Martyn Cornell has authored a new article, ‘Tishonest Prewers’ and Lager Bier Operas — Uncovering the True Origins of American Lager Brewing, published on May 5, 2022 in Good Beer Hunting.
He argues, persuasively in my view, that the generally credited account of lager’s origins in the U.S., that John Wagner introduced it in Philadelphia in 1840, is not correct. It appears another Wagner was involved, and in 1842, going by the confirmable record.
At the very least the traditional account likely is part of a larger, more complex, multi-Wagner story.
Other theories of lager’s origin in the U.S. have been advanced over the years, some placing it in the 1830s. See scholar Maureen Ogle’s canvass in her well-known Ambitious Brew: a History of American Beer.
In the wake of Cornell’s article a Twitter discussion ensued over the weekend among beer historical writers. Alan McLeod and Jordan St. John raised the issue whether lager brewing in North America well preceded the 1840s but has not been traced due to passage of time and early records being in German.
I mentioned I knew a later-1800s magazine article that argued for lager brewing by American German communities in the 1700s, and undertook to find it again.
It is J. Burnitz Bacon’s “Lager Beer in America. How it Came Here, What it Should be. What it is” published in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. XIV, No. 2, August, 1882. I actually tweeted it earlier, in October 2018, so some in the beer community are aware of it.
The Frank Leslie publication was a general interest magazine. The compilation linked includes topics as diverse as the history of shoes, the varying advantages of modern travel, and history of the Gypsies (as then termed).
Bacon sets out different lines of argument for his idea that settler Palatines brewed lager in the Mohawk Valley, New York, in New York City and states beyond.
In come cases he advances unfounded speculation. He states the Bernitz brothers brewed in Pennsylvania and finally Baltimore, Maryland, and surely it was lager since its use was well known in Germany. Not very satisfactory.
On the other hand, he refers, stating building owner’s name and specific location, to a lager brewery in New York City that functioned between 1810 and 1850. It later became a church.
He credits a Rev. Kern and his (unnamed) descendants as source of an oral tradition that winter lager was known and appreciated by early Palatines in New York.
Bacon also states he visited the Tulpehocken Valley near Reading, Pennsylvania in 1836 – 46 years earlier – and was told a man called Fritz (surname, first name?) brewed real lager there in a bark-covered brewery.
What his various accounts share is lack of corroborative evidence of the period – a church document, tax document, book, legal document or other writing. Even when Bacon was writing, late-1800s, I am not aware anyone else advanced or commented on the theory.
Bacon states his idea was discussed at “the late” brewers’ convention in Chicago and derided by those present. They considered a later generation of German-Americans responsible for introducing lager to America. This is generally believed today, and typically the 1840s or sometimes 1830s is cited as the decade of origin.
It would be interesting to find that discussion among the brewers, if it occurred, and was documented.
Bacon further states that 18th century Palatine Americans finally adopted American ale brewing techniques, so their lager was forgotten until re-introduced by later German incomers. That is how he explains lack of knowledge of the tradition in contemporary American brewing.
Settler Palatine records, church and other, many of which have been studied and compiled,* would be a good place to start to test Bacon’s thesis. Likely much of this material is in German.
Another factor to consider is to understand what was brewed in the Palatine regions where the incoming brewing families originated. The German Palatinate included historically a western section, or kreis, of Bavaria but was I understand mostly outside Bavaria, heartland of lager.
Did the Rhinelanders who came to America actually brew lager in Germany, vs. top-fermented beer? Some Palatines however came from other parts of Germany, or from Austria or Switzerland, albeit dubbed Palatines once Stateside.
(Their wending migrations were prompted by war with the French, famine and disease).
Then too, even if 18th century Palatines called some of their beer “lager”, it may not have been lager. It may have been stock ale, also traditionally brewed in one season to drink in the next. Ale can be fermented at 58 or 60 F too, in some cases…
Bacon gives no satisfactory account how his lager-brewers obtained the correct yeast. He rejects the idea that a short (three-week) clipper trip from Europe was necessary to preserve such yeast in living form.
Yet, in 2011 it was determined that lager yeast, or pastorianus, is an early mutation in Europe (c. 1400) of traditional, top-fermenting yeast (for ale, porter) and a wild yeast from Patagonia that presumably arrived in Europe on a trading vessel long ago.
Subsequently, researchers have considered that a related species in Tibet is even closer to the non-European element of pastorianus. See Victor Jiminez’ article in 2020 in Brew & Hub, “Unsolved Mysteries of Lager Yeast”.
So it may have come on the Spice Route, possibly as a wine yeast which acted as intermediary for an ultimate brewing purpose.
Whatever the particular origins, how could pastorianus in viable form, adapted to work cold, have been brought to America in the slow-ship days by migrating Palatines, particularly after sojourning first in England and even Ireland, as many did?
Perhaps in bottled beer, or stored in a stone jug? Not beyond the realm of possibility.
Might the mutation in question have arisen in Northeastern United States, via in part trade with Argentina or the far East?**
Maybe an old Palatine record sheds light, or offers other satisfactory proof of genuine lager-brewing, but much spadework needs to be done to find it.
I might note, a historical conclusion can be arguable without a “smoking gun”, provided enough period indicia point to it. We are not there based on Bacon’s article.
Nonetheless we have it to ponder. A few modern writers have noticed the article. It is cited in a general way as evidence of early German-American brewing in a paper included in (1993) Interdisciplinary Investigations of Domestic Life in Government Block B: Perspectives On Harpers Ferry’s Armory and Commercial District, Paul A. Shackel, Ed.
Andrew Smith in his 2014 Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages mentions the article. Due to the restricted view at Google Books I cannot determine what weight he attributes to it.
*See e.g., at Family Search Palatine Records in the United States. It references the many works of Henry (Hank) Jones, a well-known Hollywood actor turned professional genealogist. See Jones’ website for more information. One volume specifically dealt with the Palatine families of New York City, for example.
**See my comment added to post.