Bakshian on Beer

Washington, D.C.-based Aram Bakshian, Jr. is a writer, consultant, broadcaster, and Harvard University Senior Fellow. A Washington insider par excellence, he was speech-writer and advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, among numerous other governmental roles. His biography on Wikipedia gives a good overview of his career. He has also, for some 45 years now, written on gastronomic subjects, often in American Spectator, a long-running political magazine that is now a news and commentary website.

Starting about 1974 American Spectator introduced its Great American Saloon Series, dealing with bibulous and related matters: so cocktails, types of drinking establishment, wine, cigars, et seq.

Back in 1976 Bakshian wrote a superb piece on beer, “Confessions of a Beer Snob”. In many ways it is a highly condensed “world guide” of the sort beer guru Michael Jackson (1942-2007) later issued that helped fuel the beer revolution.

You can read “Confessions of a Beer Snob with other articles of Bakshian archived on the website of American Spectator, see here (posted in 2012 but authored and first published in 1976 by my researches).

The article takes its place among the significant pre-craft, pre-Jackson writing that aimed to treat beer seriously. That is, it adopts an elevated tone, showing erudition and critical judgement even as some of his judgements seem off-centred.

For example, he didn’t twig (sorry) to English bitter, finding it not much better than the run of English lager. However, serving temperature clearly played a role here, he was of the generation who couldn’t abide warm English beer.

After so many delightful samples of robust local beer specialties in Germany, the standard London “lager” tasted like tapwater. It took several days to adjust to it. As for the dubious fluid the British call “beer,” the orange-amber bitter produced by Watneys and so many other firms, it has a sharper tang but doesn’t taste all that good. And John Bull, with characteristic obstinacy, still insists on serving it tepid, thereby bringing out the full nastiness of the flavor.

Still, everyone has their blind spots. Creditably, he refused to endorse the outsize 1970s reputation of Coors:

… an impressive variety of beers, porters, and ales, both imported and domestic, are still available in most decent-sized American communities. Some offer historical oddities like San Francisco’s Anchor Brand Steam Beer(which tastes something like British bitter), and there are still a variety of interesting regional brands, though Coors and Olympia are much over-touted. It really is pathetically amusing the way trendies have inflated the price and reputation of Coors, a good but scarcely remarkable (in fact, to my mind, slightly watery) light beer.

His reveries are saved for German beer, noting on a trip there its “frozen beer”, hence Eis Bock, white beer of Berlin, and smoked beer in Bamberg. The German “baker’s beer” is also flagged, a style that has eluded the current crop of beer historians, we think, barring a misprint or misspelling here.

The odds are long that American Spectator, founding editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., Aram Bakshian, and The Great American Saloon Series would still exist in 2019, over 40 years later, but they do! Occasionally a Saloon Series article appears on American Spectator’s website, indeed the last by Bakshian dates only to 2017.

He seems after 1976 to have written mostly on bars and pubs, hotel bars in particular, as apt for Washington, D.C. But at least one article, from 1991, contains appreciative comments on a dark beer from Oxford Brewing Co., an early craft brewery in Baltimore. (Its brands were later absorbed by Heavy Seas Brewery in the same city).

So he seems to have welcomed the craft revival although I cannot find an article from him dealing with it as such. Perhaps his interests in gastronomy tended elsewhere after the 1970s.

Once again we see that interest in good beer existed before craft, before Jackson, before modern I.P.A. The record exists to prove it. I showed this in detail as well in my Brewery History article on four influential 1970s American beer writers, and continually elaborate on it here.

The pre-history so to speak applies in Britain no less but has been chronicled by writers there. Much less is understood of the analogous situation here, which I have set out to cure.

In every way this pre-history helped inform, or pave the way, for what came later – for what we have today. Do not forget that.

There is a coda to Bakshian’s article, more soon.

Note re image: Believed in public domain, sourced from the Wikipedia entry on Aram Bakshian, Jr. linked in the text.

 

 

Beer Over There

In recent posts I’ve shown that despite the widely held American view during and after WW II that British beer was unacceptably “warm”, there were exceptions. A Briton lately relocated to America in 1957 testified to the easy acceptance of British beer by U.S. service personnel in his London pub during the war. U.S. journalist Stan Delaplane wrote in 1962 that experience with British beer was required to obtain commensurate rewards. Michael Jackson stated the same thing 15 years later in his widely acclaimed The World Guide to Beer.

A Florida-born soldier in the war years not only liked British beer but thought it the best he had tried anywhere, which took in American lager, Belgian beer, and even German beer (1945).

Still, the general picture can’t be doubted, even though – so far – I’ve given no evidence of it. Now I’ll turn to that, and in a subsequent post will address a few prewar examples.

Rather than quote from the (many) general press reports that grouse about warm English beer, I thought this time I’d examine a different source, the army press. Yank is a good place to look here.

What was Yank? A deft essay in Wikipedia tells us:

The idea for the magazine came from Egbert White, who had worked on the newspaper Stars and Stripes during World War I. He proposed the idea to the Army in early 1942, and accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel. White was the overall commander, Major Franklin S. Forsberg was the business manager and Major Hartzell Spence was the first editor.[1] White was removed from the Yank staff because of disagreements about articles which had appeared.[2] Soon afterward, Spence was also assigned to other duties and Joe McCarthy became the editor.[3]

The first issue was published with the cover date of June 17 1942.[4] The magazine was written by enlisted rank (EM) soldiers with a few officers as managers, and initially was made available only to the US Army overseas.[5] By the fifth issue of July 15 1942, it was made available to serving members within the US, however it was never made available on the newsstands for public purchase.[6] YANK’s circulation exceeded 2.5 million in 41 countries with 21 editions.[7]

The last issue was published on December 28 1945.[8] Joe McCarthy remained the editor of Yank until the official closure of the office on New Year’s Eve 1945.[9]

Prior to scanning Yank for comments on British beer, I had never read anything from the magazine. Some prefatory comments in its regard. I was impressed with the quality of the writing, hence also the editing. Many pieces must have been authored by people involved in publishing before the war. A general literate quality is evident while often exhibiting the informal phrasing and humour associated in popular culture with Yank. The general tone, in fact, was echoed in dialogue of the TV show MASH in the 1970s.

One 1944 article is a foray into satire and even fantasy, positing an end to the war in mid-1944. The writer imagines commentary by well-known journalists in and outside the army such as Ernie Pyle and Walter Winchell, parodying their style to a “t”.  Winchell’s reaction was simply “Flash”, which is funny to anyone who knows his telegraphic yet impactful style.

Two articles show amply that the general attitude to British pub beer was, it’s warm, we don’t love it. One article attributes this view to – I was fascinated to see – our own Canadian army, in a sharp portrait of the Canadian soldiery by U.S. soldier-journalist Robert Neville. He toured a number of Canadian infantry regiments in England. One was the Black Watch, in which my father Bernard was a private in 1944-1945 albeit not overseas.*

The article portrayed the men as “Canadian Tommies” – Tommy was a general term for British soldiers up to 1945 – but Tommies with a difference. As Neville put it, the soldiers struck him as mid-way between British and American in character with an individuality all their own. Sounds about right, for the time.

Canadians’ evolving infantry tactics (post-Dieppe raid), saluting method, marching style, and other aspects of regimental practise were analyzed. While the article is clearly and intelligently written the writer can’t quite conceal his preference for his own nation’s traditions. Thus he is bemused by how the Canadians march, where the hand reaches the waist. To Neville those out of step look more “conspicuous”.

In the end though, he regards the Canadians as “brothers”. And they agreed essentially on British beer, with the interesting slant (if it is that) that Canadians were more reticent:

In his spare time the Canadian Tommy has had to make the same adjustments to British custom and climate that we’ve had to make. British accents are just as foreign to him and British money just as complicated. He accepts warm ale with better grace than we do, but still prefers Coca-Cola.

(From Yank, December 23, 1942).

Here you see an early instance of the “polite Canadian” meme, one that creditably originates outside Canada, as when the subjects perpetuate it, as so often happens today, the cultural point is rather lost, isn’t it. Or perhaps another factor was at work. Ale and porter had a much wider survival in eastern Canada in the Forties than in the United States. Perhaps Canadians were more accepting of beer, temperature regardless, that reminded them somewhat of home.

A fascinating gradation of penalties in the Canadian Army is described, and also a distinction between non-commissioned officers and ranks below, for drunkenness.

For a purely American example of wartime disenchantment with British beer, another piece in Yank is illustrative:

Within a week or two, however, Mrs. French had learned to deal with her new patrons. She could usually distinguish between a soldier well-versed in pub crawling and one who had just arrived. The veteran would order lager or pale ale; the rookie, beer. English beer, or  bitter, is served warm, and Mrs. French quickly learned that if she did not warn of this she would soon hear a grumble: “Hell, it ain’t cold.”

(From Yank, November 18, 1942).

Mrs. French ran with her husband Dirty Dick’s, Curzon Street, London. Formerly patronised largely by the “gentlemens’ gentlemen”, it become equally a haven for American soldiers. The article in general is interesting, and gives examples of beers more palatable to the Yanks. Pale ale was one, meaning bottled beer here, and Graham’s lager, another (makes sense).

We conclude on a humorous note, from the aforementioned issue of Yank:

According to Mr. French, who is very polite, Yanks are beyond criticism in the way they carry their liquor. One lad who gave him considerable amusement, however, had the habit of dropping in for a quick double shot, ducking out, and then ducking in again perhaps 10 minutes later for a repeat. One day Mr. French tabulated his visits; total 22. Only then was it discovered what he did in the 10-minute interval.

He visited another pub down the street.**

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*He was 17 and told me that soldiers were not sent overseas until their 18th birthday. He reached 18 about four months after V-E Day.

**That the story was possibly invented, or at least embellished, does not detract from its charm.

 

 

 

Into the Wonderful Light

Early Beer Connoisseurs in New York

… individuals who, twelve months or two years ago, judged a glass of lager by its taste and the amount of snowy froth which crowned the glass, now discuss the merits of Bavarian and Berliner beers with the “cheek” if not the judgement of a connoisseur who had graduated on the Unter den Linden

Many post-1850, 19th century articles have now been unearthed from the New York and Brooklyn press on the rise of lager in the area. I’ve found not a few.

I can’t recall seeing this gem before, from the September 4, 1874 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Union. It describes a transformed beer scene in Manhattan and Brooklyn, henceforth comprised not just of lager-drinkers (this is a given by the 1870s) but of connoisseurs who seek out imported brews.

The imports are in two classes: European beers, and “Western” beers. The latter meant beer from Rochester, NY, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Later, St. Louis would join the Western ranks. Rochester’s lager was remarked with particular favour, selling for six cents a glass, a one cent premium on the standard nickel beer. The local savants, “satellites” of the Brooklyn courthouse said the article, preferred Rochester lager over Milwaukee’s and Cincinnati’s – but true imports over all these.

The article delves into the whys and wherefores: the local beers just weren’t as good due to no brewing occurring in summer, as ice was too expensive. The implication is despite the mythology of long-aged lager it was not, in mid-century New York, considered prime drinking due to acidification over time and excess hop bitterness, as I’ve discussed earlier.* Another reason given was that malt was dear in recent years. This suggested that adjuncts such as rice and corn were already in use, or that all-malt beers were attenuated low which resulted in a thin taste.

The journalist explores the favoured imports by name and often style: Kulmbacher, Tivoli, Kitzinger, Pilsener, Erlanger. Pilsener’s unusually light colour was noted as most American lager then was still amber-brown. The pils was considered less hoppy too, or “resinous”, than domestic beer. The gambrinal crown was bestowed on Bavaria’s Kulmbacher, with a taste note that would do credit to any modern beer writer. It sounds much like the Kulmbacher of today, in fact.

Reading this, one is reminded of the general media’s bemused accounts of modern craft brewing. One still encounters such pieces, sometimes quoting culinary or entertainment figures (the late Anthony Bourdain, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.). The process in old New York was no different. Then the new kids on the block were Kulmbacher and Pilsener; today it’s New England India Pale Ale, Brut IPA, and pastry stouts (pastry, not pasty).

While ale, domestic or imported, is not mentioned in the article there is a passing acknowledgment of Dublin Porter’s merits as the Kulmbacher is compared to it, in effect.

It amazes me that before modern brewery sanitation, before pasteurization, the beers could be imported in good condition, not just bottled but draft. But evidently they were, or enough of them. Did drinkers accept inferior taste because of the import cachet? Perhaps in some cases, but the description of the Kulmbacher certainly suggests the journalist knew, or had learned, what good beer was all about. One suspects the local bartenders and import agents treated him to a few as his article ends as an endorsement of their products.

Like all good journalists, he saw his job as bringing light to those in ignorance, those who as Paul cautioned “look through a glass, darkly”. A clever journalist, he employs a jeu de mots by claiming to enlighten those who view a saloon’s dim interior from the curb and wonder at the workings. (A little sacrilegious, I guess). To them he counterpoints citizens who “… take their lager steadily and respectably in high-toned saloons” and are “already posted…”.

I’ll keep you posted, too.

Note re image above: sourced from an Ebay listing, here. All rights belong solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See this 1877 New York Times article.

 

 

“In Comes the Keg”

Stanton (Stan) Delaplane was a well-known American journalist, based in San Francisco. He is remembered in beverage history for introducing Irish Coffee to the United States in 1952. But he should be known for another, probable first: introducing the term “keg bitter” to an American audience in 1962.

This was long before writers, and famously Michael Jackson in The World Guide to Beer (1977), talked up – or rather down – the term to bemused but enthusiastic American beer fans.

On May 27, 1962, reporting in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Delaplane explained what keg beer was. He referred colourfully to UK drinkers not happy at paying 2d. a pint more for beer that didn’t require any more tender care of publicans than turning a tap.

According to Delaplane the price differential, which beer journalism ragged on later, was justified by the capital investment necessary to convert to keg production. It wasn’t corporate greed, in other words. True, once the brewers got their money back the price should have come down, especially as some later studies showed keg beer was weaker than cask ale.

 

 

But there was all that advertising to pay for. And prices don’t always come down in that kind of environment. C’est la vie.

Delaplane wrote that the merger of Flowers and Whitbread breweries in 1962 meant keg beer would replace cask-conditioned ale in Whitbread’s large tied estate. This seems to show that keg was meant to replace cask ale in the tied system, vs. being just an expedient for isolated houses or those with irregular sales. See on the latter point the 1992 journal article discussed by Ron Pattinson in a blog post, here.

The term keg for pressurised, filtered, often pasteurized beer seems to date from 1954 or 1955, citations vary. It came in via the brand term Flower’s Keg Bitter for its pressurized, sparkling draft. The beer itself, wrote beer historian Ian Hornsey (see p. 671), was a spin-off of wartime efforts at Luton, home of Flowers’ Green brewery, to design draft beer for American servicemen who were not used to cask ales.

Watney’s famously, or infamously, introduced a keg-type beer in the 1930s, at London’s East Sheen Racket Club. A small red barrel used for decades in the associated marketing and in the term Red Barrel Beer, perhaps inspired Flowers’ term “keg” for a beer served from a metal barrel under injected pressure.

In any case, by the early 1960s as we see, the term keg bitter and cognates were evidently established in the London trade for a new kid – keg – on the block. Beer appreciation circles started to rumble. This lead finally to the creation of CAMRA, or The Campaign for Real Ale, the famed consumer beer lobby.

So we see Americans were told quite early, via a well-known journalist, what keg beer was, and its significance vs. the traditional form of draught beer, cask-conditioned ale.

As I have also discussed, from the 1950s through ’80s, or dawn of the craft beer era, Americans had quality imports available. There was a surprising range of styles, including “sours” and Imperial stouts, from the key beer producing countries. 1970s press reports in New York revealed, too, the phenomenon that was CAMRA.

America had all the knowledge to stimulate a beer revival much earlier than 1976 when New Albion Brewing was founded by Jack McAuliffe in Sonoma, CA. But its brewers at the time were preoccupied with other issues – developing ever lighter beer, especially.

Things of course don’t happen in a logical sequence, or what seems logical retrospectively. They happen because people, or enough people, get the ball rolling. And whether and how that will happen is by definition unpredictable, and specific to time and place.

Still, we can look back to see what people knew, when about beer in America, and how history might have unfolded had the cards been played differently.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the 1962 news article linked in the text (via Fulton Newspapers). All intellectual property therein belongs to the sole owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Bruno Lessing in the London pub, 1932

Coming out of a steamship office here, several years ago, I felt thirsty and asked a bobby where I could get a glass of good ale. He recommended a little “pub” a few blocks away, and there I went. And there I met Isabel. She was behind the bar and she gave me a pewter tankard of ale. I sat down on a cushioned seat and chatted with her while I drank.

Ever since then, when I come to London, the first thing I jot down on my daily list is to drop into the “pub” at 11 a.m. (that’s when it opens) and have my tankard and a chat with Isabel…

These lines are from a travel column in the Times-Union of Albany, New York in 1932. They were product of Bruno Lessing, pen name of Rudolph Edgar Block. Largely forgotten today, Lessing was of a piece with a Liebling, Mencken or Bemelmans – prewar writers who affected an airy, “European” manner. “Mitteleuropa” gets closer to it, in fact.

He was born in New York in 1870, of Jewish parents, and died in 1940 in an Arizona sanatorium. A death notice described him as a respected (New York) Sun and long-time Hearst journalist and author. It commented:

Writing his column took him many times around the world, roaming into strange and out-of-the-way places. He delighted in describing the scenery, life, folklore and gastronomic bits he found in his wanderings.

The piece linked appeared in his column Vagabondia, sometimes billed A Vagabond Abroad.

Lessing is one of many interwar writers who described a normal drinking culture for an America still parched and pinched by National Prohibition, which finally ended in 1933.

The pre-Prohibition Manhattan and Brooklyn alehouses I’ve discussed in these posts were a resort of the writing fraternity then. It seems likely Lessing knew them as well as the innumerable German kellers and beer gardens in Gilded Era New York and New Jersey.

The ale houses were extensions of the British original, so drawing cellar-cool but non-refrigerated beer was business as usual. Perhaps for this reason Lessing did not comment on ale temperature in London, or its low carbonation, as did some observers.

He was an old-time boulevardier, not inclined to micro-analyse cultures anyway. He focused rather on the server, Isabel, in a way that is not done today. While we are better for that, his writing stands as testament to its time.

If “period flavour” means anything we see a cardinal example here.

Note re image: The image above, of Rudolph Block, was sourced from his entry in Wikipedia. Apparently in public domain. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

American Southerner Meets English Beer

 

Junius and Katherine: More Letters From WW II: From Field to Battlefront was published in the United States in 2013. The book appeared in two parts, the link is to the second volume.

Junius Harris was a native of the State of Florida, stationed in wartime England with a U.S. artillery regiment. After finishing high school he married, and soon entered military service. He performed a clerical role in the army, travelling with the forces in the field.

After training Stateside and in Britian he soldiered in Belgium and Germany.  He survived the war, and lived to the age of 81. While serving he wrote letters home, which a descendant published for their evident historical value.

His remarks for England have particular interest, including how rationing affected civilians. He recounts that children would wait patiently for hours for a small handful of “soggy” chips from a fish and chips shop. As to fish, it was not an option – none was available.

Often the children had to leave without getting any chips. He remarks on the considerable sacrifices of British civilians, noting that many items considered essential at home for daily living were simply not available, or rationed.

British beer, while rather different from iced American lager, struck a chord with him contrary to the impressions of many G.I.s. He wrote:

I went to the pub here on the post (that’s a beer hall) and had a few glasses of bitters last night. They were out of [mild] ale. The bitters tastes a little like [American lager] beer only it has a far better taste and is not near as bitter as the beer they sell in the states now.

It seems odd he found British bitter less hopped than American lager. Wartime constraints on British brewing perhaps explained this, but more likely I think the sweetness and body of British ale disguised the bitterness.

Of Belgian beer, he was unappreciative since it “has no alcohol in it”. This was wartime, low-alcohol beer, or so-called table beer.

Yet in Germany in 1945 he thought the beer “pretty good”, “like States beer … but [the beer] we had in England was the best I have ever had anywhere”. Quite a compliment considering the many reports of American Forces’ dissatisfaction with “warm”. “flat” English beer.

I was struck, finally, by how completely American he was, to the point of viewing Britain as a foreign place akin, he says at one point, to Holland!

A young Harris is pictured next to his wife on the book’s cover. By his visage and name he appears clearly of British ancestry, perhaps Ulster Scots, or Scots-Irish as the Americans would say.

Yet not a word appears in the book suggesting any connection to Britain, socially or culturally. He never refers to the place in Britain whence his ancestors came, for example.

Migration to America and long settlement in the New World completely effaced any lingering connections with Britain, it seems.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Note: the book contains some objectionable commentary in relation to Blacks and some other minorities. We must take the historical record as it is, and learn from the mistakes and blind spots of previous generations.

From Guv’nor to Gloversville

Servicing Gloversville and an adjacent town in Fulton County, NY the Leader-Herald of 1957 had an interesting story on an English immigrant who formerly managed a pub, the Queen’s Head in London. While its location was not specified, the Queen’s Head of 2019 in Piccadilly is almost certainly the same place. It is on Denman Street, part of the theatre district. The pub is venerable and claims roots to 1736 (see website).

Thomas Flanagan was 60 and followed his son and daughter-in-law to America after an eventful career in pub-keeping and before that, the soldiery. He was wounded in the first war, recovered and took up tenanting as an occupation. A ex-soldier’s sang froid came in handy during the Blitz and V-2 attacks. Flanagan described vividly how windows and door were regularly blown out – once even the roof – but the pub never ceasing trading.

Still, he and the QH were lucky: five pubs nearby were put out of business (“demolished”) due to German bombs and rockets. Flanagan, pictured in the account and likened by the journalist to a Fred Astaire, took it all in stride and remembered fondly the Americans he had met during the war.

His account runs against conventional wisdom in a couple of respects. He states the soldiers had no trouble accustoming to English beer, infamously served “warm” or at least less icy than American beer. Still, he noted that since the war many London pubs sold chilled beer, an influence he said of WW II G.I.s.

Also, he stated London pubs served better food than American bars. He probably had in mind the typical roadside or small town American tavern, bare bones at the time compared to the big city pub-restaurant, but it’s still an interesting comment.

The worldly Cockney had no trouble blending into life in small-town America, taking a job in a hospital cafeteria. The smooth transition wasn’t a surprise given his association with American soldiers during the war, one he evidently enjoyed.

Judging by the article, he was what I would call the pre-1960s type of English person, mild in temperament and lacking the confessional tendency that frequently (not invariably) characterizes public opinion throughout the West today. I can just picture him: collected manner, wry smile, ready with a quip. He was probably an exemplary landlord, and held the job long enough certainly. People like a change though, or finally, and the New World provided that.

Although I can’t be sure, Fulton County in the 1950s may have provided something of a complementary picture to Albion. It was settled by New England Puritans (not the Dutch or French, for example), themselves of southern English origin of course. The area likely retained its early character well into the 20th century due to its isolated location in the southern Adirondack hills.

Anyway, he was sympa with what he found. I wonder what became of Mr. Flanagan, and whether he ever returned to London, and the Queen’s Head.

Note re image: the image above is the restaurant on the upper story of the Queen’s Arms, Denman Street, London. Source: Trip Advisor’s description of the pub. (Most inviting judging by the accounts). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

McSorley’s Claims its Place in the Gilded Era

It’s April 1, 1894 and you’re reading the New York World, or I have been. And a sizeable column greets you on McSorley’s Ale House in the East Village, The Old House at Home as it was also known. The occasion? The stolid New York tavern’s 40th anniversary. Evidently word had spread about a special something there.

The founder was still living, Irish immigrant and eccentric John McSorley (he died in 1900). There is an interesting tension in the piece about the foreign character of the pub. It is described simultaneously as English and Irish, so H.M.’s English seamen think they are back in “Lunnun”, yet the walls feature “prints of Irish Parliaments, Irish scenes, Irish statesmen, and Irish orators”. Indeed McSorley proudly asserted his adherence to “Home Rule”.

Questioned on the apparent contradiction he states “the Irish sense of justice” requires recognition that “its ale houses constitute the best thing about England”. Sounds good, win-win you might say.

What it shows too though is once you establish an institution far away, it becomes a different animal. It’s no different today for our downtown English and Irish pubs, they can be one or the other, it’s all of a piece.

Already, at 40, the place is a legend. So much was still to come: the survival during 13 years of Prohibition; the visits by international celebrities (1933-1970s); Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 New Yorker encomium, which launched the pub into higher orbit; the lawsuit to admit women (c. 1970); finally its discovery by early craft beer writers. Yet in 1894 its place in U.S. bibulous history is assured, the rest was just icing.

Not a bad achievement for a modest, eccentric bar, and it did it just by being itself and not changing (too much) with the times.

The age fixation is a big part of the appeal, gilded a bit in the early years: the bartender points out the age of some of the fittings, 70 years old say, but the bar was established only 40 years earlier. It doesn’t matter, mythos has a way of building an impregnable case, and we all share in the effort, it makes it fun and life interesting.

An old-new, Irish-American, Lunnun, male-only, then mixed, pipe-smoking, then tobacco-free, Manhattan bar. It all makes sense, once you go and see it. I need to get back.

 

 

The Future of Craft Beer

Dave Infante is an American beer, food, and travel writer who combines a lively style with good research. His recent How the World’s Biggest Brewer Killed the Craft Beer Buzz argues that the accelerated take-over of craft brewers in recent years by “Big Beer”, especially giant AB InBev, has done away with craft beer’s mojo, in effect by co-opting it.

E.g. he notes a recent tag line for Goose Island IPA is, IPA is something you drink, not talk about.  Craft beer has arrived, in other words, if you drink it, ours will do as well or better than anyone else’s.

A quote from the article (but read the whole thing, well-worth it) sums up the flavour:

ABI now had a freer hand than ever to wield the weapons — innovative beers, colorful brewers, and local breweries — once used against it, to shore up its portfolio, neutralize its competitors, and, of course, sell more beer.

He notes that prior to stepping up investment in craft breweries, notably with the marquee Goose Island in Chicago in 2006, Big Beer tried to fashion its own craft brands. The public didn’t twig, presumably because “corporate” was behind it. There were exceptions, such as Coors’ Blue Moon, and Miller’s Leinenkugel, but the Michelob line extensions of 20-odd years ago were mostly a damp squib (which I well remember).

The initial phase of taking stakes in small breweries and devising (mostly) ill-performing craft-style brands was followed by buying craft breweries and maintaining them as separate units. Consumers mostly didn’t notice, or mind who was behind the beer, and the units by and large remain popular with the fan base.

He explains how craft beer started with  Fritz Maytag refashioning tiny Anchor Brewery in San Francisco in the 1960s. Then came the fillip from legalizing home-brewing in 1978. Quoting various industry spokespeople and beer journalists, after an impressive growth to some 7000 breweries, the future is uncertain:

… ABI’s most vocal critics aren’t quite sure … what would happen to America’s 7,000 craft breweries if everyone joins the post-craft world or what ABI is even driving at.

 

In other words, will Big Beer continue interest in craft beers (barrel-aged as one exemplar) and buy more crafts as existing craft units max out interest nationally? Will this further reduce/water down the idea of craft? Or will its attention turn to different, more lucrative niches, maybe cannabis-infused beverages, and leave the field to thousands of small players looking for more customers?

Also, will large-scale production change the nature of craft products, making them less distinctive than small brewers efforts? (There is some risk here, not so much from scale itself but from related processes like filtration and pasteurization).

Having witnessed the start of craft brewing from the late 1970s, some observations.

I didn’t try every craft-style beer put out by large brewers in the late 90s and early 2000s, but I tried a lot of them. In my view, most were quite bland and did not attempt to enter squarely craft territory. I think the breweries wanted that result, they were not really committed then to great beer as defined in craft terms. Blue Moon was a partial exception, partly because it was so different from anything before (nationally). I attribute Leinenkugel’s success, also noted by Infante, to heavy advertising and a distinctive name.

It took many years for a full-flavoured, frankly craft-tasting ale or lager of real visibility to issue from Big Beer. Budweiser American Ale (2008-2011) was one but by then it was too late (in my view) given the large number of Cascade-flavoured ales in the market. Had that beer come out c.1995 its fortunes might have been quite different – a la Blue Moon…

In a word, Big Beer never really came to the plate with great craft beer; for too long it didn’t want to know. When it decided finally to enter the stakes it went the route of buying up crafts since its own releases years earlier mostly hadn’t worked. There was no point to repeat a risky path. But it could have been different had Big Beer joined the party earlier. It could have played off the fact that distinctive brewing was in its own history, nay its own archives, but few in management saw the potential.

Second observation: craft’s mojo derived in good part from the allure of imports. Many imports – Molson’s beers, Mexican beers – were fairly standard in nature. But since the 1970s there were also characterful or idiosyncratic imports on the shelves, e.g. from Merchant du Vin, many made by large or medium-sized brewers at home. Guinness is the best example, also (all-malt) Dutch Heineken, and Grolsch, big German names like Beck’s, St. Pauli Girl, or Spaten, and British beers like Bass, Samuel Smith, and Watney. Not to mention influential Belgian Trappist beers and other offbeat European styles that became craft standbys (saison). This older tradition of interesting beer made by establishment  companies had lots of fans here including among emerging craft brewers.

Founders of crafts had gone to Britain, Belgium, and Germany and were wowed by such beers there. They could have had a similar influence on the domestic lines of large North American brewers but it didn’t happen that way. Indeed when those big brewers took licenses to make, say, Danish Tuborg, or Carlsberg in Canada, the products tasted different than at home.

Small breweries were prized originally because they offered an alternative to mass-market 1970s beer. It really was all about the beer, or “liquid” in the industry cant reported by Infante. It took years for the small aka craft mantra to become established – the “cultural” angle mentioned by Infante – and it was never an end in itself. The interest of Big Beer in craft really fulfills the wish of early campaigners to get better beer from them. Well, now they’re doing it.

There will always be a market for innovative, great, local beer from small shops. Craft isn’t being sapped from brewing but the field is broader now, a marker of success of the good beer revival. When big shops use small brewery names and imagery to sell the stuff that’s a legitimate beef but at day’s end, it’s business. Business thrives on advertising. Advertising has always meant a certain amount of exaggeration, it’s the nature of it. The old Creemore Brewery (pre-Molson-Coors) used to say, “100 years behind the times”; that was exaggeration too, so it can work both ways.

The way forward is to focus on the “liquid”, the taste, the styles – get it right, get it better. Be nimble. Small players will always have a place, ultimately maybe 10,000 can if they master that matrix. In this sense craft will never die and certainly in the 40 years I’ve observed it, it’s never been in a more healthy state.

 

 

McSorley’s in the Letter Columns – 1916

Made in the Shade

I stated in my previous post on McSorley’s, the venerable bar on East Seventh Street, Manhattan, that I’ll canvass a few journalistic mentions not likely to have been covered by others.

I started with 1922 in the early flush (?) of National Prohibition. Now to May 1916, America isn’t in the war yet although it is having some effect on national habits including the alcohol business, with more to come. Still, the beer houses are open and one beerman, every bit the equal of today’s beer obsessives and maybe then some, wrote to The Sun to lyricize McSorley’s as the ideal “quaint” ale tavern.

The immediate reason for the letter was his desire to clarify that another New York bar also called The Old House at Home – McSorley’s full original name – should not be confused with McSorley’s. In fact, as we will detail anon, the term was used by many establishments in the 19th century. A play of that name, and poem earlier, can also be documented. The term wasn’t proprietary and was akin more or less to “bar and grill” with a homey, folksy bent. “Dew Drop Inn” is perhaps a better example.

The other “Old House” had an interesting history of its own, a big flashy Bowery hall that combined a saloon with a boxing ring – typical 1800s entertainments all bound in one.

Once he made his main point, the writer stated of McSorley’s, “I don’t know of a more interesting town tavern”. He even invested it with intellectual trappings, tempting readers with his occasional conclave there that included a reporter, physician, and civil service examiner. He said their combined knowledge was to be found nowhere else in the world, and maybe he was right.

There is no mention of the cream stock ale that after all was the sine qua non of the place, or cozy “grate fire” so beloved of gas lamp New York. McSorley’s had reached another level.

Below is an extract of the letter, but read the whole thing to get the full flavour.

This guy wanted to lead tours of “old New York” to show people the surviving ale haunts! Too bad websites didn’t exit then, he’d have been laughin’. He sent a letter to McSorely’s from another city addressed, “McSorley’s, New York”, and it got there in a jiffy! Talk about nerdy, but then readers of this blog know all about that.

Already barely past the century’s turn people are reminiscing about New York’s irretrievable golden past. It’s always like that, once people reach a certain age, an aura envelops the past no present can rival, much less what’s in prospect.

But mythos had already enveloped McSorley’s in 1894, 22 years earlier. That’s next.