Of Brown Stout and Brook Trout
May 7, 1942 was five months to the day after Pearl Harbor triggered U.S. entry into the war.
On that night, the Wine and Food Society of New York gathered for a programme at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel: a luxury beer and food tasting. The epicureans held two other beer events that I know of in the 1940s, one in 1941 before Pearl Harbor, and one in September 1944.
The 1942 and 1944 tastings were held during wartime, when some events were still conducted by the New York branch.
I discussed the 1944 menu earlier and below discuss the more elaborate 1942 event. (All menu extracts are from The New York Public Library’s digital menu archive at www.nypl.org).
A sophisticated beer-tasting of this type, with foods supplied by top city caterers, was groundbreaking. The detailed product notes, and range and (evident) quality of the foods, show an avant la lettre modernity.
The notes on the beers, including for porter and India Pale Ale, reflect lore handed down for generations, and offer good interest. The “tang” noted in IPA may have been the influence of Brettanomyces yeast, perhaps the selfsame “Bass stink” I discussed recently for American “musty ale”.
The source stated for Heineken beer in mid-1942 is interesting. It wasn’t the Netherlands, but rather its brewery in East Java. Either it was still shipping to the United States or the beer was in stock prior to Pearl Harbor.
42 beers are listed, about twice the number for the 1944 tasting. The foods too are more abundant and interesting, featuring in particular an alluring range of smoked and pickled fish and cheeses. Since German or Czech pale or dark lagers were not served other beers were made available in these styles, Prior for example, from Pennsylvania.
The notes on fish, hams, and cheese suggest high gastronomical values in selection and quality. The beers are treated as fine wines in this respect, deserving of being paired with premium foods from small-scale producers.
Still, items with a more popular image were tabled, e.g., the Heluva cheese. All food and beer were all contributed by the makers, and perhaps organizers were loath to decline proffers not “gourmet” as such.
As well though, it gave the opportunity to compare processed cheese with rustic, natural types.
A harbinger of our whole foods movement can be seen in the Pepperidge Farm stone-ground whole wheat loaf. Sliced white loaf, still a novelty for some Americans in 1942, palled early for epicureans. Whole grain bread, evoking both tradition and health values, was an early star in the green/natural foods movement.
(The story of Pepperidge Farm is absorbing in itself. The origins are in America’s stockbroker belt, not, as one might expect, a hipster, communitarian, or smallholder circle).
Despite the war, little in the menu suggested restraint or economy. If anyone on the committee had qualms, the final programme did not show it. Likely the event was planned before Pearl Harbor. Given the efforts of all concerned, perhaps it was felt impractical to cancel or modify the programme.
The 1944 beer tasting was toned down considerably. One can see this from the programme, absorbing though it is.
From our standpoint today these events show that the serious, tutored beer tasting is not new, and well precedes the craft beer era. At the time though the concept was certainly novel. Indeed if a similar event predates the 1942 event, other than similar tastings held by the New York branch since its creation in 1934, I am not aware of it.
A type of precedent is the beer and food menu for a special dinner at the Pabst brewery hotel in 1898, I discussed that event here. The 1942 event is much more accomplished though, with a didactic element lacking in the former.
It is not too much to say these 1940s tastings are a milestone in the cultural and social history of beer. Much the same can be said in toto for the Wine and Food Society’s early wine tastings, both in New York and internationally.*
Note re images: the images of the menus appearing above were sourced from the original menus linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Indeed wine was always the main focusing point but the Society occasionally tasted beer, spirits, and cocktails.