Into the Wonderful Light

Early Beer Connoisseurs in New York

… individuals who, twelve months or two years ago, judged a glass of lager by its taste and the amount of snowy froth which crowned the glass, now discuss the merits of Bavarian and Berliner beers with the “cheek” if not the judgement of a connoisseur who had graduated on the Unter den Linden

Many post-1850, 19th century articles have now been unearthed from the New York and Brooklyn press on the rise of lager in the area. I’ve found not a few.

I can’t recall seeing this gem before, from the September 4, 1874 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Union. It describes a transformed beer scene in Manhattan and Brooklyn, henceforth comprised not just of lager-drinkers (this is a given by the 1870s) but of connoisseurs who seek out imported brews.

The imports are in two classes: European beers, and “Western” beers. The latter meant beer from Rochester, NY, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Later, St. Louis would join the Western ranks. Rochester’s lager was remarked with particular favour, selling for six cents a glass, a one cent premium on the standard nickel beer. The local savants, “satellites” of the Brooklyn courthouse said the article, preferred Rochester lager over Milwaukee’s and Cincinnati’s – but true imports over all these.

The article delves into the whys and wherefores: the local beers just weren’t as good due to no brewing occurring in summer, as ice was too expensive. The implication is despite the mythology of long-aged lager it was not, in mid-century New York, considered prime drinking due to acidification over time and excess hop bitterness, as I’ve discussed earlier.* Another reason given was that malt was dear in recent years. This suggested that adjuncts such as rice and corn were already in use, or that all-malt beers were attenuated low which resulted in a thin taste.

The journalist explores the favoured imports by name and often style: Kulmbacher, Tivoli, Kitzinger, Pilsener, Erlanger. Pilsener’s unusually light colour was noted as most American lager then was still amber-brown. The pils was considered less hoppy too, or “resinous”, than domestic beer. The gambrinal crown was bestowed on Bavaria’s Kulmbacher, with a taste note that would do credit to any modern beer writer. It sounds much like the Kulmbacher of today, in fact.

Reading this, one is reminded of the general media’s bemused accounts of modern craft brewing. One still encounters such pieces, sometimes quoting culinary or entertainment figures (the late Anthony Bourdain, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.). The process in old New York was no different. Then the new kids on the block were Kulmbacher and Pilsener; today it’s New England India Pale Ale, Brut IPA, and pastry stouts (pastry, not pasty).

While ale, domestic or imported, is not mentioned in the article there is a passing acknowledgment of Dublin Porter’s merits as the Kulmbacher is compared to it, in effect.

It amazes me that before modern brewery sanitation, before pasteurization, the beers could be imported in good condition, not just bottled but draft. But evidently they were, or enough of them. Did drinkers accept inferior taste because of the import cachet? Perhaps in some cases, but the description of the Kulmbacher certainly suggests the journalist knew, or had learned, what good beer was all about. One suspects the local bartenders and import agents treated him to a few as his article ends as an endorsement of their products.

Like all good journalists, he saw his job as bringing light to those in ignorance, those who as Paul cautioned “look through a glass, darkly”. A clever journalist, he employs a jeu de mots by claiming to enlighten those who view a saloon’s dim interior from the curb and wonder at the workings. (A little sacrilegious, I guess). To them he counterpoints citizens who “… take their lager steadily and respectably in high-toned saloons” and are “already posted…”.

I’ll keep you posted, too.

Note re image above: sourced from an Ebay listing, here. All rights belong solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See this 1877 New York Times article.