A Pre-Prohibition Beer Dinner – Milwaukee Innovates
John Willy was English-born, from Ilminster, Somerset. Online sources suggest he came to America in the late 1800s, at the young age of 20, without family or friends. Due to innate ability he became a respected editor and author, and prospered. Willy specialized in covering the hotel and restaurant sector.
His contributions to the hospitality industry earned him an honorary doctorate from Michigan State University in 1937 – no mean achievement considering the few prospects he started with.
He began as a reporter for a hotels trade magazine, and later set up his own publication called, finally, The Hotel Monthly. A key stage in his career was writing a book on hotel facilities in Chicago for attendees of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair.
It is refreshing to read Hotel Monthly. Willy wrote in a clear style but usually in everyday English. His readers were independent hotel owners, restaurateurs, saloon-keepers, and brewers, and he wrote for that audience. His breezy yet informative style was perfect for a magazine dealing with practical topics: hotel and bar supplies, sample menus, drink formulas, room layouts and furnishings, hotel staffing, meal service: all the minutiae that go into a successful hotel and bar-restaurant.
Occasionally Willy lapsed into argot from his overseas youth, as when he referred to the ample “corporation” of a hotelier who organized a clambake. The word means, here, an ample girth or stomach.
Here is Willy’s account of an outing and gala dinner organized for a group of Chicago hoteliers touring Milwaukee.
The trip was organized by the Chicago Hotel Association. The men travelled to Milwaukee to be received by their professional counterparts there. Unlike the more learned and discreet authors who wrote for the brewers and distillers trade press Willy didn’t try to disguise the jollity. He didn’t pretend alcohol was incidental to the day’s events, in particular.
In a story of some 1500 words I’d guess the word whiskey appears 10 times, let’s put it that way. Willy gave details of two meals enjoyed by the party that day: a breakfast that was really more a lunch or brunch, and a sumptuous, German-themed dinner at White Fish Bay, Wisconsin.
Their boat, the SS Indiana (pictured), brought the party from Chicago overnight to arrive at destination 7:30 a.m. Descending, the “four and twenty” were greeted by colleagues outfitted in “Dutch” costume, meaning large red handkerchiefs and small hats. The hosts spoke Dutch, wrote Willy too, perhaps meaning German here.
Their new friends took them to clothiers to be outfitted in similar party garb. Guests’ hats were “punched” to show they were members of a hosted group. Thus festooned they sallied through town and country travelling in a “tally-ho”, or carriage, drawn in this case by six horses. Amusing incidents are recounted, most revolving around alcoholic refreshments taken in a succession of hotel barrooms.
They must have stopped 10 times before dinner: modern-day pub crawlers have little on them. The drinks described up to the dinner point vary: whiskey, Champagne, sparkling burgundy (a pre-Prohibition favourite of America). But finally the group posed an obvious question: “where’s the beer, we’re in Milwaukee?!”.
A local replied that you don’t find much beer around Milwaukee – an an odd thing to hear, then and still today. Maybe the local was pulling their leg. Nonetheless, when arrived for dinner at the expansive Pabst property in White Fish Bay, beer galore finally greeted them. It was a Pabst brewery event, after all.
Not only that, three types were served: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bohemian, and Doppelbrau. The dinner menu lists each beer at a different stage of the meal service, in other words, so that a specific beer type would accompany a specific course. Pabst Blue Ribbon, or “PBR”, was served with wieners and sauerkraut. It still exists of course, as a low-cost refresher. (Whether it tastes as in 1898 is an open question).
The higher-grade “Bohemian” brand was reserved for sauerbraten and potato pancakes. A surely rich and strong Doppelbrau was saved for last, served with Swiss cheese and German bread.
“Beer cuisine”, we can see, is not a recent thing. It existed long before the 1980s when beer writers and breweries first started to promote it actively. Still, there aren’t many menus before the craft beer era that pair specific beers with dishes in a set dinner format; this menu from 1898 may be the first, or one of the first.
John Willy took evident pleasure describing the revellers’ fun. Drinking was part of it, but not everything. A running race, speeches, and good eating were essential parts too. It all contributed to a group spirit or camaraderie.
Having had a thoroughly good time in a way that would have blanched the growing Temperance forces the hoteliers returned to their craft on a “trolley”, probably a light train, and sailed back to Chicago. If there wasn’t enough to drink in Milwaukee that day Willy tells us a case of whisky was on board, sent by their never-failing Wisconsin hosts.
Supremely satisfied, the hoteliers alighted at 10:00 p.m. and walked, said Willy, a straight line down the gangplank. Despite the best efforts of the Milwaukee crowd they resisted getting “paralyzed”. In the end Willy wanted to portray his readers and clients as responsible citizens, men who could hold their own liquor. Of course they were his clientele, so he wasn’t going to offend them anyway, but all in all the right notes were struck.
Note re image: the source of the first image above is the Chuckman historical postcards website. The second image is from John Willy’s article linked above, via HathiTrust. The third is from the Wikipedia entry on the SS Indiana, here. All intellectual property therein belong solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.