Early Beer Tasting by California Epicures. Part V.

Post-Prohibition Return of Bock

A 1937 issue of the trade journal The American Brewer exhibited a classic instance of American merchandising thinking (via Hagley Digital Archives).



The author, Schuyler Patterson, noted that after repeal of Prohibition brewers had successfully revived bock beer, as a spring seasonal specialty. This success was due in part, he noted, to effective merchandising.

The American Brewer placed a strong emphasis on marketing and advertising, apart the more usual topics of brewing theory and practice. Contemporary British and Continental journals, by my canvass, stressed more the latter.

U.S. brewing journals placed this emphasis even before WW I, aspects of which I discussed earlier; it wasn’t a special result of the post-repeal, Depression-era economy, that is.

Rocking the Bock in L.A.

A technique to deepen interest in bock was to sponsor tastings by newly formed gastronomic, or food and wine societies. The Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles, established in 1934 as a branch of a London-based group, held brewery-sponsored bock tastings from 1941 until the 1960s.

It is noteworthy that California, even sunny southern California, was the locale for this. As a relatively newly-settled state, it lacked the pronounced Central European influences that implanted lager – bock is a lager – in the Midwest and Northeast.

And in many ways the climate wasn’t quite right for it, in southern California at any rate. Nonetheless, advised circles in Los Angeles took notice of good solid beer including bock.

On March 17, 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor, the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles gathered to taste what by all reports was a stellar bock, made by the city’s Acme Brewing Co. They ate pretty richly, too. I discuss this event in more detail in the next part.

Taking it to the Limit

Patterson argued brewers should stimulate interest in dark beer generally during the colder season, spinning off from the success of bock. He gave the example of certain German and English brews promoted in this way.

Indeed some old ale in Britain was pitched traditionally as “a fine winter drink”, or similar phrasing, into the 1960s. Stout too sometimes was billed this way, or certain types such as Russian Stout.

In Germany there was Munich’s Salvator, noted by Patterson, and other strong specialties associated with the cold season. Patterson boldly proposed creation of a Brown October Ale tradition, one he said the college and football set could get behind.

“Brown October” ale, or “nut brown” beer or ale, as terms had little public resonance or advertising application by the 1930s. They functioned if at all mostly by then as literary devices, or markers of stage or song, in America as well.

One could see Patterson’s thinking: lift these vague but solid-sounding old notions into beers of now. What’s old is new again is the best marketing gambit ever.

In fact, a few October ales (or beers) so-termed were made by early post-Prohibition brewers. Haberle Brewing in Syracuse, New York brewed a Brown October Ale. This somewhat anachronistic ad appeared in an Ogdensburg, NY newspaper in mid-November 1940 (via NYS Historical Newspapers):


Prophetic Patterson

Patterson’s seasonal brown ale idea did not take off – perhaps it might have but for the looming next world war – but modern craft brewing has justified his prescience. Brewers make hay of seasonal associations to sell for example wet hop beers, pumpkin ales, and an amorphous class of winter ales and stronger stouts.

Yet ironically, craft brewing has never fully embraced the March bock season. I discuss this in my notes “Restoring the Bock Beer Season”. Maybe brown bock beer recalled too strongly pre-craft days, when a consolidated industry had ironed out the palate of beer.

Even though American bock was always “different”, some of the anathema emerging craft brewers felt for “computer beer”, as early critics called the mass standard, attached to the not-so-different bocks of pre-craft times.

Still, craft beer would do well to re-examine the possibilities of bock beer, in particular by creating well-publicized spring events.*

Part VI follows, describing the bock beer and the dinner served at the Los Angeles group’s 1941 event.

Note re copyright: menu extract is copyright of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, reproduced with its kind permission. No further reproduction or use is authorized without its prior written consent. Sources of the other images are identified and linked in text, with all intellectual property therein belonging solely to lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes, all feedback welcomed.

*Of course bocks of different styles are produced by some craft brewers, including for spring. This is a disparate activity though, not akin to the laser focus given pumpkin beer and other seasonal styles of today.










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