Mencken und Michelob, Fazit
Even before WW I Michelob had cachet in some upper echelon circles. From a standing start in 1896, when it was released as a draft-only beer of superior quality, it gained a niche market while never rivalling Budweiser as the mainstay of Anheuser-Busch.
So important were Bohemian Saaz hops to the beer, that early in the European war Anheuser-Busch ran regular ads to assure the public it had adequate supply both for Budweiser and Michelob.
This ad is one of many in the period, from the Ogden Standard in Utah in 1915 (via Chronicling America):
To take one example of Michelob’s “society” status, in 1911 an association of Delta Kappa Epsilon members met at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, now an architectural landmark, for a “Bohemian dinner”, according to The Deke Quarterly that year.
Michelob was the featured beer, no other was mentioned.
It should be noted Michelob was also promoted from inception in German ethnic communities. A May 1896 ad in Der Deutsche correspondent of Baltimore is an example. The Cafe Berlin on West Lafayette Street advertised both Budweiser and Michelob:
Author, editor, and critic Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) mentioned Michelob numerous times in his work, more than any other domestic brand by my rough count.
Mencken issued from a prosperous German-American background. The family owned a cigar factory in Baltimore. He may have encountered Michelob in bars like Cafe Berlin in his early newspaper days.
Mencken is generally considered a satirist à la Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. His sobriquet “Sage of Baltimore” was probably a mocking, as much as a complimentary reference, but it attests to his influence in this period.
By mocking I mean, many in the cultural establishment considered Mencken mainly a stylist, not a deep thinker, at least not a consistent, persuasive one. His opposition to American entry to World War I did nothing to endear him to received opinion, in particular.
Mencken was more a high-level gadfly and iconoclast than penseur, in other words, but few have equalled his writing ability at his best. And his comments on alcoholic drinks are of good value as social history.
I referred to Mencken earlier in connection with German bock – at his most scintillating – and in Part I for a comment he made about Michelob and summer evenings. He had more to say on Michelob, which I’ll convey here.
The Literary Digest , based in New York, published an article critical of Mencken in 1923, not attributed. It included a quotation from a recent Mencken article which, in typical fashion, spouted opinion on matters serious and frivolous, on a broad range of topics, offered as cultural critique.
In the enfilade he allows “Michelob beer” as a notable product of American civilization together with “Mount Vernon”, a rye whiskey, and the Bronx cocktail.
With the quotations below it shows Michelob rated high in his affections but still second to Czech pilsener, his all-time favourite.
Pistols for two (1917) is a mock biography of Mencken and his collaborator and co-editor, George J. Nathan, remembered for his magazine work with Mencken and New York theatre criticism.
Ostensibly the book was authored by Owen Hatteras but really was penned by Mencken and Nathan.
Mencken (surely it was he) wrote of himself, at p. 23:
He drinks all the known alcoholic beverages, but prefers Pilsner to any other; a few seidels make him very talkative. In the absence of Pilsner, he drinks Michelob.
From Pistols for two again, p. 26:
Every Saturday night he spends the time between 8 and 10 playing music, and the time between 10 and 12 drinking Michelob.
Mencken met with Baltimore friends from academe, journalism, and medicine in their Saturday Night Club to play musical instruments, drink beer, and smoke cigars.*
From Pistols a last time, p. 39:
Next to Pilsener and Burgundy (or, in wartime, Michelob), his favorite drink is city water direct from the tap – no ice.
Even here he digs at American culture, its penchant for ice water at table.
Part III continues this series.
Note: sources of images above are linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Marion Rodgers, a Mencken biographer, wrote a superb essay on the family cigar business and H.L.’s relationship to it.