in English-speaking societies. This is even as the movement to save pubs in the mother land from redevelopment can assume outsized proportions to the non-Briton, bemused by such dedication. (Weren’t all old pubs of burnished oak or thatchy roof new at one time, the concrete-steel-glass parvenus of their day? What did they replace?).

So too in America appreciation of the ale house and its stock in trade of ale and porter never died although the enthusiasm was diluted in exile. They survived the tsunami of lager in the country after 1850, the pre-Pro temperance movement and fallow time of Volstead, and the post-Prohibition “bar”, an amalgam of influences, notably the old saloon, the 50s rec room, and post-1933 liquor regulation.

In consequence, numerous alehouses survive in the country which are regarded as historic and worth preserving. Many have been catalogued by Jay Brooks in his excellent “oldest bars” piece some years ago, hereSome have yet made the pages of literary journals, McSorley’s Ale House in New York is a prime example.

A venerable such establishment exists in Boston (among others), The Bell In Hand, established in 1795 by a Scot named Wilson. It is not in the original location, there have been three moves by my count. Yet the current bar and restaurant is in a direct line of descent and still displays the famous bell-ringing sign as its bush. It derives from Wilson’s occupation as town crier.


It is rare enough to find a paean of the old-time alehouse – or any drinking place – in bluenose America of 1900-1920. It startles one familiar with the censorious era to note The Bell In Hand received two.

One was in 1915 in the pages of the trade journal The Western Brewer: and Journal of the Barley, Malt and Hop Trades. The other was in a New York-based literary and political magazine, the Caledonian, in 1911.

Trade journals such as the Western Brewer focused resolutely on bottom-fermentation and the perfection of lager. Ale and porter by the time of WW I had only a small sale in the U.S., but many of the old concerns continued and some advertised in various media. Of course too some ale brewers, including Ballantine, had started making lager, so had stakes in both camps.

The Western Brewer was perhaps motivated by nostalgia and devoted almost a page to The Bell In Hand. The story discussed the imminent move from the bar’s second location, at “Pi Alley”. This was a nickname for a dark alley called Williams Court. The “pie” derived either from meat pie shops in the original area, or “pied type”, used by printers in the district, no one really knows.

Among the expected bits of history such as the prints and art festooning the walls and details of rooms and furniture, was a reference to the beer served – ale. There are no less than three references to handpumps in the article. It is claimed the second owner brought them from England in 1851 and they were the first in use in America. The story is a rare admiring look, by an industry then intent on modernization and light lager, at an older tradition, one which endured but was being increasingly squeezed by a newer drink made by a newer generation of Americans.


The second eloge of The Bell In Hand is in the Caledonian, from 1911, by Robert E. May. This piece is written from a literary standpoint but is no less appreciative of the merits. Indeed I can now see that it was a progenitor of Joseph Mitchell’s famous article of 1940 in the New Yorker on McSorley Ale House.

May stresses the enduring British character of the place, still evident in 1911. It was reflected not just in the bar’s layout, furnishings, and in the ale sold, but also the very patrons: more than half in this period were actually from the U.K.

May noted a riot of Britannic accents all competing and joining in the general but peaceful affray over politics, art, business and more. Unlike some bar depictions which are pleased to paint those who express opinion as bigmouths, this writer felt the speakers knew what they were talking about. In part this was because the bar was a resort of lawyers, writers, businessmen, politicians – people working in the fields being debated.

The place closed early then, about 8:00 p.m. – appropriate for a city always considered of top-most propriety but one which evidently had room for more expansive traditions, of long veneration.

The Bell In Hand carries on, its long heritage living happily with ranking regularly in Boston’s top 10 bars. It still has an English look I think, from the outside anyway, as some parts of Boston do still. I hope the handpumps are still there, but it’s good to see Sam Adams’ and numerous other genuine ales being served. How appropriate, given Sam Adams’ evident connection to Boston and that it has made ale from its inception, along with its better-known lager, as a charter member of the beer revival.

That’s the Bell In Hand, the Hub. From 1795. Check it out.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from HathiTrust. The second from Jamaica Plain Historical Society, here, the third from Tabelog, here, and the last from The Bell In Hand’s website, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong to their lawful owner or authorized users. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Bud by the Numbers

budweiser-998x666In 1904 in a newspaper in Billings, Mont. Anheuser-Busch advertised its famous Budweiser and gave it a new twist. The company referred to a recent study of medicines that showed many had a very high alcohol content. A-B invited the public to consider Budweiser a temperate and family drink in comparison and cited the alcohol content of the beer as “only 3 89/100 per cent. of alcohols” (3.89%).

In an earlier blog entry I suggested this was effectively 5% abv (alcohol by volume). If you do the conversion, 3.89 abw equates to 4.93 abv, to all intents 5% particularly considering that final tallies for this purpose were never consistently accurate to the decimal point and fraction 100 years ago, nor are they today, for that matter.

In this period too, there was no rule, particularly in general publications, whether alcohol was expressed by volume or weight, unless the writer told you. Where it is not stated, sometimes one or the other can be inferred from other data given especially starting and finishing gravities, that is, the ratio of fermentable and other solids in wort and beer to water.

The ad in question doesn’t give such other data, so 3.89% alcohol could be either weight or volume. Initially I thought it must mean by weight, which equates to 5% alcohol in volume. I thought this because in 1884 a published analysis by the Kansas Pharmaceutical Association stated “Budweiser, St. Louis” contained 5.32% alcohol by volume. This was the strength of the beer as sold in Kansas.

However, I now consider that in 1904 the 3.89% figure must have meant by volume. The reasons are as follows.

In an 1889 company publication I mentioned recently Budweiser is described as “exceedingly light”. This had to mean in alcohol, not colour. The various beer descriptions use the term pale to refer to light colour, and frequently in Victorian times, light for alcoholic drinks meant light in alcohol.

While alcohol content is always relative in different times with a correspondingly different view of what light and heavy meant, it is unlikely 5% abv was “exceedingly light”. This is because other analyses, both in America and Europe, show lager beer then was frequently approximately 4% abv, sometimes less, sometimes a little more. In a time when litigation occurred in various places whether lager was even intoxicating 5% abv, the standard of commercial (and much craft) beer today, would have been too strong for “exceedingly light”.

On the other hand, 3.89% abv, just under the strength today of most light beer (4% abv), makes more sense as the true alcohol by volume of Budweiser in 1889 and 1904. Also, I was reading again a December, 2014 blog post by American brewer Mitch Steele, formerly of Stone Brewing and A-B. He reproduces a letter from Augustus Busch in 1893 which contains an analysis of both a Budweiser knock-off and A-B’s own, genuine Budweiser. The letter was written to brewing scientist Anton Schwarz in New York, whom we have met before in these pages. Clearly A-B was a client of Schwarz’ consultancy.

In Busch’s letter A-B’s Budweiser is stated as 3.7% alcohol by volume. Therefore, 1904’s 3.89% has to be by volume also, factoring too the 1889 statement that it is “exceedingly light”.

Where does this leave the 1884 analysis, of reputed source, that “Budweiser, St. Louis” was 5.3% abv? I think there are two explanations, one more plausible than the other.

One explanation is the Budweiser analyzed in 1884 for the Kansas pharmacists was not from A-B, but rather was factitious, a knock-off. In the late 1800s it is true A-B was bedevilled with numerous counterfeits or passings-off of its product. The problem is referred to, showing sample offending labels, in the 1889 company booklet I mentioned.

For example, even famed Fred. Miller Brewing Co. of Milwaukee introduced its own Budweiser, styled Original Milwaukee Budweiser, until a court in 1898 stopped it. But that beer was not sold until about 1891, before that Miller was distributing the real Budweiser for A-B in northern Wisconsin. Perhaps the 1884 Budweiser in the pharmacists’ journal was produced by another imitator? We can’t rule it out but I think this is unlikely.

How else then to explain that 1884 Budweiser was stronger than certainly the 1893 Budweiser? I think the simple answer may be, the beer was reduced in strength some time after 1884. First, 1884 was only a year after A-B acquired rights from Charles Conrad Company to the beer. True, A-B had always brewed it, but initially for Charles (or Carl) Conrad who sold it originally as CCC Budweiser.

Perhaps under Conrad the beer was stronger and as part of rolling it out nationally once it acquired full distribution, A-B decided to reduce the strength. The deepening Prohibition mentality in the country may have encouraged this step, and/or simple economics did. Pitching, too, to the female market – the 1889 hagiography refers to Bud as a ladies’ beer – may have motivated this strategy as well.

Budweiser today, at least in Canada, is 5% abv – pretty much back to the presumed start point. For many years in the U.S. it was to my knowledge 4.8% abv. Effectively that is 5% abv and now I think it is an even 5% abv in the U.S. anyway.

Later, I’ll look at other characteristics of Bud back in the day.*

Note re images: the image above was sourced at this website, the Federalist. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs to the sole owner or authorized licensee. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*With no temerity intended, I think there is an error in the Augustus Busch letter. On the Plato scale extract at the stated 5.045 and an abv of 3.7% give 1020 FG, not the stated 1010. If 1010 is right and the 3.7% abv is, the Plato extract number must be wrong. Probably though the Plato number was right, so was the 3.7% abv, and therefore 1020 was the FG. As the beer in this period was being promoted to women, a sweet taste and fairly low alcohol made sense. And the 1904 Billings, Mont. ad stated the beer was endorsed by the Ladies Home Journal…

Also, most of the true beers in the 1884 analysis, so excluding ginger ales and like, were higher in extract than Budweiser (1015). Only one was lower (1011) but Schlitz was 1016 and others more, up to 1026. So 1020 for Bud by 1889-1904 makes sense, it’s not a farfetched number and marries with the 1889 booklet’s “very strong in nutritive quality”. And Busch had to be right about the 3.7% abv because he gave the alcohol both by weight and volume, the conversion is correct for those numbers, and again the booklet states the beer is “exceedingly light”.



Anheuser-Busch Tells Its Story

Tastes Differed – Hence All These Brands

image-1Relying on a stellar pre-Pro image, one whose firmament was shared with a select few such as Pabst, Blatz, Miller, and Schlitz, Anheuser-Busch hit the ground running when beer returned in 1933. From there A-B enjoyed steady expansion and remains a world force in brewing today.* Few businesses can claim such a long run. Even though control is no longer in the Busch family, the ubiquity of Budweiser and Bud Light proves the enduring nature of the brands.

I’ve described earlier some key production details of Budweiser in 1884, the contest of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing for top beer prize at the Chicago World’s Fair, and the passing of Adolphus Busch in 1913.

In my occasional series on corporate publications of brewers and distillers, I haven’t mentioned A-B simply because it seemed nothing was issued similar to what Pabst, Schlitz, Stroh, and others had done. No doubt histories have appeared in the last 30 years on A-B or the Busch family but I’m referring to company-issued accounts between the late 1800s and c. 1960, the classic period for such publications.

In fact, A-B did tell its story at least once, it’s just been hard to find. Courtesy a gentleman surnamed Warshaw who died in 1969, five boxes of business ephemera were donated to the National Museum of American History. The records are called the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana and are catalogued here. See in the link from bottom row, second from left, and continue through the next few slides.

The little volume, issued in 1889, runs some 30 pages and bears the splendid title A Simple Story of the Origin and Unprecedented Growth of Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.

It’s replete with useful facts and figures. Charming pen and ink illustrations are included but the preferred medium is narrative, and compelling it is.

Under the aegis of Eberhard Anheuser and later Adolphus Busch, by 1889 the enterprise was almost 30 years old. The early days are largely by-passed in favour of a contemporary description.

By any measure, the account displays the powerhouse A-B became in just three decades. As an example, with a capacity of 800,000 barrels per annum it was producing a healthy 550,000 bbl. Power-loom to spare, so to speak.

A-B used 800,000 lbs of hops annually which is an average of 1.5 lbs hops per barrel. By comparison, Sam Adams lager, avatar of modern craft lager, uses about 1 lb per barrel.

27,000,000 bottles were sourced annually. The staff was 2,200 in number (“all-men”). The beer was known from Mexico to the Sandwich Islands. Many other details are included, especially pertaining to refrigeration and transportation – logistics we would call it.

The tone is at once confiding, philosophical, humorous, but finally, all-business. A brashness is evident, which was typical of the day. Companies were proud of their achievements and spoke them to the stars. They didn’t apologize or temporize for their impact on society. The book stated that in 20 years beer and brewing equipment had changed more in America than in the 2000 years before. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but there was some truth in it.

Obeisance is paid to England and Germany as the original beer lands, but only lightly. A-B’s beers were starting to arrive on the doorstep of the great brewers of Europe. The implication was the American way would become everyone’s way. In many ways, that has proved to be true.

With some exaggeration, it is posited that America has overtaken its brewing progenitors and makes the best beer in the world. Glowing testimony on A/B beer is printed from a German brewing academy, and even from a state official in “Prohibition Georgia”. The merits of pasteurization are reviewed and it is explained how the process enabled A-B to expand its reach nationally and beyond.

Brewing journals and texts pointed out that pasteurization had the potential to impact flavour, but you won’t read that in this book.

It is striking how the international market is stressed. 25% of bottled production went outside the country in 1889. These sales were probably seen as more symbolic than anything else, since draft beer still represented the bulk of production. Still, an irony resides in that prior to A-B’s takeover a few years ago its sales were mostly domestic. The success of Budweiser in Canada via a licensing arrangement, which began in the 1970s, was an exception.

The book notes A-B did particularly well in Australia and the South Pacific and no doubt this influenced the subsequent lager culture there.

The stability of Budweiser and other A-B brews was an indispensable factor in all this success and is stressed in the book. Pasteurization, as noted above, was the key. The process remains a leitmotif of large-scale brewing to this day, and indeed a few craft brewers pasteurize too. If anything the process is more widespread than ever. As far as I know, all draft production of Budweiser brands is flash-pasteurized, for example.

The humour is dry, subtle, Will Rogers-style. The book states that while Americans generally read business publications “cum grano salis” (with a grain of salt), they can shed such caution in this case.

…for a confirmation of the correctness of any statistics we may offer, we rely on a thoroughly competent and respectable witness in the person of Uncle Sam, who takes a deep personal interest in what we are doing. We must remark in this connection that his guarantee comes high, but we must have it, and it will doubtless be accepted without question in all quarters as conclusive.

Not least of the volume`s merits is a description of the current product line. To figure out what a company brewed in the past, typically one must make deductions from period advertisements or other available sources. Almost always the information is fragmentary and incomplete. And unlike today when company websites and beer-rating services list all products and attributes, brewers in the past didn’t always do that. Some corporate hagiography barely mentions the products at all. Before 1920, this was due to the Weltanschauung of Prohibition but also, from a business standpoint, detailed characteristics were often seen as secondary if not indeed confidential matters.

Still, A-B had no qualms about revealing its main product range and numerous details, see the serial description from p. 27. There were seven main beers: Standard, Pale Lager, Faust, Budweiser, Erlanger, Liebotschaner, and Burgundy. Standard was made from all-American hops and barley. It was the light amber “default”  style of American lager brewing as I`ve discussed earlier.

The palest beer was Liebotschaner. Erlanger was the darkest, a Bavarian style (Erlangen, Germany) well-kilned to impart a  “malty” taste.  Libočany is the current (Czech) spelling of Libotschan, a small city in Bohemia formerly ruled by the Hapsburgs. A-B’s Libotschaner was intended to emulate the town’s style which must have been particularly light-coloured. Faust was made for Augustus’s bar-owner friend Tony Faust, and A-B periodically re-issues it to this day.

Some of the line used a mix of imported and domestic barley or hops. It is all well-explained including reference to colour in some cases. The Pale Lager was described as “acidulous” and (oddly to my mind) similar to Bass Ale without the “stupefying” effect. Perhaps A-B sought to emulate shipped IPA which could be a touch sour. Pale Lager was explained as useful to take with meals and in hot countries – the IPA analogy makes more sense viewed in that light.

Budweiser, also famously of Czech inspiration, was described as a ladies’ favourite, whereas much later it was a guys’ beer, and now everyone’s. It is described as “exceedingly light” but this meant in alcohol, not colour. Its relatively heavy residual solids, something I discussed earlier by reference to the 1884 analysis, was noted in the book with approval.

The descriptions read almost as something from a current beer book or rating site, except the original readers used gaslight or candles to read them at night. The language is strangely often modern, e.g., the brand section is prefaced, “Tastes Differ – Hence All These Brands”.

A good title for a new beer book, or beer blog.

Finally, there is a broad-brush description of the British and Germans as national types. The former are described in peremptory terms: “… selfish, partisan, anti-social. His strong drink does not alter him in this respect”.

The Germans are contrasted as more sociable, with lager of course playing a defining role. The Americans, of historically British and Yankee temperament, were wedded initially to whiskey and rum, but decided finally to become sociable. German-style lager helped in this goal: how wonderful for A/B!

Despite the 19th century stereotyping the book remains a valuable historical document.

Note re image: the image shown above is a pre- WW 1 ad sourced via HathiTrust. All intellectual property thereto or therein belongs to its lawful owner or authorized users. Image is believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*This despite its takeover by the former In Bev. Budweiser has declined steadily in sales in the U.S. in recent years but is still a potent brand especially overseas.



A Brewery That Made Milwaukee Famous


The once-great Schlitz of Milwaukee issued in 1910 a souvenir booklet  (via DPLA and Wisconsin Historical Society), probably for guests who had attended its tour, possibly VIP ones.

It’s almost all photographs, but very informative of the grand state of large-scale U.S. brewing before WW I. See e.g. page 6 for a picture of the handsome wooden fermentation tuns, virtually the same as Stroh was still using in Detroit in 1960.

There is no substitute for perusing this time capsule item, so just open the link and page through…