Interwar German Lager and the Indomitable Urquell

Ile de Staten, Anyone?

George Jean Nathan was a long-time associate of author, critic, and gadfly Henry Louis Mencken. Together they founded the Smart Set, the premier literary journal of the interwar years, and later the American Mercury. Nathan has written that Mencken turned more to politics in the latter journal, and this may explain Nathan’s departure as co-editor not long after the launch. Nonetheless he continued to contribute as drama critic, into the 1940s.

Smart Set was a joint venture with famed New York publisher Alfred Knopf. It is remembered for its witty, sparkling articles and introduction of Jazz Era luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

Nathan was a Cornell graduate who started in general journalism and specialized in theatre coverage. This interest continued through his life, perhaps connected to his reputation as ladies man and boulevardier.

In 1928 in the The Judge, another literary and theatrical-oriented journal, he gave a half-facetious review of the beer and other potables in theatrical locales in various European cities. Such articles were of particular interest to Americans whose thirst for ethanol could be sated only by skulking bootleggers.

Such pieces would have been read longingly by those pining for the return of saloons and beer gardens, and who likely had an idealized notion of the elixirs of the old country.

Nathan didn’t pull punches. A few exceptions apart, he was less than impressed by the marquee brews of Europe, at least as served at the theatre bars. Even Champagne in France struck him as inferior – but not in the West End, London. The British always made it their business to choose the best, didn’t they?

Nathan doesn’t even mention English beer. This is of a piece with the Mittel Europa leanings of the New York-based critics. Many of them were Jewish, German, or of other Continental background. For them the bounds of good beer didn’t reach much beyond central Europe.

I suspect that Nathan, nearing 50 when he wrote the piece (see below), was suffering from the malaise of “it’s not what it used to be”. It’s something that afflicts all of us as we reach a certain age. Beer is just the least of it.

Everything was better back in the day, right? Through history we read this, so it must be true.

On the other hand, Nathan makes clear, as did Mencken and others in their circle such as Carl Van Vechten and James Huneker, that Czech Pilsner Urquell remained the Olympian standard. Some things don’t change.

Even Germany, the cradle of fine lager, has always admitted the special merits of Urquell. It remains the largest selling imported beer in the country. That says a lot for a nation understandably chauvinist in matters of the malt.

The “topaz nonesuch”, Nathan called Urquell. And so it remains.

Anyway, read Nathan’s snappy account. It’s the jazz age in full flourish.