Tasting Acme Lager in Full Flush of War, 1944
Skyscraper Page is a site devoted to study of historic structures. Only last month, good-resolution photos were posted to its discussion forum showing Acme Brewery and the Sequoia Lodge next to it in Vernon, Los Angeles.
They appear just below images of Ed Byrnes, the good-looking actor who starred in the TV detective drama 77 Sunset Strip.
The exterior of the Lodge is shown, and another shot depicts an event held in its main hall, in 1942.
I will describe another event held two years later in that same hall by the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles.
The Lodge was the hospitality centre of both Acme Brewery and Frank Vitale’s and J.S. Foto’s Bohemian Distributing Company. Bohemian had sole distribution rights for Acme beers and a close association with Acme otherwise, possibly via ownership or a joint venture in Acme Brewery.
The name of the Lodge is clearly explained by the striking log structure shown. Perhaps the dramatic sloped roof evoked a northern ranch effect, despite the southern locale involved.
On March 17, 1944, about one year before the war in Europe ended, the L.A. Wine and Food Society gathered for its customary spring beer event, to taste the new Acme bock. March 17 was then the traditional start of bock season in California.
This time though, there was no bock at their event:
In lieu: ample quantities of Acme Pilsener-type beer, direct from the brewery and served under ideal conditions, – before, during, and after the dinner.
Here is the menu:*
The American beer industry was operating under severe malt usage restrictions, particularly considering that demand was rising for civilian and military needs.
In his superb article American Beer (1941–1948): Years of Myths, War, and Famine published earlier this year in the Master Brewers Association of America Technical Quarterly, Greg Casey, a retired master brewer and brewing scientist who is currently supervising production of a multi-volume history of American beer 1840s-1940s, wrote:
… the War Production Board issued “Order M-288” (58). Implemented “in order to conserve the use of malt and malt syrups for the manufacture of industrial alcohol,” it required brewers using over 70,000 bushels of malt in fiscal year 1942 (i.e., March 1, 1942—February 28, 1943) to “not use during any three month period more than 93 percent of the quantity of malt syrup or of malted barley, wheat, rye or other malted grain that they used in the corresponding three-month period in 1942,” while “limiting” to 100% the four three-month quotas in fiscal year 1943 for brewers who used less than 70,000 bushels in 1942 (3). With molasses supplies inconsistent at best during this phase of the war for reasons previously mentioned, Order M-288 essentially distilled down to America’s malt supply joining the war effort … [T]hese 93 and 100% quotas remained basically unchanged for all but the last few months of the war …
Another factor to be noted is, all brewers were required to consign at least 15% of production for military purposes. See this announcement by Altes (Tivoli Brewery in Detroit) in 1943, in the Daily Monitor Leader.
Given these restraints, how did brewers meet the increased demand? Greg Casey shows how, for 1943 but the pattern was similar the next year:
In a January 10, 1944, speech given by United States Brewers Association (USBA) Secretary C. D. Williams at the 68th Annual Meeting, the “less with more” theme was front and center when he said (31):
… in sum total, the amount of brewing materials used was about the same, say 2% more than in 1942. And you sold almost 13% more beer! Brewing materials went further as alcoholic strength was reduced by reason of the Army allotment, and the trend toward lighter civilian beers.
For perspective, relative to the “lighter civilian beers,” J. E. Siebel Sons’ Company reported that in 1943 the average original extract value of American ales and lagers declined from 13.4 to 12.9P and 12.1 to 11.2P, respectively (32).
Military beer was restricted to 4% abv. Tables included by Casey show that in 1944 average alcohol strength of American beer was 4.1% abv – in 1941, 4.47%.
His tables also show that in 1944, malt adjuncts (so raw grains like rice, barley, corn, etc.) accounted for 45.4% of brewers’ extract. In 1941, 33.36%.
So, more adjunct and lower alcohol yield produced the greater amount of beer needed. National barrelage in 1943 was 71,018,257. In 1944, 81,725,820.**
Now, this is industry wide, across the board – it does not speak to an individual brewery’s beer, whether all the beers or any one brand. Still, it paints a picture for what Acme and other American brewers were facing.
As Casey notes, corn and rice, the traditional substitutes for malt used in American brewing, were very short in 1944 due to war-related factors. Eg. much corn went to feed pigs to help Britain with food under Lend-Lease.
Brewers turned to other substitutes, including ones not used earlier in American commercial brewing like potatoes, and especially sorghum in different forms.
In 1942, it is clear Acme was still making beer from malt and rice. An ad appearing on April 22, 1942 in the Tacoma Times states the grist (“malt, some rice”):
Greg Casey in his paper makes clear that 1942 had no impact on American brewers’ use of traditional materials like malt, corn and rice; the challenges arose in 1943-1945, and for some years after.
Acme was the top-selling beer in California leading into the war: San Pedro News Pilot, July 30, 1942. In fact by that year it rated very respectably nationally, as reported in the Coolidge Examiner on April 9, 1943: 10th nation-wide @ 26 MG in 1942.
So the formula in April 1942 must have been prewar, or something very close.
But as beer drinkers may have put it in March 1944 – while no doubt still grateful to get any beer – “what have you done for me lately?”. Well, we don’t know the answer to this, as it would require an examination of Acme’s brewing logs in the period.
But in August 1946 an Acme ad in the Coolidge Examiner using the same I.Q. hook does not mention the beer’s grist, simply that the brewery uses “seedless hops”.
And we do know that there was adverse consumer reaction to Acme beer in the latter stages or aftermath of the war. The Brewery Gems history of Acme Brewing Co. states:
Sales were slipping in the late ’40s and the company updated its packaging, and continued with their heavy advertising, but they were having difficulty living down their reputation for making bad beer during the war. Their brewmaster … [made] an attempt to compensate for the shortage of rationed brewing ingredients [when] he tried Manioca meal (also called Cassava), as a cost saving adjunct. Consumed at the proper temperature the beer must have tasted alright, but the troops in the Pacific lacked the capability to properly chill the beer. This resulted in what they described as a “skunky” brew. “I’ll have a beer, anything but Acme,” was often heard in taverns after the War.
According to Greg Casey’s tabular data, American brewers did not use cassava until after the war, when the grain supply problem continued to be acute for some years. But whether it was cassava or sorghum or another adjunct, and whether in 1944-1945 or 1946-1948, clearly Acme was under the kind of constraints most American brewers faced in those periods.
The beer had to be impacted, at least according to the Brewery Gems account. Matters were fixed up by the end of ’40s for Acme, but I return to the Society’s event at Sequoia Lodge on June 17, 1944.
How did the beer rate? Well, we don’t know. If deficiencies there were, they dang were made up by the meal served. I’ll turn to the meal in my next notes.
Bohemian Life was a newsletter issued by Bohemian Distributing to promote interest in its lines, and food and wine generally. It was edited by Phil Townsend Hanna (1897-1957), a key early figure in the L.A. Wine and Food Society.
He was the Savarin St. Sure of the newsletter title, a pseudonym. More on him soon, too.
See Part IX which covers the next part.
*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. Extract of Tacoma Times is via Chronicling America, as linked in text, and all intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable; used for educational and research purposes, all feedback welcomed.
**Altes in its announcement stated it would not change its formula to boost production.