Meet the Burtons and Their Friends

The Burtons and Nowhere Beer

My 17-page article Four American Beer Writers of the 1970s was just published in the journal Brewery History. One of its themes is that these writers, writing before Michael Jackson made an impact on world beer criticism, were agreed on what one called the “anorexia nervosa” of most American beer.

They understood well the decades-long cumulative effect of high malt adjunct levels, low final gravities, reduced usage of hops, fine filtration, and other techniques that tended to make beer increasingly bland and uniform in taste. Some of them questioned, as people do today for such beers, whether brewers were responding to public taste or imposing their view of such taste on the people – in the words of John Porter, “conditioning” the public.

It is instructive to examine this post-Repeal advertisement in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, the issue it appeared in in 1938 is here.

Gunther Brewing in Baltimore had roots in German-American brewing of the 1800s. It made near beer for much of Prohibition, and rallied under new ownership in 1933 to become Baltimore’s second-largest brewery. It expired as an independent in 1960 when Hamm’s of the Midwest bought it, and the brewery itself was closed in 1978.

But in the 1930s it was hot to trot. Its rather daring illustrations of fashionable young things wondering what beer to serve at their soirees remind us that the drumbeat of light, dry, not sweet, predates World War II. Whiskey was affected no less than beer, but not soft drinks, oddly, not then.

Gunther’s was a revived, small independent, not a big national that one presumes could pay big dollars for the latest marketing advice from the Mad Men.

So where did Gunther’s get this idea that the main demographic for its beer, newlyweds and other young people with the appetite for beer young people have, wanted it dry and not filling? Was the idea in the air then, or did it reflect perhaps the taste of the new owner of Gunther? It is difficult to say at this remove.

Maybe Gunther’s was profitable enough by 1938 that it could afford to hire Mad Men and they told the owner you need to go light. Some of the New York-area breweries had or would soon develop the same message, Rheingold is an example.

But the campaign must have been one of the first on the bandwagon of eternal light. Of course, it hedged its bets by also trumpeting the beer as beery and tasting like beer should. Marketers always want to cover the bases: it’s good marketing no less than good baseball. “Everything you always wanted in beer, and less” – same thing 40 years later.

Now, how light was Gunther’s beer in actuality? My studies of 1930s U.S. beer gravities suggest they were on average high by today’s standards, but every brewery was different. Was Gunther’s like a modern PBR, maybe, or Budweiser? We can’t know unless brewery records become available or another source where Gunther’s disclosed the data.

Writ large though the trend to the mass market norm in 1978 is clear. One of the four 1970s writers termed it “computerized lager”. They each had their way of saying it.

Some were still kind to the big guns of their day – Budweiser, Coors, Pabst – but one senses a relativity factor at work. Coors didn’t pasteurize, for example, and the writers generally viewed the pasteurization of beer askance. Today the issue receives little attention, unfortunately.

An oddity in the ad is the accompanying dinner recipe from The Gunther Hostess, it is super-rich. As if adding three rather fat meats is not enough, we are advised to add half a pound of chicken fat to the dish.

Where the bright young things of the Baltimore-D.C. corridor might find such rusticana is open to question, but we’re in the realm of make-believe here, or at a minimum, aspirational appeal. You may therefore indulge, as it were.

And so a caloric dinner fest like this was not viewed as inapt for people wanting light and not filling in their beer. In time the food would be roped in too via Jean Nidetch’s Weightwatchers and “dietetic” products of which diet sodas were some of the first.

Perhaps for a 1930s brewery with German ethnic roots, there was a limit to the light crusade.

The bottom line remains that somewhere, somehow Gunther’s and many more breweries got the idea early on that beer shouldn’t be sweet, shouldn’t be filling, shouldn’t be bitter, and shouldn’t be, well, beer.

Ergo the reaction that finally set in inaugurated by the Society for the Preservation of Beer From the Wood and CAMRA in the U.K., by Michael Jackson, the most influential consumer beer writer in the history of the genre, by homebrewers in the U.K. and North America, and by the new breweries that emerged in both places from about 1976.

N.B. Does anyone think the Burtons who served sweet, heavy, out-of-fashion beer were surnamed randomly? A brewery in-joke, surely. But one thing I know: if Madison Avenue was enlisted to draw these ads, the joke was lost on them. “Say, Fred [in the cubicle next to him] the old-timer running Gunther’s in Baltimore wants a couple in the new spread to be named ‘Burton’. That okay with you? I thought an indistinct European name might be better, more … inclusive (is that a word?) but he’s firm on it so I told him sure thing”.