Weiss Beer in Truman’s America

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

Introduction

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.

Envoi

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.

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*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.

 

7 thoughts on “Weiss Beer in Truman’s America

  1. I’ll have to ask some breweriana collectors that know that brand. Michael Jackson said Napoleon’s troops called it “Champaign du Nord” or the brewers’ answer to Riesling wine. So I think of it as the “poor man’s champaign.”

    • Thanks Rich, I know your name from many articles over the years and will read with interest.

      Any thoughts on what Hampden Brewery was putting out as weiss by 1949?

  2. Gary,
    You referenced an1890 newspaper item on Chicago Weiss Beer. In about 1976 I noticed an empty low brick building in my wife’s near west side neighborhood (2200 West Superior Av). I found an inscription in stone: “William Pfeifer Weiss Beer Bottling Works”. Oldbreweries.com lists Pfeifer dating from 1888, making that a possible candidate brewer. During prohibition, the brewery was controlled by the mob, and was the site of a famous raid. After Prohibition, the brewery operated as Superior, likely without a weiss beer product. The building was demolished possibly in the early ’80s. (Gary: contact me privately if you might want some brewery reference material that I could provide to you.)

    • Thanks Arnold that’s very interesting. I tried to track down details of the 1890 victory and brewer, but so far no success. Perhaps those reading based in Germany, some are in Berlin actually, can make more progress. I did find a second American press story which I’ll post in the comments here in a moment.

      • See here From September 8, 1890, the Daily Standard-Union in Brooklyn, a second report of the victory of Chicago weiss beer in a weiss beer contest held in Berlin (Germany!). “The liquid in Chicago has been declared to be the best”. This one adds a measure of mordant humour.

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