From Weiss to Wasted

With so many subjects and limited time, a number of topics for the usual space today.

Weiss Beer After WW I

It is common currency in American brewing history that weiss beer disappeared after Prohibition. That is to say, the old top-fermented wheat beer, widely available before WW I (even though not always made with wheat), was not revived by brewers after Repeal. As one former customer in Buffalo mused (1938), “whatever became of weiss beer”?

Yet it was not for a lack of trying. With a new brewing landscape in 1933 Weber Star Bottling, connected to a venerable weiss producer in Albany, NY, advertises tentatively. The ad copy is not 100% clear but it seems the weiss was being sold again. For background on the pre-Prohibition Geo. Weber, see Gravina and McLeod, here.

In 1949 Hampden Brewing in Willamansett, MA issues a splashy three-quarter page ad for its weiss beer made with wheat and Saaz hops. Hampden lasted into the 1970s, the wheat beer did not. A pity as the bubbly prose offered much promise:

… Weiss Beer [is] … so delicious and refreshing — with such clean, clear taste and satisfying tang— early Europeans described the beer as, “Suffigkeit”. Meaning — “it invites to have another glass”.

Somehow, in the passing of years, the art of making Weiss Beer disappeared. With it went the deep pleasure of this rare brew.

Now, the Hampden Brewing Company has revived the precious art of making Weiss Beer — took time and patience to perfect it for American tastes. So here is Weiss Beer at last with all its full-bodied character.

Fresh Hop Beer 

In this post I documented the use of green or wet hops in early English brewing. This was centuries before Sierra Nevada and other craft innovators introduced their wet hop beers a few years ago.

Recently I found a page on Jess Kidden’s site about Tempo Beer from Blatz, mid-1950s. Blatz touted the beer as not made with the usual dried hops but rather fresh hops. Reading the account carefully, this was probably a steam-distilled hop oil, not wet hops as we understand it today. Ballantine Brewery in New Jersey used something similar after Prohibition. As early as 1871 an American patented a method to distill hop oil for use in brewing.

While not the same as wet hop brewing Blatz deserves marks for giving hop oil, or likely it was that, commercial application; and for marketing it as an innovation. Blatz was trying to stand out in a challenging market for regional brewers. Yet, the product to our knowledge was a damp squib; as for weiss beer, postwar America didn’t want to know.

Craft Beer

Discussions continue endlessly online on the meaning of craft (beer) past, present, future, I saw at least three this month. In this recent post I drew attention to Michael Jackson’s pioneering use of the term “craft brewery” in 1982 in reference to an old family brewery in England. Due to his elucidation of the phrase and the way American writers later used it, it acquired a connotation of small-scale, limited distribution, high quality.

But as I stated myself in the Comments, “craft” is used in discussions of brewing much earlier. In 1909 Heileman Brewery of Chicago described its beers as “the triumph of the brewer’s craft”. Its lagers were almost certainly made with grain adjunct, in an up-to-date plant. By 1902 Heileman was no upstart, it had operated for decades and was brewing upwards of 200,000 bbl per year.

There are continual references to the term brewer’s craft in the 1800s, e.g. here in Britain in connection with a German brewing school, and indeed stretching back to Henry V’s time in 1421. It’s a hop and skip from that to “craft beer”, “crafted beer”, “an honoured craft”, etc.

The influential Jackson charted a path that led finally to the Brewer’s Association conception of craft brewery. But given the wider history and continual evolution of technology and scale I’d regard any well-made, full-flavoured beer as “craft”. Pilsner Urquell is a craft beer because the recipe and process result in – are crafted to produce – a high quality product.

Small brewers have unquestionably formed the vanguard of quality brewing since the 1980s but came to notice by virtue of making distinctive, quality products, not by being small and feisty as such. Some small brewers make products styled to the mass market, for example, and some of them would disavow the term craft or are indifferent to it.

Beer Bust

19th century literature affords countless examples of uninhibited beer drinking, mostly in Germany.* The quantities gotten down often seem staggering. This was partly due to German beer having lower average alcohol than today, but maybe too men were built differently. An interesting example appears in the U.S. press in 1898. Two brewers were working for the same firm (not stated) in Union Hill, NJ. They were of German origin or the older one was, Mathias Sommermann, 50. They vied in a contest for biggest beer bibber.

The winner was Mathias. He got down 88 glasses of beer, specified as half-pint measure or eight U.S. oz. His much younger opponent, George Bertrand, stopped at 82 but also ate a huge amount of food. Given that Mathias had almost 30 years on Bertrand he was dispensed from eating, clearly.

Even if some foam is allowed, and even taking the beer at 4% ABV, that is an amazing amount of beer. It’s the equivalent of a couple of two-fours (58 beers @12 oz., 5% ABV. Take off 20% for 4% ABV, hence about 48 bottles). There is a note of pathos in the account as the winner’s wife did not approve Matthias’ involvement in the contest. Piteously, she tried to drag him away, without success.

Looking at who brewed in town in 1898 and for how long I’d think the brewery was William Peter. Compare the drawing of Sommermann in this related account to the men in the William Peter staff photo in Jay Brook’s account of the brewery. Is Sommermann in the second row, second from last to the right? Or if not, is he in the top row holding (appropriately) a glass of beer? It is one of them I think, probably the former.

The staff picture seems 1880s era judging by William Peter’s appearance. In 1898 Sommermann had worked in the brewery for 20 years, and William Peter started brewing before 1878, so it kind of fits.

Young contestant Bertrand ended on the sickbed from the caper but seems to have survived. He blamed the cigars and beef, natch. And Mathias? Fit as a fiddle, and not apparently drunk (?). Certainly he seemed hale in the drawing mentioned. A little zaftig, but nothing that would stand out. How did he do it?

Note re image: the image above is from the HathiTrust digital library as linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See eg. this travel report of reckless student drinking at 256-257.