Michelob in the days when it had a pronounced European character bruited its connoisseur qualities. Then, as now for craft beer and some imports, not everyone could afford to buy such premium taste, or as often as they liked.
But taste appreciation cuts across social-economic lines. This is summed up in the old saying, I have Champagne taste but a beer budget (not meant literally in present context). Many find a way still to indulge a special taste.
The true beer fans comprised, and still do, a general category, defined by their love for quality malt beverage, not their social, ethnic, or economic classification.
In 1961 as we saw earlier, only 300,000 bbl of Michelob were shipped, against 7,100,000 of Budweiser and 1,100,000 of Busch Bavarian.
That Michelob, draught-only, was thinly spread among bars, restaurants, and clubs, and their wholesale suppliers. Some sought a premium name, to increase the prestige of their brand.
Some catered to an ethnic market, Polish or German, say. Some, to a market for which status, or tribal affiliation (arguably the college market), had primary importance.
But some distributors, and bar owners, clearly took an extra interest in beer, its composition, history, variety, and taste. Like-minded consumers responded accordingly.
This market can be identified by the tone of the advertising, and sometimes by the number of beers offered.
Hank’s Tavern between 1935 and 1940 in Cobleskill, New York placed news advertisements unusual for the time. It stressed, at length, the qualities and heritage of Michelob. A brewery might do that, but it was unusual to see prolonged narrative in retail beer ads, especially of a historical nature.
Cobleskill is an old town about 45 miles west of Albany, NY, in Schoharie County. It is not a tourist haunt, stockbroker town, or locus of the Ivy League.
It had a farming, dairy, and manufacturing base over the years, and was prosperous enough in the mid-1930s to support a bar-restaurant-dance hall of good quality.
Hank’s was owned by Henry Cooke, as a 1935 ad shows. Ads also showed he was the first in town to obtain a license to sell liquor, vs. just beer, after Prohibition ended.
His ads mention two beers: Michelob and Ballantine Ale, the latter a nod to New York State’s ale heritage. E.g. from 1937 in the Cobleskill Index:
Other Cooke ads might discuss Michelob to varying lengths, but this one was the most elaborate I saw, also from 1937 in the Cobleskill Index:
This ad, readable as the other despite the imperfect scanning, stretched the full length of the broadsheet. It stated the beer was “pure malt”, and that years before, the patriarch of Anheuser-Busch went to the town of Michelob, formerly in the Austrian Empire but now in Czechoslovakia, to bring the yeast and formula for Michelob to America.
This is broadly correct, but for a more complete account, this page in Tombstone Brewery’s website is helpful. Tombstone, in Arizona, released last year a replica of Dreher Michelob. This explains its assiduous research.
One wonders if a disquisition on Michelob history bemused town residents more than enlightened them, but who knows?
Cooke had to be a beer enthusiast beyond the norm, or his bar manager was, why else go to that trouble and expense?** The information likely came from the Michelob distributor, but Cooke still had to be motivated to use it.
By the 1930s sophisticated distribution facilities existed in New York. As this 1940 story in Glens Falls, further upstate, made clear, a distributor in Glens Falls had extensive refrigerated facilities to warehouse beer properly.
This was important for a delicate product like Michelob. Its fine Saaz character could disappear with indifferent handling, just as today poor handling can destroy the fine scents of an I.P.A.
Michelob and Ballantine were among the brands carried by the distributor, so possibly Cooke bought his beer from this source. Glens Falls is 80 miles away but the distributor’s advertised 10-truck fleet could deliver and return in a half-day.
If not from Glens Falls, a distributor in Albany (the state capital) likely supplied Cooke. The 1940 story stated distributors with good facilities were spread through the state.
The early beer writer James D. Robertson, in his 1978 The Great American Beer Book, wrote (p. 45):
The youthful beer drinkers of the late 1940s and 1950s would often travel to another town where Michelob was available.
Hank’s Tavern was such a place. If you lived in Champlain, New York and there was no Michelob, you might hop in a Ford for a 15-mile jaunt.
Finally, and re-emphasizing my initial point, there was nothing obviously ethnic about Hank’s – it had no German-American character, for example.
It offered a daily special of spaghetti and meat balls, mentioned rather incongruously at the foot of the 1937 ad. But Cooke is not an Italian name. Spaghetti was good old American eating by this time.
Cooke catered primarily to the beer fan, is my conclusion. I don’t doubt social class played a part, but surely gentry was not numerous in this town. It was not, again, the stockbroker belt, not the Hamptons.
Part VII covers another beer haunt, of different type and locale, but sharing the trait of appealing to the beer-aware.
*Some ads stated it was across the city parking lot. A Google Street view shows the likely site. The double doors and window style of the red building suggest a restaurant or club at one time.
**Unless possibly the distributor or brewery paid for it.