A Speech on Beer in Milwaukee in 1972

If industrial brewing in North America can be viewed as a parabola, 1972 is a perfect year to describe its vertex. In that year, a fine short article was written as the basis of a presentation given at a conference of milk products experts in Milwaukee. The author and speaker was Donald G. Berger of Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company in Milwaukee. He addressed the International Association of Milk, Food, and Environmental Sanitarians. The article was published in its journal, the Journal of Milk Food Technology, you can read it here.

Rarely have I read an article this length that combines so well essential beer history, explanation of beer and brewing ingredients (except hops, but see below), and advances since the 1800s in brewing sanitation, chemistry, and bacteriology.

The only gap I’d identify is an omission to discuss hops in any detail, but no doubt he had to pick and choose within the scope of the presentation.

1972 is of course at a point of sharply rising consolidation in the brewing industry. There were no craft breweries with the quasi-exception of tiny Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Almost all beer was what is now called the American Adjunct Lager style; ale and porter had practically vanished. There was no wheat beer, no IPA except Ballantine’s, a tiny seller, no flavoured beers, and certainly no sours except failures in the brewhouse to discard.

Berger explained the motive force behind this environment (the emphasis is mine):

The industry trend during the past 20 years has been toward the production of a light beer; see Table 2. The definition for “light” is less satiating, less color, and mild flavor. Although individuals have their own definitions for flavor, we must agree that beer is no longer a robust, hearty, strong-flavored beverage. Most American beer is now refreshing and pleasant tasting. To achieve this change, brewers have gradually reduced the specific gravity of the wort using new varieties of malting barley and by varying the malt/adjunct ratio. Hop flavor has also been reduced. The traditional method of hops utilization was the addition of dried hop flowers or cones to the boiling wort in the kettle. Hop extracts are now in common use.

Reading between the lines, I think Berger had a soft spot for the robust, hearty, strong-flavoured beers of an earlier time – beers of course brought back by the craft brewing movement starting just a few years later.At the same time, he points out that such beers were more easily able to hide faults from poor sanitation in the brewery, use of wooden vessels, multi-strain yeasts – the old way of brewing advances in brewing science had largely rendered void. Many of the brewing advances described are still used today such as hop extracts, use of papain to eliminate protein haze, and certain methods of filtration.

Berger seemed committed, or resigned at any rate, to the dominance of the light beer style, explaining that technically beer was cleaner and better than it ever was. He states a wisdom I have heard countless times from people in the brewing business, something I thought had arisen only after craft beer started:

The darker, strong flavored beers of the past tended to mask nuances of flavor caused by wooden vessels, oxidation, process variations, etc. This masking effect has now been removed and flavors contributed by very low levels of alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, mercaptans, phenols, fusel oils, etc. are discernible to the taste.

As this statement was made in 1972, the idea must have been lore by then in the brewing business, it perhaps arose in the 1930s when the industry started up again and brewing science was significantly ahead of the pre-Prohibition era.

Of course, there is no contradiction between brewing rich-tasting beers and technically clean beers.

Lightness was the post-war mantra and came first – not technical brewing mastery. Craft brewing reversed the emphasis at least in the early decades of the industry, in part under the influence of Michael Jackson who lyricised the Jules Verne-looking plants of old U.K., Belgian, Czech, and French breweries.

Today, most brewers probably agree that a high degree of brewing and packaging sanitation goes with product integrity hand in hand, regardless that is of the style produced.

By the mid-1980s, only a dozen years after Don Berger spoke, beers of the type he considered of the distant past had returned. He must have been amazed to see it happen…

The presentation is unusually “vernacular” in the sense of being largely free from the daunting technical and mathematical intricacy of modern brewing science. The reason is almost certainly not that Berger was a “practical” brewer – the article gives every indication he was a highly-educated production specialist. Rather, he was speaking to professionals in another field of food science, hence probably designing a presentation that was clear to intelligent people not familiar with brewing.

His Table 2 is of particular interest. Sadly, the bitterness units in the first column are not listed as that measure, for IBUs that is, did not exist then. But his article leaves little doubt beer had become less bitter in the interval. Today, Budweiser has about 8 bitterness units – half even of the 1972 average. As Bud was a premium beer then, there is reason to think its IBUs were even higher than 15. (So when people, like me, tell you Bud was better then, there is a logic to it).

His figure of 62% attenuation puzzled me initially and his other numbers don’t work with it, but then I realized that number is real attenuation. The apparent number was 78%, higher than c. 1950. Beer was getting dryer, in other words.

Perhaps due to the de-emphasis in his time on hops, Berger doesn’t discuss them except to note the trend away from hop flowers and cones. He focuses more on malting barley and continual improvement in its types. There is no discussion of barley malt adjuncts except to imply that use of adjuncts such as corn and rice had risen. In consequence, beer was toning down in flavour – again not something one would want to focus on unduly in that context.

Speaking as he was to a group of dairy products professionals, it would be the equivalent of stating that America’s surviving dairies had decided to market a 1% milk as the new standard (which has kind of happened, when you come to think of it!).

I think Berger was one of the real beer people then, real not just in mastering the technical innovations and keeping on top of it, but in appreciating beer’s history and the classic tastes that had largely been erased by his time.

I’d guess when Don Berger had his first taste of Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale a smile came to his face.

Note re image: the vintage Schlitz beer advertisement above was sourced from Pinterest, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


5 thoughts on “A Speech on Beer in Milwaukee in 1972”

  1. There is definitely a bias toward “clean” characteristics among many homebrewers. You will read many accounts of paranoia about Diacetyl, DMS, and other flavors viewed as faults.

    Interestingly, I think the pendulum is swinging back a bit from that perspective. I think it’s in large part due to greater numbers of homebrewers using Belgian yeasts and Brett, the wider availability of new hops, the popularity of sour beers, and much more reliable information about historical beers.

    You will see a lot more pushback against the authority of the BJCP when defining what counts as a Porter or some other style – I think homebrewers are increasingly willing to see their rules as applying only in their beer competitions and not as final arbiters in the wider world.

    • Yes, makes sense, thanks. Many homebrewers, due to working by definition in a “non-professional” environment, were always careful to avoid faults such as you mention. Even mainstream craft brewing was, it took over 30 years for the idea of lactic Belgian brews not to mention Brett-influenced to enter a brewhouse of any size.

      At the same time, and what is implicit in Berger’s article, is industrial brewing went too far.

      Theoretically one could view cereal starch as a pure deliverer of alcohol, no more, with the idea finally to wipe out every vestige of cereal and hop taste from beer, viewing these are “historical” hangovers so to speak one can now dispense with.

      Some mass-market beer comes close to realizing that end.


  2. That is precisely what I’m talking about, the pre-pro American Pilsners. Up to 6% ABV, and quite heavy beers. I would love to see a craft brewer re-create this.

  3. How about a Classic American Pilsner not the Czech Pilsner so popular among craft brewers today. This is the beer that really introduced corn/maize into the mix. I understand they were strong and pretty heavily hopped. Rich in flavor. Just a thought.

    They could do the same with cream ale.

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