Restaurateur/Beer Historian in Upstate New York
Michelob in the days 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 as often as they liked.
But taste appreciation cuts across social-economic lines, 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, the general category mentioned in my last Part, defined finally 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 wanted just a premium name, to increase the prestige of their brand.
Some catered to a particular ethnic market, Polish or German, say. Some catered to a market for which status, or tribal affiliation (arguably the college frats), had primary importance.
But some distributors and bar owners clearly took an extra interest in beer, in its composition, history, variety, and taste characteristics. Like-minded consumers responded commensurately.
This market can be identified by the drinks list, or sometimes the tone of advertising.
Hank’s Tavern between 1935 and 1940 in Cobleskill, New York placed news advertisements unusual for the time, in stressing, at length, the qualities and heritage of Michelob. A brewery might do that to a degree, but it was unusual to see prolonged narrative in retail advertising, 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 site of an Ivy League university.
It has had a farming, dairy, and manufacturing base over the years, and was prosperous enough in the mid-1930s to support a local bar-restaurant-dance hall of good quality.
Hank’s was owned by Henry Cooke as a 1935 ad shows:*
Ads also show 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.
Cooke’s ads might discuss Michelob to varying lengths, but this one was the most elaborate I saw, from 1937 in the local paper, Cobleskill Index:
The part shown is not the whole ad: it stretched the full length of the page (a little faded in the scanning but certainly readable).
It states the beer is “pure malt”, and that years earlier the patriarch of Anheuser-Busch went to the town of Michelob, formerly in the Austrian Empire and by 1937 in Czechoslovakia, to bring back the yeast and formula for Michelob.
This is broadly correct, but for a more complete account, this page in Tombstone Brewery’s website is helpful. Tombstone, in Arizona, last summer issued a replica of Dreher Michelob, hence its assiduous research.
Now, one wonders if a disquisition on Michelob history bemused town residents of F.D.R.’s America 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 imparted likely came from the Michelob distributor, but Cooke still had to be motivated to use it in advertising.
By the 1930s sophisticated distribution facilities existed in the state. As this story (1940) in Glens Falls, further upstate, noted, a distributor there had extensive refrigerated facilities to store and deliver beer in optimum condition.
This was especially important for a delicate product like Michelob. Its fine Saaz character could disappear with indifferent handling, in particular.
Michelob and Ballantine were carried by the Glens Falls distributor, so quite possibly he supplied Cooke. Glens Falls is just 80 miles away. His 10-truck fleet could easily traverse that distance.
Or if not from Glens Falls, a similar distributor in the state capitol of Albany likely supplied Cooke. The Glens Falls company, according to the 1940 story, was one of a number in the state with similar facilities.
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, clearly. If you lived in Champlain, New York and there was no Michelob, you might hop in the Ford with a friend for a 15-mile jaunt.
Finally, 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 somewhat incongruously at the foot of the 1937 ad. But Cooke is not an Italian name. Spaghetti was good old American eating by the 1930s.
No, Cooke just wanted to carry the best lager and ale he could find, because he knew that would resonate with many regardless of their background. He catered to the beer lover, end of story.
The next part will cover another beer haunt, of different type and locale, but sharing the trait of appealing to the beer-aware market.
*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.