The Great British-American Beer Contest, 1937

In 1877 Gambrinus Verein, a group of lager brewers in New York, held a memorable public tasting, as discussed in our post yesterday. 60 years later, in 1937, another tasting was held in the same city. Like the first, the beers were tasted without knowing the brands in advance.

The second was an impromptu affair, and much smaller than the first. It was restricted to a few acting royalty in town, luminaries such as Gloria Swanson, Noel Coward, and John Gielgud.

It started this way. The British actress Evelyn Laye had “tendered”, in stylish Thirties lingo, a cocktail party for theatrical friends. It was probably held on Fifth Avenue or the Upper East Side, not the gritty, Germanic Lower East side where Verein’s tasting occurred.

You’ve seen cocktail parties in 1930s black and white screwball comedies or other films, surely. The actors hold stemmed glasses and deliver glittering witticisms, all dressed to the nines. It must have been like that chez Laye.

Gielgud or another guest, no doubt after a Dry Martini, commented that he couldn’t get proper English beer in Manhattan. Yet another dig by clannish Britishers on the ingenuous, open-hearted Americans. Will it ever end?

In truth, as we saw here recently, in that period the Waldorf bar managed to offer from Britain Bass Ale and Allsopp’s Pale Ale. That’s it. The typical Manhattan grocery would have carried mostly domestic brands, so there was something to the jibe.

But Gloria Swanson stood ready to defend American beer, the Stars and Stripes if you will. Perhaps it was she, in fact, who suggested the group do a blind taste-off. The challenge was simple: tell us which is your fine English ale and which our lowly American product.

A servant was sent to scour the district for representative brands, and all went to work (?).

In the result not a single Briton could tell his own beer! Swanson won the contest: only she knew the difference. There is a reason, in my view, she was able to do that beyond sheer chance, but first let Leonard Lyons set the stage. From his syndicated column in the New York Post:

Evelyn Laye tendered a cocktail party the other afternoon. Among the invited were Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Brian Aherne and Gloria Swanson. The Britishers complained of the difficulty in obtaining British beer here – and so they conducted a blindfold beer-test to determine how many of those present could distinguish between British and domestic beer.  … The sole winner able to recognize British beer was Miss Swanson – the lone American present.

Hah. Trumped at their own game, we might say. How could Swanson be so good at this? Biographies of Swanson report, not that she was a beer sage, although she may have been, but certainly a health food enthusiast.

So she was interested in food and drink as such, their tastes, qualities, and effects. She was vegetarian, too, from an early age, famous for carrying her lunch to work every day in a paper bag.

As well, U.S. beer then was sweeter and more bitter than the mass-market norm today. True, it had corn or rice adjunct by then, but so did most British beer, or sugar. Further, British beer then often used some American hops and barley. Conversely, some American beer in the 1930s was dry- or late-hopped with English varieties.

In this light, it’s plausible that to the average palate the local beers seemed similar to British ale. But Swanson knew the difference, with her keen sense of food understanding and honed palate.

Gloria Swanson bested the Brits at their own game. It wouldn’t be the last time, either, in the beer field.