Coming out of a steamship office here, several years ago, I felt thirsty and asked a bobby where I could get a glass of good ale. He recommended a little “pub” a few blocks away, and there I went. And there I met Isabel. She was behind the bar and she gave me a pewter tankard of ale. I sat down on a cushioned seat and chatted with her while I drank.
Ever since then, when I come to London, the first thing I jot down on my daily list is to drop into the “pub” at 11 a.m. (that’s when it opens) and have my tankard and a chat with Isabel…
The extract above is from a charming squib in the Times-Union in Albany, New York in 1932. It was written by Bruno Lessing, the pen name of Rudolph Edgar Block. It has the air and style of the Lieblings, Menckens, and Bemelmans’ – those prewar writers who affected a “European” sophistication and light-heartedness. He was born in New York City in 1870, of Jewish background. He died in 1940 in a sanatorium in Arizona. A death notice in an Arizona newspaper described him as a respected New York Sun, and long-time Hearst, journalist and writer, and noted:
Writing his column took him many times around the world, roaming into strange and out-of-the-way places. He delighted in describing the scenery, life, folklore and gastronomic bits he found in his wanderings.
The piece linked – read the whole thing for the full flavour – appeared in a column called here A Vagabond Abroad but usually termed Vagabondia.
Block’s is one of many interwar reports on English inns, public houses, and hotels by American journalists eager to chronicle normal drinking life, i.e., in countries not hobbled by a Volstead Act.
Indeed such treks start earlier, post-Civil War and seem to quicken in pace and extent of coverage with the rise of the Temperance movement.
Many accounts type the tankard of ale, or “musty ale” in pewter, an emblem of English drinking ways but almost none mention temperature of the beer. Most were unconcerned, that is, with the ale’s coolness, tepidity, fizz, what have you. For them, the venue and atmosphere were everything. To borrow a line from an early Beatles song, the general reaction was, “I’m so happy just to dance with you”.
Now, Block would have known ale in New York, in the old Manhattan and Brooklyn ale houses that I’ve described in these pages. And the beer there, especially when served from a wood keg, would also have varied in temperature. Temperature just wasn’t a concern, since an arctic temperature was not expected of UK-style beer, in contrast to German lager.
The American ale houses were extensions of the British originals, or regarded as such, so drawing cellar-cool but non-refrigerated beer was business as usual. If on occasion it came tepid, that came with the territory. Next question?
As we will see, the American obsession with warm beer in Britain seems to arise in a military context. There are one or two indications (I’ll report soon) that civilians started to notice the same thing before 1939, but it’s nothing akin to the wartime and post-1945 accounts that grouse about “warm” English beer.
Block was your old-time boulevardier, not inclined to micro-analyse foreign cultures anyway. Of Isabel though, he had more to tell.
Note re image: The image above, of Rudolph Block, was sourced from his entry in Wikipedia. Believed in public domain. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.