“Toronto Brews” Exhibition, Market Gallery

Last night I attended a reception for the opening of the Exhibition entitled “Toronto Brews: Two Centuries of Beer Culture”. It is taking place at Market Gallery, the historic space above St. Lawrence Market downtown in Toronto. A team from the City of Toronto, led by its Chief Curator of Museum and Heritage Services, Wayne Reeves, organized the event. It runs until December 28, 2019, at 95 Front Street East, Toronto.

This page from the City of Toronto website describes the main features. As stated in the link:

The story begins with tiny breweries established in the early 1800s, then covers the scaling-up of the industry in Victorian times, the impact of Prohibition, the rise of Canada’s macrobrewers in the first half of the 20th century, and ends with a look at the microbrewery movement since 1985 and contemporary craft-beer culture.

A number of special events will be held over the run including special Thursday night tastings, and culinary demonstrations.

The Exhibition achieves its aims well via wall narratives, a video advertising compilation, and the many historical objects on display. A small number of exhibits are pictured below to give the flavour, and I included more on Twitter (@beeretseq) yesterday.

Reeves and the City, the sponsoring organizations, and participating area breweries all deserve a vote of thanks for their efforts and contributions, as do the numerous private collectors who loaned rare items for display. I was pleased to see the original, 1856 menu displayed for Mart Ackerman’s Saloon, which was located nearby on Wellington Street.

I mentioned that fascinating item here in a whimsical piece some years ago. The City had to reach all the way to an archive in New York City to obtain this item.

Anyone who is interested in Canadian brewing, business, or cultural history and can attend should not miss this event.

Item above is from O’Keefe Brewery in Toronto, probably 1930s. Brewery merged in 1989 with Molson Breweries of Canada, now Molson-Coors. The term mild ale in Canadian beer nomenclature was relatively unusual.

Crown & Anchor was the first name for what became Molson Canadian lager, which still enjoys a sizeable market. The Festival lager can was indicated as from 1970, but the nature of the festival was not stated or known. A number of festivals were held in or outside of Toronto in 1970 including what resulted in the rock concert at Varsity Stadium where John Lennon and Yoko Ono played.

Also in 1970 was the Strawberry Fields Festival at Mosport Race Park, Bowmanville. The Festival Express rock star train tour was staged in Toronto in 1970 among other Canadian cities (subject of an excellent documentary film a few years ago). Perhaps the beer was marketed at such events, and/or the Oktoberfest in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON in the fall of 1970.

Further images from the Exhibition appear below, of which the first was perhaps an oatmeal stout, with a pun on Dr. Jackson’s Meal. As to who the Jackson was, it was would satisfying to conclude it was an admiring reference to famed beer author Michael Jackson, but this Jackson was likely not even born when this bottle was sold, or at most a young child.

At the time, products like the U.K.’s Dr. Johnson’s Stout had currency – even in Canada – so it was probably a riff on that, the Jackson-Johnson assonance. If the Jackson was a chemist at Copland’s, or a favoured customer, we have a triple pun.

For good information on Copland’s Brewery in Toronto, which also produced the stock ale shown below, see Jordan St. John’s Lost Breweries of Toronto. Indeed we had a nice chat at the reception last night.


Michael Jackson and Adjuncts in British Brewing

In my decades pondering beer and its history, only in the last year or so did the penny drop on an interesting point: Michael Jackson (1942-2007), the great British-based beer writer whose works are a landmark in the ongoing beer revolution, did not examine malt adjunct in British brewing and especially for ale, the focus of his early works when that product formed the great majority of British beer output.

I’ve examined now The World Guide to Beer (1977), The New World Guide to Beer (1988), and his first Pocket Guide (1982), and cannot find such a reference. To be sure at p. 8 of the first book he states that sugar was legalized for British brewing in 1847, but in the British chapter itself there is no discussion of grist material percentages. Here and there in the early books he refers in general discussions to “lesser grains” (corn and rice), and the importance that such grains not reduce beer to “impotence”, but does not state in the sub-chapter on Bitter, for example, that its fermentable sugar was derived on average from about 20% invert or other sugar or cereal starches.

He occasionally refers to sugar priming for real ale, or use of caramel to sweeten or colour beer, but not sugar or cereals as adjuncts in British ale fermentation.* Perhaps much later he mentioned cereals or sugar in the ale mash tun or kettle, maybe in a newspaper or beer magazine article, but I can’t find such discussion in his early works.

Yet, in his chapter on the United States in the 1977 book, he refers a number of times to adjunct use in American brewing, pointing out by contrast that Anchor Steam beer, a craft beer progenitor, was all-malt.

Why not a comparable discussion in the U.K. sections of the early works? The use of sugar or cereal grain adjunct was in the 1970s almost invariable for U.K. ale production, cask-conditioned beer included. This is stated in many sources since the late 19th century. In their Malting and Brewing Science: Volume 1 Malt and Sweet Wort (1971, 1981) British brewing scientists D.E. Briggs, J.S. Hough, R. Stevens, and Tom Watson summarize such use, see pp. 222-223. They state on average that just over 20% of the fermentable extract was derived from sugar in some form or hydrolysed starches. Maize is a prime example of the latter, used worldwide in commercial brewing until craft brewing partly restored the older, all-malt tradition.

Researchers who have studied historical brewing records, notably Ron Pattinson, also Edd Mathers, have confirmed this. See also the path-breaking Old British Beers and How to Make Them by Dr. John Harrison, published 1976, especially the discussion on older and contemporary brewing materials.

The onset of sugar use is also addressed in other historical books on brewing, e.g. Herbert Monckton in his 1966 History of English Ale and Beer, and technical journals such as Journal of the Institute of Brewing.

Historical sugar use is addressed in an article I wrote that will appear shortly in the U.K.-based journal Brewery History. I discuss its use in Great Britain not just from 1847, when it was first made permanently lawful, but even earlier when for limited periods it was allowed by special dispense when barley malt was short.

So why didn’t Michael Jackson “go there”?  Can it be that such practices might have been viewed as sub-optimal, especially in light of the German all-malt brewing tradition that Jackson lauded in the Germany chapters?

It is similar viz. Belgian Trappist brewing at least in the first major book, The World Guide to Beer, which established his reputation and created the legend of Trappist beer. He does not discuss, that I can detect, the grist composition of the beers.

I think quite honestly, to use a modern formulation, he made a political decision here. It is possible, yes, that Jackson did not initially appreciate the extent of adjunct use in British or Trappist ale-brewing, but that seems unlikely to me. I think he did know how the beers were typically brewed, from the outset of his studies, but chose to skip the issue. One way you see it is where he states in one book that the ideal way to appreciate malt character is in German beer. In effect he is saying its all-malt character best expresses the quality. The implied comparison is to other beers, while quite worthy on their own merits, that are not all-malt.

Certainly the high mark of adjunct use in British beer was about 20% – even as different brewers used different percentages, see Briggs et. al. again – while U.S. usage could well exceed that, often reaching 40% or even more for price beers. But that is a question of degree, isn’t it? There is still a “dilution” of character, whether viewed positively, negatively, or without judgement.

I think of Jackson we can say he took the last view of it. Jackson made clear he preferred all-malt character, but still considered British ale a classic beer tradition, and rightly so after all.

To summarise, he surely knew exactly how British ale was confected in 1977, and would have preferred it was all-malt, for example in the 1982 Pocket Guide he commends Timothy Taylor who had, very exceptionally, retained an all-malt tradition. But he let sleeping dogs lie so to speak, to make a larger point about a valuable beer heritage.


*See my Comment added yesterday on a vague reference to sugar in British brewing in the 1982 Pocket Guide, part of a discussion on beer “properties” at the outset of the book.



Laurentide: Lager and Ale

“I got decisions to be made between lager and ale …. cause I’m willing, willing and able…”

– Kim Mitchell, Lager and Ale (1984)

The above ad is from the November 13, 1972 issue of The Paper, the student newspaper of Loyola College and Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University. It was about this time I first drank Laurentide Ale in Montreal. The brand was only distributed in Quebec province and seemed to have disappeared completely from the market by the mid-2000s.

But in 2017 a spate of stories appeared in the Quebec press reporting that Laurentide was back. The stories I found, in French, called it Bière Laurentide, the name it always had in French.

This example from Le Citoyen in the Abitibi region recounts that Quebecker Eric Côté, with aid of a Facebook site, sent a petition of 1000 signatures to Molson Coors to revive the brand. The company responded positively, a batch was made up and distributed, and periodically it is brewed again for the fans.

Côté also petitioned for the return of O’Keefe Ale, but so far without result to our knowledge. We commend this gentleman for his ardent efforts to bring back brands of yesteryear. We can only hope O’Keefe, Brador, Molson India Pale Ale, Molson Porter, and other old-time brands will return to gladden beer drinkers of Proustian disposition, or others interested in tastes of the past.

Piecing the 2017 accounts together it seems Laurentide was still sold in parts of Quebec until 2012 whence it disappeared completely. It was bottled before 2012 as a value brand in large packs although whether it was never actually made between 2012 and 2017 I cannot say. On my many trips to Montreal between, say, the late 1990s and 2000s I never saw it, but perhaps it was available here and there, especially in big box stores.

In any case it is back with an éclat, now available in six pack cans. I saw it recently in Montreal and bought some.

When I lived there, and until I left in 1983 Laurentide was always advertised in English as an ale. The bottle labels stated “ale” while as stated above the French rendering was bière. Many ads and other sources I’ve consulted confirm this.

This U.S. news story on October 3, 1972 in the Clarkson Integrator (Potsdam, NY) recounts a visit of college students to Montreal. They went for a baseball game and to tour Molson’s. They were told by “Phillip”, a graduate student Molson had hired to lead tours, that the brewery made four “ales” and one “lager”. The ales were Molson Export, Molson Golden, Brador, and Laurentide. The sole lager was Molson Canadian.

My own memory suggests it was an ale, too. While on the light side it had a lightly fruity taste characteristic of top fermentation. To be sure all mass market ales of that period were fizzy, served cold, and cold-aged, hence presenting some lager characteristics, but still there was a distinction.

If one examines tv commercials for Laurentide on YouTube, one can see that something changed by 1989. In that year, the label reads finally in English, “beer”, see an example here. Whereas in early-1980s commercials, for example this one in 1982, the English description still reads “ale”. Something changed a few years later, and the beer was turned into an international lager style.

There can be little doubt this is still the case, as the Molson Coors website (see citation below) states it is a “pilsner”.

Also, based on tasting the Laurentide currently sold, it tastes like a pilsener in the international style. It is not what I remember, in other words, but still good with quite a full flavour. Some grain adjunct is likely used but it is not obtrusive. The beer tastes even better only lightly chilled.

Yet, in the 2017 Le Citoyen story, Eric Côté states the revived Laurentide is an ale (using the English term)! He tasted Laurentide at the brewery side by side with Molson Canadian, a lager, as some had suggested the two beers were the same. He concluded Laurentide is a different beer, with which I agree, but offered the reason that it is an ale. The listing on La Société des Alcools du Québec’s website states it is an ale too, a “pale ale” in fact. See here.

This is puzzling in light of the clear statement on Molson Coors’ website that Laurentide is a pilsner. Specifically:

Laurentide is a pilsner brewed with two-row pale malt and a variety of quality hops. Using a slow fermentation process, Laurentide is a beer with a subtle hoppiness, with a forthright and smooth taste and an indisputable reputation.

The only other thing I can think of is the beer was never an ale but the latter term was used for marketing reasons until “beer” replaced it on the English part of the label, but this seems unlikely.

James D. (Jim) Robertson reviewed the beer in the second (1982) edition of The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer. He gave it a good rating, stating:

Bright amber gold, pleasant malt aroma with light hops, highly carbonated, good dry malt and hop flavour, well-balanced, zesty, slightly sour finish and aftertaste. Good tasting brew.

The sour finish was by reasonable inference Robertson’s lingo for cereal or glucose adjunct. Unfortunately he did not offer an opinion on a lager vs. ale character. Evidently still an ale in 1982, it has been a lager for at least 30 years, yet tastes pretty much as Robertson described it.

I can only assume that both the SAQ and many fans of Laurentide think it is an ale in 2019 because for decades the label stated it was. Some things adhere long in the folk memory, as I’ve discussed in other contexts.

When did Laurentide first appear in the market? Published beer histories don’t address that, by my canvassing. This ad of February 8, 1963 in the Sherbrooke Daily Record makes clear it was in early 1963. The ad is quite interesting, and stresses – no surprise for the time – the light qualities of the brand.

The rooster image still appears on the label, a symbol of Gallicism including in Quebec. According to this Quora discussion the symbol seems a play on words in that Gallus in Latin means both Gaul and rooster, although opinion is divided viz. the Quebec implications, as the chat reveals. Laurentide, as the name suggests (in English, Laurentian), was designed to appeal to the newly confident, 1960s francophone market. Laurentide Ale was a symbol for a time of a modernised, French-fact Quebec, consistent with La Révolution Tranquille.

There were many good tv ads for Laurentide, I like this one from 1989, it sums up the beer’s carefree image and demographic in that period. Note the Michel Pagliaro-style soundtrack. Maybe it was Pag.

Note re images: the first and last images above were obtained from sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Mr. Wade Comes to Robertson County

This is a follow-up to my post of some years ago on Tennessee’s Robertson County whiskey. In a reminiscence of notable U.S. political figures from the Civil War and early post-war era printed in the St. Landry Democrat of Opelousas, LA in 1887, drolleries were shed on a number of topics interwoven by the writer: deportment, dress, oratory, intellect, and (you knew it) Robertson County whiskey.

No one beats the Victorian southern Americans at this kind of writing, indeed a book could be written on that topic (you knew that was coming, too).

It’s all about Ben Ward’s immediate enrapture with Robertson County whiskey, and Schuyler Colfax retaining a keg sent his way despite being a strict temperance man. Some interesting technical points emerge, such as that the best RC whiskey was given some (post-charcoal vat) aging – this ties into what I wrote earlier – and also it was mashed using spent beer, a topic I extensively wrote about earlier as well, where the residue of distillation is used in place of water to mash and a spontaneous fermentation arises. No yeast is added to ferment the distiller’s beer, that is.

It’s all easy, down-home, wry (not rye, here) and not a little humorous. See the article, here.

A sample:

Mr. Wade had often given ear to panegyrics upon the superiority of this strain of whiskey, but had never tasted the ambrosia. The consequences of this
indulgence may be better imagined than described, especially by those familiar with Mr. Wade’s personal habits. The fiery Ohio senator succumbed to
the insidious but no less agreeable influence of “Robertson county,” but as no headache or disagreeable effects ensued on the “inglorious next morning,” he
pronounced it absolutely the best whiskey he had ever sampled.

For a handsome ad of 1876 for aged Robertson County whiskey, from Woodard & Moore in Springfield, TN, see here.

Griesedieck Beverage Co., St. Louis: 1920-1933

As I’ve discussed in recent posts Prohibition did not spell disaster for all breweries. Some adapted to new conditions and continued to prosper. Anheuser-Busch and Coors are two examples at the mega-brewery level. Trommer’s and Pittsburgh Brewing are smaller examples that kept their plants in spanking order ready to supply beer when 3.2% ABW beer was legalized from April 7, 1933.* There are other bright spots I will canvass in the future.

A story perhaps more typical is described by Alvin Griesedieck, who in 1952 authored an early history of Falstaff Brewery, The Falstaff Story. I’ve discussed Falstaff in other contexts, but not its early decades. The Prohibition years are well-described by Alvin, son of founder Joe Griesedieck, from the front lines.

The Griesedieck family had owned saloons and various breweries in the St. Louis area since patriarch Anton arrived from Westphalia in the late 1860s. The two main forms were Griesedieck Brothers Brewery, which was inoperative during Prohibition but re-started in 1933, and Griesedieck Beverage Co., established by Joe Griesedieck and helmed by son Alvin and brothers after Joe’s death in 1938. Griesedieck Brothers was a venture of cousins, absorbed by Griesedieck Beverage’s successor Falstaff Brewing in the 1950s.

Joe bought a closed brewery, Forest Park Brewery, not long before Prohibition so the first part of Alvin’s career (b. 1895) was working for a legal, Prohibition-era brewery.

He gives a detailed account of his experiences in the book, see especially from Chapter Three. It shows that the company’s near beer Hek – the name was taken from the ancient Egyptian word for cereal beverage – was potentially a profitable business for Griesedieck Beverage and initially enjoyed good sales. Alvin ascribes its decline, not necessarily to the rise of illicit home brewing although it played a role, but to other business factors.

He explains that the company struggled with old equipment in the short boom that followed WW I to meet increased demand. By the time it set up a decent sales and distribution network and could finance improvements to plant, the country entered recession and demand sank.

Hek, like Trommer’s and Pittsburgh Brewing’s product, was a fully fermented beer with the alcohol removed in a final stage of heating and vaporization. Alvin states that Bevo, Anheuser-Busch’s initially successful near beer, was an inferior product due to being made by “check fermentation”. This meant it was fermented just far enough to produce the legally permissible amount of alcohol (maximum .5%), and then filtered and stabilized for sale. Still, it sometimes re-fermented or “spoiled”, and was sent back for refund.

Another factor favouring Hek was that it “took” alcohol well. Alvin explains that some near beer did not blend well with alcohol, to make that is a makeshift beer in speakeasies and homes with illicit grain alcohol. This shows that near beer makers were well aware their beer was often “needled” to make it closer to the real stuff. Sadly, the moral inflexibility of the Prohibition scheme drew even upstanding, law-abiding citizens into conflict with the law; it couldn’t be avoided. Alvin does not discuss the ethical issues on this point: it is clear it was a matter of survival for the near beer makers, and that was that.

And so all said, Hek was well-poised to rival Bevo, perhaps even overtake it (Alvin implies) but business factors that might have been different, weren’t, and precluded this success.

What to do? Diversify, but before that, in a brilliant stroke Joe bought the Falstaff brand from Lemp Brewery, a major St. Louis brewery that closed in 1920 after failing with its near beer, Cerva. The main reason for the purchase was to own a gold-plated brand name, which Falstaff was both locally and further afield, so that on repeal of Prohibition the company could enter the legal beer stakes with high credibility and make money quickly. And that is what finally occurred.

But still the company had to survive until 1933. Apart from near beer it made a line of soda drinks. And it made, perhaps oddly to our ears, cured bacon and ham: vats and the refrigeration system at the brewery facilitated that business.

These new businesses allowed overheads to be covered and nurturing of the prize purchase, the Falstaff name. Alvin records that before Prohibition while mighty Anheuser-Busch sold 1,000,000 barrels per annum of widely distributed beer, Lemp sold 800,000 barrels mainly in St. Louis and nearby regions. In other words it had enormous good will for a St. Louis-based business, which served the Falstaff brand in good stead after 1933.

Much of the book is devoted to describing business and financial transactions, but much of it too deals with the human level. The last brewing Lemp tended to be a cold and calculating businessman, but Alvin thought he sold the Falstaff name to Joe out of personal regard, finally. The Lemps had all become wealthy in brewing and didn’t need to continue their business. Joe, relatively late in life, was starting anew with the former Forest Park brewery. Being offered the Falstaff name at a firesale price was, Alvin implied, a notable gesture by a man in Lemp’s position.

One is impressed by Alvin’s description of his father. Confronted with many obstacles through his career especially connected to financing the Griesedieck and Falstaff companies, he never gave up and maintained a positive mien. For this reason he had many friends in St. Louis, at all levels, as shown by the impressive floral arrangements sent to his funeral, by every level of society and business. Alvin’s description of his father’s qualities suggests a rather different business and social culture, for better and worse, to today’s world.

But netting it down, what did the survival of Griesedieck Beverage mean during the Volstead years, financially that is? As I’ve mentioned, overheads were covered and Alvin states this included a “small salary” for himself. So it was profitable in this sense, but barely. Alvin writes he had thought at times of abandoning the business for something more remunerative. He didn’t, largely because Joe had invested everything – all the family’s wealth – to build a business for his progeny. That loyalty proved rewarding in the end, but it was, and remains, a value unto itself.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from a 1918 Arkansas newspaper courtesy Chronicling America, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*In my recent post on N/A beer and Trommer’s I described the re-introduction date as June 7, 1933; this has since been corrected.

The Cup and the Frog

The “frog mug” is perhaps an unlikely subject for Wikipedia, but so great is that resource I have learned not to minimize it. Indeed a well-written history appears just on that subject, authored apparently by a botany expert.

The mug took different forms, as a cursory image search shows, but the classic type has the little animal crouched at the base, looking up to startle the drinker when the drink descends far enough to see him. In the old days alcoholic drinks were often cloudy – ale, cider, perry and the like – so the drinker did not suspect a jape until thrust upon him or her. The world turns – cloudy drinks are in vogue again – so perhaps the frog mug is due for a revival.

The essay noted explains the mug as a simple joke, originating in the mid-1700s in districts where pottery was produced. Clearly a macabre humour is at work here, but there has to be more to it than that to explain the origins of the practice, one that quickly spread to the New World, as numerous accounts refer to the mug from American Colonial days and into the present.

Going deeper, one explanation, offered in Cheshire Notes and Queries of 1883, states the practice derives from a northern superstition. A frog was sealed in a pot of some kind, over which an invocation was chanted to place ill wishes on an enemy. The idea was the animal would expire slowly and hence too the object of the curse would take sick and wither in parallel. The writer projects that makers of mugs then had the idea to place a frog in the mug for a sly visual joke, and states servants quarters in gentlemen’s houses often featured the item.

Yet Jane Perkins Claney, in her 2004 book-length study of Rockingham Ware in American culture, states the frog, less the toad though, was a fertility symbol in some cultures and the frog mug may be a beneficent practice to recall this early belief.

In this 1878 issue of the The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, it is explained (without reference to frog mugs as such) that a mother of vinegar was added to some cider to hasten its conversion to vinegar. A mother of vinegar is a mass of cellulose and Acetobacter, a bacterium that produces acetic acid under the influence of oxygen. The account likens the mother to the scum on a stagnant pond, known popularly, it states, as “frog spittle”.

Other accounts confirm the popular term frog spittle to describe growth on a pond, which is vegetative in origin, nothing to do with frog emanations as such.

So perhaps (Beeretseq thinking here) cloudy, yeasty beer or cider reminded drinkers of this pond matter, and from there, someone had the idea to place a “swimming” frog in the base of the pot to complete the analogy. Indeed a 1970s joke among those not enamoured of “real ale”, the unfiltered, still-fermenting beer form fancied by connoisseurs, was the “pond matter” often drifting in the beer.

Yet another explanation occurs to us: a toadstool is a mushroom, which is a fungus. Yeast, which ferments apple juice into cider and a boiled cereal mash into beer, is also a fungal organism. The idea of toadstool/mushroom transferred to placing a facsimile of a toad or frog in the beer pot, to make a punning style of joke.

These various explanations may have merged over time with the true origins being forever lost.

On Twitter recently the U.K. beer writers Boak and Bailey mused about fashionable pub names that seem derived from a non-pet animal and an item of common household use, eg. (my own devise) the “Bench and the Bee”.

I propose for the next “arch pub”, as the new-generation pubs are sometimes called, the name “Cup and Frog”. A Thameside location, or indeed along any water, would be apposite.

Note re image: the image shown is drawn from the Wikipedia account referenced above and is used pursuant to the terms of the Creative Commons License No. 4.0 here referenced.





Brewery Success During Prohibition

The fate of American breweries during National Prohibition (1920-1933) is a topic that, by my canvassing, is largely elided by general brewing histories. The distilling industries are similar.

One reads often of “x” number of breweries at the outset of Prohibition (about 1200), the number that survived until repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment (about half), and the production of non-beer products during the Volstead era. Soda pop, near beer limited to .5% abv, ice cream, ice, and malt extract were all examples, stratagems to survive local or national Prohibition.

Some near beers were well-known in their day, Anheuser-Busch’s Bevo brand is an example.* The other day I examined Trommer’s near beer in New York which enjoyed notable success.

(It is possible that some regional brewing surveys, or specific company histories, are an exception to the limited brewing historical interest in Prohibition).

To the extent Prohibition-era brewing is examined it tends to be of illicit production: bootlegging, Al Capone (of “I don’t know what street Canada is on” fame), speakeasies, and home brewing. Legal breweries are sometimes mentioned where they produced real beer contrary to Prohibition laws.

The restricted attention given the national industry is understandable, however: beer history is concerned with beer! The dark days are comparatively unimportant compared to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and restoration of legal beer from April 7, 1933.

Yet, the story of breweries’ lawful activities between 1920 and 1933 is absorbing. Indeed a book could easily be written on it. In these notes I’ll refer to two poles or facets of that experience, one economic, the other an excursion in human interest (or, as viewed from 2019, social history).

First, the economic/business side: Carlos Eduardo Hernández holds a UCLA doctorate and is a professor of management studies in Colombia. In 2016 he wrote a paper on how American breweries adapted during National Prohibition and earlier when beer was banned under local option.

The study can be seen here, “Adaptation and Survival in the Brewing Industry during Prohibition”. In part reliant on sophisticated math and econometrics, it concludes that breweries confronted with local prohibition years before National Prohibition adapted better than those for whom the latter was the first shock.

He argues the case through various metrics including an analysis of inputs used by breweries, especially equipment purchases. He concludes in part:

… [The] historical context allows me to follow breweries throughout an initial shock of heterogeneous intensity (local prohibition), followed by a common, larger, shock (federal prohibition). By studying survival throughout both shocks, I show that adaptation – the making of irreversible investments in response to the first shock – increases the ability of firms to survive the second shock, even if selection  – the exit of the least productive firms –  also occurs in response to the first shock. My novel dataset on machinery acquisition and product diversification corroborates the testable implications of the adaptation mechanism.

The key components of my mechanism – irreversible investments and multi-product firms –  are present in many industries of today. For example, firms that span multiple industries account for 81 percent of the manufacturing output and 28 percent of the number firms in the US (Bernard et al., 2010).

While many might consider the typical modern brewery a single-purpose business, one need only think of Samuel Adams’ aka Boston Brewing Company’s forays into cider and hard seltzer products to see the justice of Hernández’ analysis. Today too, the advent of kombucha, sake, N/A beer, and marijuana-flavoured beverages shows that breweries can benefit from non-beer beverages and preserve competitiveness in an evolving market.

Considering too the steady numerical decline of American breweries even before National Prohibition – from about 1800 in 1905 to c.1200 in 1920 – the trend may have continued even had National Prohibition never occurred. Local option probably played a small part in the drop before 1920, as in 1915, as I’ve discussed earlier, national beer production was at an all-time high. It subsequently fell under war-related materials restrictions and finally the laws implementing the Eighteenth Amendment.

Business efficiency surely played a leading role in the pre-1920 process, as it did for the long-term cull of breweries commencing from 1933. By 1976 there were under 100 breweries in America. Therefore, had National Prohibition never occurred it is likely in my view that not more than 600 breweries would have survived to 1933 anyway.

A further notable example of brewery success during Prohibition is Pennsylvania’s Fort Pitt Brewery, which had a 51-year run starting in 1906.

In this December 1932 article in The Pittsburgh Press, the writer profiled the brewery and its Czech immigrant brewer, Joseph Vokral. Vokral had worked for many years in the legal industry before Prohibition, in Chicago, arriving in Pittsburgh relatively late in his career in 1925.

He was taken on due to his brewing skills and ability to make a saleable near beer, its production is described in the article. It sounds much like a traditional pilsener except the alcohol was removed in the last stage, similar to Trommer’s product in New York.

The journalist found Vokral’s college education a novel element. Most brewers in those days received either on-the-job training or perhaps a stint at one of the (fairly new) brewing schools in the country.

Vokral was clearly a partisan of Czech lager brewing, preferring (understandably) his birth nation’s hops. His near beer was probably very good, it would be interesting to try it alongside the current crop.

Of course real beer came back the following year. Fort Pitt Brewery had many ups and downs after, by some accounts never fully recovering from the decease in 1935 of its main shareholder Samuel Grenet, a charismatic politician-businessman.

While many breweries foundered during Prohibition – of that there is no doubt – the twin pole analyses of economic and social history help illuminate a period often thought of as one long disaster for American breweries: it wasn’t.


*Its greatest success was the early to mid ’20s but the brand faltered finally due, it has been suggested, due to the concurrent successes of organized bootlegging and homebrewing. In contrast, Trommer’s all-malt near beer sold so well Trommer invested a large sum to expand production at the end of the ’20s – see the source cited in my post on near beer and Trommer a few days ago.



A Primer on Pouring

Tiny Bubbles 

Some trends in brewing are cyclical, some are specific to a time. Before craft beer, despite or maybe because the beer palate was so uniform, advertisements tended to focus on ancillary issues.

Before World War I clarity was pushed as desirable, following presumed – or at least claimed – consumers’ diktat. In the 1950s until the late ’70s, how to pour a beer was a key issue in beer circles. It was the subject of numerous beer ads. Every beer book in that time addressed the pressing issue.

Here, in 1959 in Clinton, NY you see the spin Utica Club placed on the topic. Walter Matt, owner of F.X. Matt Brewing, gave advice to readers in the form of the ad mentioned, part of a series of folksy, “armchair” chats the brewery had with customers. Part of the ad states:

Open a bottle of Utica Club beer. Pour one glass straight down the middle, with a thick head; the other down the side of the glass, with little or no head. Taste them both (with a soda cracker in between). I think you’ll be amazed at how much more mellow the beer with the head tastes. No bitterness. Very much like a glass of draft beer that’s been properly drawn.

Creating a beer with a thick, creamy head — the kind with the tiny bubbles that lace the side of the glass going down — this is the thing that a brewmaster takes the greatest personal pride in. Especially if it’s a natural head, like Utica Club’s, not one that’s artificially carbonated. We go to a lot of trouble and expense to get that natural head, aging the beer for months instead of for weeks.

So you can understand why it breaks my heart to see someone pouring Utica Club beer on an angle to cut down the head!

Was Walter Matt correct? I think yes, but it is intuitive for most who drink beer regularly to pour it, if not straight in as he advises, then in a way to produce a nice head. The beer is less gassy and for many will taste better. Less bitter though? I’m not sure of that, and anyway lack of bitterness is no longer an obsession of most brewers, not craft producers anyway.

In his day when beer was stored ice-cold and thinnish from cereal adjunct as well, it was easier to pour straight in without the glass overflowing or head too high. Today, richly malted beers, probably served warmer on average than back in the ’50s (ditto for draft), must be poured a little differently to keep it stable in the glass. Still, we take his overall point.

Yet many still pour a can or bottle gingerly to produce no head; they seem to like it that way. I see this regularly in the bars and taprooms of the land. That’s okay too. It’s a free world, do your own thing.

Today, everyone decides for themselves such matters. Canadian media and technology guru Marshall McLuhan wrote, not many years after the F.X. Matt ad, that there are no passengers on spaceship earth; we are all crew. Think about it.


No-alcohol Beer – the World Turns

When Life Gives you Lemons, Trommer’s of Brooklyn Makes “Lemonade”

With burgeoning interest in N/A beer (no ethanol presence), it is interesting to “go back” and see the experience of previous generations. Of course N/A beer is not new. In Prohibition days countries had some version of it, with alcohol ranging from trace amounts to 2.5% ABV. Before modern N/A beer there was “small beer” in the U.K. and U.S., some of which was very weak, and not dissimilar beers on the Continent. We can go back yet further to Mumme and the “seafaring” beer taken out of north German ports on voyages, some of which was without alcohol.

The Malta of the Caribbean, and similar products there, are an early modern form. Henninger when it had a brewery in Ontario in the 1970s made a N/A licensed from Birell in Switzerland. Henninger in the home base of Frankfurt had its own (non-Birell) version in the same period.

The fashion goes in cycles and as recently reported in the Guardian even in Germany interest seems at a high point. In the market generally large brewers such as Heineken with its 0.0, Budweiser with its Prohibition, and smaller players are in on the action. (The Guardian seems quite attached to the idea of N/A by my perusal, with a series of articles in recent years).

Partake Pale in Ontario is a craft example, a beer on my list to try. A notable development (international) is that different craft styles are employed, not just the traditional, lager-style “light” or “dark”.

A variety of reasons explains this: health primarily, the desire too to market to populations that traditionally abjure or frown on alcohol. The legalization of cannabis in Canada and elsewhere may see the success of non-alcohol, cannabis-flavoured beverages; time will tell. There are two sorts of these, those with the active cannabis agent THC, those without. And those without might contain alcohol.

In principle to me beer should be alcoholic, but more power to those who can sell, and who want to buy, a N/A. I am interested in the matter primarily historically. One of the most interesting cases is Trommer of Brooklyn, New York, which had unusual success during Prohibition. Trommer had about a 50-year run until its sale in 1951 (the Trommer brand continued for some years after under other ownership).

Contrary to the usual tale, rather than wither under Volstead and see its near-beer dying on the vine (!), Trommer flourished with exactly that. It made three “brews”: a light, dark, and “October”. Each of these, in accordance with American law, could not contain greater than 0.4% ABV. A concise news account in Long Island City’s Daily Star in December 1932 describes how the founder’s son, George Trommer, did it.

Details of his Prohibition success have been reported by other beer writers, notably Will Anderson in his 1976 history of Brooklyn breweries. The accounts I’ve seen state that George Trommer financed hot dog stands in New York exacting an obligation in return to carry his N/A beer.

The 1932 account refers rather to “lunch counters”, so I think it was more than hot dogs: sandwiches, soups, stews, chops, burgers, and the like. Feltman’s famous Coney stands were surely part it, but I think to be successful on Trommer’s scale the N/A had to accompany a broader menu. The blackboard menu shown in restaurant historian Jan Whitaker’s 2013 examination of the pre-McDonald’s lunch counter shows a variety of egg dishes, sandwiches, and short orders, for example. As well, George had expanded considerably the restaurant and beer garden at the brewery, which was responsible for many barrels of near beer sold.

This 1934 ad, by a local grill, supports the above reasoning. The grill, which also advertises Trommer beer, is clearly an example of George’s 1932 forecast that his lunch counter accounts will switch to full-strength Trommer’s after Prohibition. It is highly likely the grill was a Volstead era account of his as well.

In 1932 Trommer’s could produce 300,000 bbl of near beer a year. Trommer’s had, as mentioned, unusual success with the product, but was a notable brewery in other respects. Both before and after Prohibition it brewed all-malt, contrary to usual American practice then of adjunct brewing. Trommer’s N/A line was no different, the brews just had the alcohol removed.

As well, Trommer’s is a later implantation in German-American brewing. The great names of American lager brewing founded breweries in the mid-1800s, but Trommer’s Prussian immigrant founder, John Trommer, bought an interest in the Evergreen Brewery (est. 1894) in 1896, after years of working for other brewers.

John Trommer died in 1897 but not before buying out the residual interest of the Evergreen Brewery’s founder, named Breitkopf. The brewery then became Trommer’s Evergreen Brewery. Eldest son George, only 21 at his father’s death, expanded the business before, during, and after Prohibition. George died at 80 in 1956 in Manhattan, having retired (bachelor) to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel after the business was sold.

Trommer White Label advertised its all-malt attributes strongly in the 1930s and 40s but to no avail, ultimately: the business couldn’t survive past 1951. Competitor Piel’s bought the Brooklyn Trommer’s in that year. The Liebmanns – Rheingold of Brooklyn – took over a larger, related Trommer facility in Orange, NJ, purchased by George in 1933. These disposals followed ruinous NYC area labour strikes in 1948-1949.

But Trommer’s remains an inspiration, indeed is a progenitor of the craft revival along with Henninger in Ontario and Prinz Brau in Alaska (owned by Oetker Group, Germany), both in the 1970s.

The takeaway is, there are no iron rules in business. You can make it in different ways, even, for a brewer, selling a beer that isn’t a beer. So successful was Prohibition-era Trommer that had legalization not occurred, the brewery might still exist today. Nonetheless the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, which George saw coming, and he adapted to the new reality.

Brought back from pre-Pro times was his English-styled, now fully alcoholic Brown October Brew. And so, a classical German brewhouse in America made not just lagers, but British-style ale. I would think the beer was top-fermented, not a bottom fermented imitation of ale, as later in the 1930s Trommer’s advertised ale as such. This ad (source: Jess Kidden’s Google Beer Pages) confirms such a product:

While not mentioned in the ad, Kidden states that Kent hops, meaning imported English hops, were used in the ale. Indeed Trommer’s trumped the British by using all-malt. By the 1930s British beer usually employed 20% or more sugar or raw grains. At the same time, our research suggests the ale was a late-1930s addition to the Trommer line, so I can’t rule out that Brown October Brew was not technically an ale. Post-Repeal ads do not use the term “ale”, but possibly the terms “brew” and “beer” were retained because the N/A October Brew never used the term ale.

In 1934 in Yonkers’ Herald-Statesman, Trommer’s advertised the restored full-strength brew, as seen below. Now that’s a beer we’d buy.

Note #1, re images: the images above are drawn from the digitized news, or other, sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.
Note #2 on  sources: our account relies in part on a 1984 Trommer Brewery series in the Ridgewood Times of Ridgewood, NY, available courtesy Fulton Historical Newspapers. As an example, here is the second article. No author is identified, but we think Will Anderson may have contributed or assisted with the article as we understand he lived in New Jersey, broadly part of the New York conurbation.



Brodi’s Brought Back

Most of us can recall special moments from “way back”, music we heard, art we saw, a building, a landscape, something that resonates for years, and rue how difficult is the recapture. Marcel Proust made a career of it.

For example, in the period when I visited the Brodi’s club in Plattsburgh, NY in the early 1970s, I greatly enjoyed the house band. To my memory they were tight, accomplished, pros in every way even though doing mostly (or so it seemed) cover material.

It’s a memory I must nurture as without a time machine, how could I go back and hear it again? Fortunately and against all odds, I can, and did. Former members of the band US uploaded two tapes from exactly the period I knew, on You Tube, this is one. And it is just as I recall, listen to the great version of Chicago’s “I’m a Man”, near the end.

If I turn it up, dim the lights, in a way I am at Brodi’s again, all I need is a can of PBR. (Well – I’ll skip that part. You will forgive me, I know).

I stated earlier that the drive each way was 1.5 hrs. My friend Charles – he did the driving, so he should know – told me this morning we often did it in 1 1/4 hrs, hitting 75 mph at times.

I don’t recall ever meeting anyone at Brodi’s, ever speaking to anyone. I just watched the band and sipped a beer or two. It must have been two, Charles says I sometimes dozed on the way home.

So I don’t have any sizzling memories of the place, it was all very correct. After all too we were in a foreign land and careful not to get into arguments or other awkward situations. We needed to get home for Monday’s classes in Legal Philosophy, say. The Hart-Fuller Debate and, oh never mind.

Others surely have more exciting memories of Brodi’s. An American sportswriter, Bill Tangen, recorded his in 2005, you can read them here in his book Choices: Memoirs of a Sportswriter. It has to do with two dates he made in one night at the bar, spaced to avoid overlap, but one girl was late…

My experiences were more anodyne, yes. Still, I value them: interesting new beers; U.S. cigarettes (Venus to our Mars of Virginia blends); the band; the dancing couples; even the local accent – there is one, even such a short distance from Canada. Plattsburgh then was like being thousands of miles from home. Parts of London or Paris today resemble Toronto more than any part of Plattsburgh did then.

Good times, not least the music. And I can hear it all again. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee, thank you, ex-members of the band US for your wonderful upload, something only made possible through magic McLuhan “circuitry”.

Of course the building has another use now, the restaurant, band, and bar are gone. Charles told me he remembered the metal fencing on the landing. It is still there.

Note re image: the image above was drawn from a video on You Tube of performances by an earlier band, the Starfires, at Brodi’s, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.