Brewers Helping Brewers

The United States Brewers’ Association*, founded 1862 as an association of lager brewers, was the main trade association of brewers in the U.S. Albeit the largest it was one of many. Taking in various state and other associations, there were almost 40 by 1900. An Ale Brewers Association of New York and New Jersey existed (whose efforts sadly did not arrest the decline of ale-brewing, as we have seen).

In a Documentary History on the United States Brewers Association, Etc. (1896-1898), light is shed on a thought-provoking early practice of lager brewers. Where one could not supply his customers from existing inventory, he had what seems almost a right to “remove” stock from another brewer and sell it in his own packages, under his own brand, without informing customers. Consider the following (via HathiTrust):


Clearly, this arrangement existed where it would cause no difficulty, or no undue difficulty, to the obliging brewer. If customers noticed any change in the beer substituted, presumably they raised no complaint. After all, beer was provided, or rather potable, grain-derived beverage alcohol was, the main object of any beer purchase, so enough said; at least in an older period that was the case. One can imagine too that even a brewery’s regular production c. 1860 was subject to inconsistency due to the state of brewery science (almost nil). So a taste of a different concern’s beer probably raised no undue wonderments.

This practice would have been most common in the 1850s, the cradle-years of lager brewing, before an excise was placed on beer. The first tax was levied in 1862 by the Union to raise revenue for the Civil War. Since the tax statutes thenceforth regulated transportation of beer from breweries, permission was sought to legitimate the former customary practice, provided of course the beer was tax-paid. The USBA made the proposal in a draft revenue law submitted to the government after the war ended.

We didn’t pursue whether the requested provision became law, our interest here is more the cooperative practice. It has long been known that early communities of brewers helped each other in various ways. The main way was to supply yeast when a brewer needed a new supply due his yeast expiring or losing full fermentative power. Probably too brewers helped each other with supplies of malt and hops as circumstances allowed. Some of this tradition exists to this day. Some years ago a large brewer had a project (maybe still) to supply hops to small brewers, who sometimes have difficulty obtaining hops in small quantities or at a good price. Volume purchasing assists obtaining trade discounts.

In this vein, the Documentary History also states brewers supplied new beer to those with old but lacking new beer so they could “ferment” the old brew. This is a reference to conditioning stock lager with new beer, krausening it, that is, to make it saleable in the market. This is interesting too, since I discuss in my new article on musty ale whether old ale was conditioned with lager-krausen in Cincinnati in 1860 and acquired a “green” or musty flavour as a result.

But actually to provide one’s completed, ready-to-ship beer to a competitor to sell in the latter’s packages, under his own name, seems a step of a different order. Doing this, together with the other practices mentioned, almost made early American lager-brewers a collective, or a loose joint venture. Supplying beer to a competitor would be questionable under current anti-competition laws certainly, and selling at retail a beer different than the label suggests raises other legal questions.

The primal community as it were didn’t tarry over such things. People in relatively isolated settlements needed to, and found ways, to get along. He who supplied beer to a fellow brewer in need might lose some of his own sales, possibly, but one day might need such help himself. One for all, all for one.

Capitalism was never simply, and is not even today, the monochromatic, rapacious system its detractors like to present. It is easy to deride business too when the many who trumpet its failings have never tried to establish one and have no idea of the difficulty, travail, and indeed the creativity involved.

By 1976, a common complaint in beer circles, which helped stimulate the craft renaissance, was that “all beer tastes the same”. Well, early practices such as mentioned help explain why.

One of the ironies, harmless as they are, of the real food and allied movements is the imaging of an Eden of choice in the primal community, be it for beer, bread, cheese, etc. In fact, many of these staples were probably much more uniform than is commonly supposed, certainly in particular communities.

This is what I meant when I suggested yesterday that craft brewing pioneers, and the consumer writers who partly inspired them, had a mythological view of brewing history. Certainly we have a greater choice today for beer than in 1976. Yet, all IPA tastes rather similar doesn’t it? The reasons may differ from those which explain presumed lager similarity in 1850s America, but as so often happens, things have a way of not changing, in their essentials, over time.


*Now The Beer Institute.