Beer Barrel Confidential

Daddy Keg Tells all

A workaday trade journal is not the kind of place one expects to see material of a frankly historical bent, much less of literary felicity. The looking-glass of history, or rather drinks history with which I’m concerned here, is more the province of a few specialized writers – academics, bloggers, independent researchers.

You can tell them, in fact, on first sight: their clothes tend to rumpling, their brows, furrowed; their minds, back in the 1970s or 1770s or whatever distant period occupies their present attention.

Still, historical treatments occasionally appear in the pages of American and British brewing journals, sometimes of literary merit. I’ve chronicled a few instances here.

Another is furnished by the January, 1938 issue of The American Brewer, newly available online courtesy Hagley Digital Archives. A clue is the rather unusual title: “‘I am the Daddy of Beer Kegs in the United States‘”. The article appeared at pp. 40 et seq., see here.

The journal was celebrating its 70th anniversary, and took the occasion to include historically themed articles in this issue. One treats of the differences in American brewing between 1867 and present day; another in the advances in motor transport, and so on.

Using the device of personification, a history of the American beer barrel 1870s-1938 was presented. In the amiable way of a 1930s fireside chat Daddy Beer Keg told his own story and that of American “beer cooperages”. Why the Daddy? Because he was certified in a trade competition as the oldest still in service in America. The Editor explained:

Several years ago, one of the cooperage magazines ran a contest and awarded a prize for the oldest beer keg in the United States. The prize was awarded to John F. Geyer of Geyer Bros., Frankenmuth, Mich., who submitted proof that his brewery was still using two kegs which had been in service for sixty years.

A photo of the winning entry was included and Daddy Beer Keg looked remarkably hale, made as he was from 100-year-old American White Oak and held by six galvanized steel hoops – not his original iron hoops of 1878, but he explains all this.

With understated literary skill Daddy Keg, in reality James C. Mullen of Verdi Bros. Cooperage in New Jersey, described his birth, or assemblage to use his term, taking matters right up to present day when experimental metal kegs posed a likely challenge. The elegiac tone indicates Daddy Keg knew the wood barrel days were numbered, but still he expressed a preference for the tried and true oak barrel, being one himself, after all (as he explained).

There are many bon mots, as well as excellent historical data conveyed, but you can read it for yourselfI liked these lines in particular, which arouse a justified indignation at the treatment important inanimate objects often receive:

When I see some of the substitutes for the wooden beer keg, which have appeared of late years in an attempt to take my place, I can’t help wondering what they will look like if they ever get to be as old as I am …. For several years I tried to keep track of the trips I made between the brewery and saloons and some of the strange places I visited. In the Summer, I would be out in the blazing sun for hours, and in the Winter with the thermometer reading below zero and I would be covered with snow and ice, nevertheless, I always protected the beer within me and delivered it with only a very slight change in temperature to my appointed customer. When the wagon was backed up before the tavern, sometimes I would be on top of the load and the driver would allow me to drop seven or eight feet on to a hard pavement or curb stone, after which I would be dropped to a basement floor. I have been left for days in damp places with mud all over me and have been shoved up against radiators and furnaces until I almost caught fire. At times, the cellar in which I was placed would be a dirty hole with a terrible smell and this filthy air would be drawn through a pump and mixed with my beer and when the customer complained, I would be unjustly blamed.

Verdi Bros. were obviously a valued advertising account of the journal. Page 6 contains a striking image of their burnished 1938 Verbros-brand keg – likely the height of advance in the field before metal kegs indeed consigned wood beer kegs to history.

It is true, some wood vessels for beer have returned, popularized initially by the fashion for bourbon barrel Imperial Stout. Daddy Keg of 1938 would be bemused that beer in 2019 is racked into these for direct contact with the wood – no steaming pitch, hardened to a firm seal, interposes between fibrous wood and sloshy beer. Daddy Keg took good care in his autobiography to explain how he endured the pitch treatment time and again to keep beer and wood separate.

And yet, that’s the way of things, isn’t it? As the January 1938 issue shows lots had changed in American brewing since The American Brewer started publishing. Lots has changed in the 80 years since the issue, too, including at what is now called Frankenmuth Brewery.

Maybe the current 300-seat restaurant and brewery of that name houses Daddy Keg himself, who would be, what 141 years old? If he is still around, I’m sure he’d have lots to say from the standpoint of a retired old hand. Bring the pitch back would be the first, I think.