The title is the caption of drinking notes author and critic H.L. Mencken included in one of his Prejudices books. A six-volume series in the 1920s, Prejudices had essays on politics, literature, and society. The German words mean portrait of a charming time, or era.
A selection from the essays was published in 1958 by author James Farrell, reprinted at least once. These pieces are among Mencken’s most remembered.
Short as it is Bilder provides a capsule of memorable outings in pre-Prohibition America. Pabst’s “very dark” Kulmbacher is memorialized. So is musty ale in Washington, or at Keen’s steakhouse in New York. Different American lagers get attention, Chianti in New York, gin-and-vermouth, and much else.
The beer often was “got down”, as Mencken liked to put it, at sessions of the Saturday Night Club. This was a group of friends – doctors, professors, professional musicians, writers – who met to drink beer and play music. An image of the group c. 1914, drinking from lidded steins in Baltimore, was preserved by Maryland Digital Archives. Mencken is at the far left.
Herr Abner mentioned ran the Abner-Drury brewery in Washington. The way Mencken refers to him suggests the pilsner rivalled Mencken’s king of beers, the true pilsner of Bohemia. Abner’s beer was probably Royal Pilsen, which returned after Repeal for a time. Generally, Mencken was lukewarm on American lager. Those he mentioned must have been particularly good.
He doesn’t omit Michelob, a rich, all-malt beer which probably tasted similar to fine Czech lager.
Even in these brief notes Mencken humour shines. He fondly recalls “twenty or thirty” Bass Ale nights but right after, remembers “five or six hundred” pilsner nights. It shows where his brewing sympathies lay, but gives a glimmer too of his well-known anti-“Anglomania”.
Hi “two or three hot scotch” nights is accordingly depreciatory, on two accounts.
In this vein beer is barely mentioned in the London chapter of his book Europe After 8:15. He does give English beer a partial compliment by likening its “acrid grip” to a good Munich bock. George Sala used the same term, acrid, some 60 years earlier to describe London porter in a gin palace.
Perhaps Mencken knew the reference and reprised it. In any case, acrid suggests here very bitter from the hops, not spoiled or sour. It is not a surprise English beer had this character – some still does.
I wonder what Mencken would think of the restored American beer scene today. He might, first, express surprise that the Republic still exists, as he projected in a 1930 article it will “blow up” within 100 years.
As a fellow admirer of all-malt beers, not least from Bavaria and Bohemia, I think Henry would admire the best of that genre today. As to IPA, well maybe nein.
But everyone’s bilder is relative to time, space, and taste – even the curmudgeon of Baltimore would allow that, perhaps.
Note re image: The image above is from the Washington, D.C. paper beer label pages at www.chosi.org, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.