If IPA Is a “Fiery Drug” Whither Imperial Stout?

In March 1933, in preparation for the anticipated passage of the 21st Amendment to repeal Prohibition, the federal government changed the Volstead Act to allow 3.2% beer to be sold. This meant 3.2% by weight of alcohol, equal exactly to 4% by volume. Measuring alcohol by volume, or the Gay-Lussac method, is the usual method today.

4% abv is the strength of light beer today, although the “3.2” of FDR’s era had more body, and hops. 4% abv was fairly light on alcohol ,though. Still, beer was back.

In December 1933 the 21st Amendment was passed and full-strength beer could be sold, but 3.2 hung on in some states. It still exists vestigially to this day. This was due to alcohol regulation being restored to the states. This meant some states for many years prohibited beverage alcohol completely.


As we saw yesterday in a news article from 1932 brewing scientist Dr. Max Henius advocated 3% abw beer as the right type of beer. He must have been fairly certain beer would return since he accepted in that year his first new brewing class since 1915.

While necessarily out of the alcohol consulting business during the Roaring Twenties Henius never really left the field. He wrote books advocating a form of Prohibition, in fact, but defended beer of moderate alcohol.

A year later, in March 1933, the Schenectady Gazette discussed the new beer.

The perfect beer is the 3:2 per cent brew that America is about to consume. The authority for this assertion today is Dr. Max Henius who for 50 years has devoted his study, as a chemist, to the analysis and synthesis of the foam collared beverage. He is head of the Wahl-Henius Institute of Brewing and consulting chemist to many European brewers. Here’s the connoisseur’s stamp of approval on the beer the federal government has legalised and which will wet palates after midnight April 6. 

“Beer of 3.2 alcoholic content is the perfect beer,” said Dr. Henius.

“Americans should demand nothing more. It would satisfy the popular demand for beer without in the least endangering temperance and sobriety. It is very palatable”.

“Anyway, the alcohol in beer is merely an incident in its enjoyment, it adds greatly to its taste and refreshing quality and preserves the delicate flavor”.

“When people want beer they want a refreshing drink, not a fiery drug”.

Up to four pints he explained, it will act as a nourishing food. Drink more and—well, start looking for an easy chair, or better, a bed. Merely a sedative if quaffed indiscreetly, said Dr. Henius. There are right and wrong ways to drink beer, too, Dr. Henius said. Surroundings are important factors. Beer gardens, of course, are the perfect places for stein swinging.

He predicted use once more for the vacant lots that formerly were miniature golf courses. If you must drink your beer indoors, said Dr. Henius, do it at a table, not a bar.

Even knowing what I do about German and American lager in the 1800s, what the Doktor was saying seemed hard to square with reality. It might be one thing if he advised people to drink one glass of 3.2 beer, or maybe two, but he had no trouble approving four pints, or even more. This was 16 oz pints (American not English pint), but still that’s almost five and a half glasses of beer (5 x 12 oz. + 4 oz).

143123332Surely the average person would feel rather drunk after drinking not far short of a sixer of Coors Light or Miller Lite. And some drinking more might start to rave a bit. Dr. Max’s idea that after four pints you peacefully fall to sleep is simplistic.

Where was he going here? A doctor of chemistry surely would understand that strong drinks can be equated to so many standard units. It is all a question of the alcohol taken in (net amount), not the ethanol level of one drink vs. another. A couple of 12 oz bottles of strong Trappist Ale or Imperial Stout are equivalent to his four pints of 3.2 beer.

Could Dr. Henius have been underplaying the significance of 3.2 beer not to throw a spanner in the works of Repeal? Or maybe he really believed what he was saying, it is hard to know.

Perhaps he would retort, as he explained to the Schenectady Gazette, that much depends too where you drink. He was probably thinking of the sylvan beer gardens in Denmark and in Marburg, Hesse where he studied as a doctoral student. In a verdant beer garden, hours are whiled slowly sipping, sometimes with family (Sundays), and usually food is consumed, too. Getting legless is not the idea. (There is some testimony in the 1800s to qualify this rosy-hued view, I may discuss it later).

3063_1Whereas Dr. Henius seems to have bought in completely to the stereotyped image of the saloon as the quintessence of evil.

The hard drinking image of the saloon was linked more to whiskey than beer, yet whiskey was coming back with Repeal, everyone knew that. With whiskey in the picture, did it make sense to inveigh against beers stronger than 3.2% abw?

Possibly there was a class factor at work: Henius was a well-off businessman whose father had owned a distillery, perhaps he felt the segments of society normally given to beer had to be protected by limiting its alcohol. The governing class who drank whiskey at the club or their hotels presumably didn’t need supervision.

Drinking at the polished mahogany of a saloon vs. the honest grainy table of home seems to me six of one half a dozen of another (no pun intended). Perhaps he meant that in home conditions the abuse of drink was less likely than secreted in the saloon with its temptations of music, ruby liquids glowing in cut glass, perhaps dancing girls. Hard to say again.

395a31d18eb9d7eac78c68f773658467In the end, I think the gray-haired doctor was wistful for the drinking style of his youth, of Europa whence he issued. While known for his resolute Americanism, I think the old impulses of home still animated Max Henius.

The soothing beer gartens of memory, the all-malt beers supped in picturesque Marburg (it still is)*, may have seemed benign by comparison with the “next viskey bar” of America, painted in lurid tones in the classic song written for Berthold Brecht. Written, indeed, in the same era the Schenectady Gazette was chatting up the doctor.

At bottom, alcohol is alcohol, and his reasoning here was somewhat suspect. Some people like a St. Bernardus or three (say). And some a few Silver Bullets. Same difference, sure as shootin’.


Note re images: The first image above is from this restaurant’s site in Marburg. The second is of students in Marburg drinking beer, a Getty image from here.  The third is from this label collection site, here. The fourth, from Pinterest, is from here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All images or intellectual property therein belong to their lawful owners or authorized users. All feedback welcomed.


*Only a few German cities escaped heavy Allied bombing during the war. Marburg was one, and it was due to being a hospital city for wounded troops.