The Great British-American Beer (Mini) Festival, 1937

In 1937, exactly 60 years after the Gambrinus Verein, a group of mostly lager brewers in New York, held a memorable public tasting reported in our post yesterday, another tasting was held in the same city, also blind or semi-blind perhaps.

This was a much smaller affair and restricted to a nub of acting royalty in town including luminaries such as Gloria Swanson, Noel Coward, and John Gielgud.

Here’s how it happened: British actress Evelyn Laye “tendered”, in swish Thirties lingo, a cocktail party for her theatrical friends. This certainly would have been on Fifth Avenue or the Upper East Side, not the Lower East Side, the crowded German-flavoured district that hosted the earlier, Teutonic tasting.

You’ve seen cocktail parties in 1930s black and white screwball comedies or other films, haven’t you? The actors holding stemmed glasses and delivering witticisms, all dressed to the nines? That’s what the scene was.

Gielgud or someone, you can bet it was after a Dry Martini or two, complained they couldn’t get proper English beer in Manhattan. Yet another sly dig by clannish Britishers on the ingenuous, open-hearted America, will it ever end?!

In truth, as we saw recently, even the Waldorf’s bar then only managed to offer Bass Ale and Allsopp’s Pale Ale. So there was something to the plaint, as the typical corner grocery would have carried mainly domestic (New York-area, then) brands.

Only Gloria Swanson was available to defend the Stars and Stripes in the form of Yankee beers, as the party assembled were all U.K.-raised except for her. Perhaps it was she, then, who suggested a blind taste-off, with one object: can you tell me at least which is your fine English ale and which our lowly American produce?

A servant was sent to scour Murray Hill or wherever they were for some representative brands, and off they were.

Not a single Brit could tell their own beer! In fact, Swanson won the contest, only she knew the difference. There is a reason in my view why she was able to do so, beyond sheer chance that is, see below, but first hear how Leonard Lyons told it in his syndicated column that year 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, as it were. Now, how could Swanson be so good at this? Was it just, um, blind luck?

It turns out that biographies of Swanson report, not that she was a beer sage, although she may have been, but certainly a health food enthusiast. So interested was she in food and taste that she was vegetarian from an early age, and famous for carrying her lunch to work in a paper bag.

A person with that level of interest in what she ate and drank could be taken to have a more acute/sensitive palate than the typical person.

As well though, 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 British beer, or the sugar that often today is still used in much production.

Further, some British beer then used American hops and barley, in part. Some American beer was dry- or late-hopped with English varieties.

In this light, and tasting blind, it’s plausible even the New York lagers seemed similar to the British beers. But Swanson knew the difference with her extra-sensitive palate.

Of course in 2018 it’s even harder to do since a lot of pale ale and IPA is made the same way, from similar ingredients, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Can’t you picture it though, Noel Coward pouting and complaining that export British beer doesn’t taste like it does at home, so the result was not fair? (Actually he would have been right about that, but never mind).

Net-net, Gloria Swanson bested the Brits at their own game. It wasn’t to be the last time in the Gambrinal world.


*To bring up the 1937 article search e.g., “Gielgud Swanson beer”.

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