An American Urges Adoption of Faro Beer in 1857

Reading from “At the same time…”, the first paragraph above calls for the creation of Faro beer in America.  It was written by Edward H. Dixon (1808-1880), an American physician writing before the Civil War in his journal, The Scalpel.

Dixon is largely forgotten but in his day was a well-known figure in public medicine, writing simultaneously for the profession and the public at large.

He was a forerunner of Dr. Christian Jessen, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, and the other numerous “celebrity doctors” – those who popularise medicine and professional thinking.

Dixon did this through his books, journal articles, and occasional journalism. He wrote frequently on sexuality, as many of his modern equivalents do today.

His pre-Civil War Scalpel pieces, collected in numerous volumes, are an amalgam of medical views, autobiography, sociology, and other disparate opinions which together spelled his personal vision of how to live.

Some of it is pure entertainment, for example he includes letters from an American friend reporting on a visit to England.

Dixon writes frequently on alcohol and had decided views on it. While he proposed that Americans emulate the Belgian Faro – which they finally did, only 150 years later – in general he viewed drinking with great concern.

In the volume from which the page above is drawn he makes it clear he despised the “lager mania” and devotes a complete essay on this animus. It contains some spurious anatomical and cultural observations about beer-drinking Germans, e.g., the size of one’s head or neck, or being able to appreciate no higher music than polka.

It’s mainly of interest for showing how German customs were viewed by many in the early years of German immigration to America, especially the Anglo-Saxon establishment, the WASP for want of a better word.

It’s tempting to think he was actually teetotal but this can’t be so, as the page above shows he had tasted Faro. Elsewhere in the volume he states that Berlin white beer is preferable to lager beer and should replace it in the market. (He was a little off on that hope).

He advises people in a section on homesteading to use a little “wine or ale” in their diet. His correspondent friend in England, just landed in Gravesend, reports drinking two pots of “mild ale” (served by a “cherry-cheeked” girl), and Dixon offers no reproof. So he didn’t disapprove of limited use of some drinks and must have indulged himself, of occasion.

I sense he reserved a certain toleration for the ancestral ale and porter of WASP Americans while the strange lager received his full obloquy. Hardly fair, but Dixon is a man mostly of historical interest vs. medical/scientific. (On the other hand, he did support the practice of circumcision for men based on extensive clinical experience in New York, and this part of his work had a certain influence for a long time).

But why wave the flag for a highly obscure drink like Faro? When you read his lager mania remarks, it is clear why. He viewed lager as fattening, too gassy, and soporific from its excess of hops as much as its alcohol. Whereas Faro is vinous vs. malty (he seems not to have understood alcohol harbours most of the calories), not so carbonated, and not so hoppy.

So his Faro enthusiasm was a qualified one, but is still notable especially in an age when the general, non-technical visitor to Belgium would diss the Lambic family in no uncertain, sometimes violent terms. Even brewing writers often could hardly hold their disdain.

One could write a decent-sized essay for Brewery History, say, on the confrontation between Victorian tourists in Belgium and the local beers. They disliked the lavish sourness almost to a man. It is idle to give examples as most reading will know what I mean, but if you want a sample jeremiad just ask.*

Dixon’s bon mot of lager and oysters not mixing points to the reason, I think, why porter became associated with the bivalve. Porter was often acerbic from charred malt or tart from long aging. The kinds of wines apt for oysters, recommended by gourmets then or now, are similarly tart, Muscadet, Chablis, and such.

I guess the wash of acidity sweeps away the tongue-print of Neptune. Sweet malt and oysters don’t really match, it’s true. Now, the Canadian Legion held lots of oyster parties in the 1970s and 80s, I attended a few in Montreal, but while lager or lager-like ale were the staples they weren’t the c. 1015 final gravity of the typical 1800s lager.

The Molson Canadian and O’Keefe Ale by then were dry and snappy both from low final gravity and a healthy measure of malt adjunct. And they weren’t very hoppy by this period.

So an acidulous, dry, not-too-bitter beer was ideal with oysters, and in truth the Lambic family does suit that type of eating. An odd observation from a health wonk, yet no less apt for that. Dr. Ted had quite specific views on diet, in fact.

He states elsewhere in the volume that as a child he hit upon a diet of cold potatoes, cold pudding, and ill-baked (heavy) bread. This doesn’t sound very interesting or particularly healthy but fashions change of course. Our kale, protein shakes, lean meat, and salads would probably have elicited a frisson of dislike from Dr. Ted.

If you want to eat like pre-Civil War Fifth Avenue grandees, those who followed Dixon certainly, it’s cold potatoes or bread pudding, Faro, and oysters for you. In a pinch, swap Berlin-style wheat beer for the Faro.

Stone Brewing of southern California and lately Berlin soon is bringing this beer near you. And there are lots of options in today’s diverse beer scene for that kind of taste.

It doesn’t sound so bad really albeit no greens, no fruit, little or no meat. But you’re tasting history, isn’t that enough? You can’t have everything. I’ll keep looking though.

Obs. Needless to say, tastes change over time, this applies to many kinds of drink and food. And even though a product may retain the same name, it may differ in make-up from an earlier era. Also, people often dislike what they don’t know, or understand.

Sour beers appeal to many today, and did to many early modern beer writers, Michael Jackson famously, who promoted interest in them. The beer pictured in the text received a very high rating from fans of the style on Beer Advocate, see here.

Note re image: The image of Coolship Resurgam, a spontaneously-fermented American beer produced by Allagash Brewing Company, is drawn from its website, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*I link two relatively mild examples, and a third that is virulent in the dislike, in the comments below.



1 thought on “An American Urges Adoption of Faro Beer in 1857”

  1. Here is a typical, 19th century example of a foreigner’s view on the lambic family (c. 1880), by an author of a manual on baking. He calls it a “misfortune” to drink lambic and faro, and that they are “sour” and “bad”. Here is another comment, c. 1870 from a food journal, to the effect the taste is hardly to be envied and of a peculiar sourness. For the jeremiad-type critique, see, in 1868, George Sala here.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: