No-alcohol Beer – the World Turns

When Life Gives you Lemons, Trommer’s of Brooklyn Makes “Lemonade”

With burgeoning interest in N/A beer (no ethanol presence), it is interesting to “go back” and see the experience of previous generations. Of course N/A beer is not new. In Prohibition days countries had some version of it, with alcohol ranging from trace amounts to 2.5% ABV. Before modern N/A beer there was “small beer” in the U.K. and U.S., some of which was very weak, and not dissimilar beers on the Continent. We can go back yet further to Mumme and the “seafaring” beer taken out of north German ports on voyages, some of which was without alcohol.

The Malta of the Caribbean, and similar products there, are an early modern form. Henninger when it had a brewery in Ontario in the 1970s made a N/A licensed from Birell in Switzerland. Henninger in the home base of Frankfurt had its own (non-Birell) version in the same period.

The fashion goes in cycles and as recently reported in the Guardian even in Germany interest seems at a high point. In the market generally large brewers such as Heineken with its 0.0, Budweiser with its Prohibition, and smaller players are in on the action. (The Guardian seems quite attached to the idea of N/A by my perusal, with a series of articles in recent years).

Partake Pale in Ontario is a craft example, a beer on my list to try. A notable development (international) is that different craft styles are employed, not just the traditional, lager-style “light” or “dark”.

A variety of reasons explains this: health primarily, the desire too to market to populations that traditionally abjure or frown on alcohol. The legalization of cannabis in Canada and elsewhere may see the success of non-alcohol, cannabis-flavoured beverages; time will tell. There are two sorts of these, those with the active cannabis agent THC, those without. And those without might contain alcohol.

In principle to me beer should be alcoholic, but more power to those who can sell, and who want to buy, a N/A. I am interested in the matter primarily historically. One of the most interesting cases is Trommer of Brooklyn, New York, which had unusual success during Prohibition. Trommer had about a 50-year run until its sale in 1951 (the Trommer brand continued for some years after under other ownership).

Contrary to the usual tale, rather than wither under Volstead and see its near-beer dying on the vine (!), Trommer flourished with exactly that. It made three “brews”: a light, dark, and “October”. Each of these, in accordance with American law, could not contain greater than 0.4% ABV. A concise news account in Long Island City’s Daily Star in December 1932 describes how the founder’s son, George Trommer, did it.

Details of his Prohibition success have been reported by other beer writers, notably Will Anderson in his 1976 history of Brooklyn breweries. The accounts I’ve seen state that George Trommer financed hot dog stands in New York exacting an obligation in return to carry his N/A beer.

The 1932 account refers rather to “lunch counters”, so I think it was more than hot dogs: sandwiches, soups, stews, chops, burgers, and the like. Feltman’s famous Coney stands were surely part it, but I think to be successful on Trommer’s scale the N/A had to accompany a broader menu. The blackboard menu shown in restaurant historian Jan Whitaker’s 2013 examination of the pre-McDonald’s lunch counter shows a variety of egg dishes, sandwiches, and short orders, for example. As well, George had expanded considerably the restaurant and beer garden at the brewery, which was responsible for many barrels of near beer sold.

This 1934 ad, by a local grill, supports the above reasoning. The grill, which also advertises Trommer beer, is clearly an example of George’s 1932 forecast that his lunch counter accounts will switch to full-strength Trommer’s after Prohibition. It is highly likely the grill was a Volstead era account of his as well.

In 1932 Trommer’s could produce 300,000 bbl of near beer a year. Trommer’s had, as mentioned, unusual success with the product, but was a notable brewery in other respects. Both before and after Prohibition it brewed all-malt, contrary to usual American practice then of adjunct brewing. Trommer’s N/A line was no different, the brews just had the alcohol removed.

As well, Trommer’s is a later implantation in German-American brewing. The great names of American lager brewing founded breweries in the mid-1800s, but Trommer’s Prussian immigrant founder, John Trommer, bought an interest in the Evergreen Brewery (est. 1894) in 1896, after years of working for other brewers.

John Trommer died in 1897 but not before buying out the residual interest of the Evergreen Brewery’s founder, named Breitkopf. The brewery then became Trommer’s Evergreen Brewery. Eldest son George, only 21 at his father’s death, expanded the business before, during, and after Prohibition. George died at 80 in 1956 in Manhattan, having retired (bachelor) to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel after the business was sold.

Trommer White Label advertised its all-malt attributes strongly in the 1930s and 40s but to no avail, ultimately: the business couldn’t survive past 1951. Competitor Piel’s bought the Brooklyn Trommer’s in that year. The Liebmanns – Rheingold of Brooklyn – took over a larger, related Trommer facility in Orange, NJ, purchased by George in 1933. These disposals followed ruinous NYC area labour strikes in 1948-1949.

But Trommer’s remains an inspiration, indeed is a progenitor of the craft revival along with Henninger in Ontario and Prinz Brau in Alaska (owned by Oetker Group, Germany), both in the 1970s.

The takeaway is, there are no iron rules in business. You can make it in different ways, even, for a brewer, selling a beer that isn’t a beer. So successful was Prohibition-era Trommer that had legalization not occurred, the brewery might still exist today. Nonetheless the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, which George saw coming, and he adapted to the new reality.

Brought back from pre-Pro times was his English-styled, now fully alcoholic Brown October Brew. And so, a classical German brewhouse in America made not just lagers, but British-style ale. I would think the beer was top-fermented, not a bottom fermented imitation of ale, as later in the 1930s Trommer’s advertised ale as such. This ad (source: Jess Kidden’s Google Beer Pages) confirms such a product:

While not mentioned in the ad, Kidden states that Kent hops, meaning imported English hops, were used in the ale. Indeed Trommer’s trumped the British by using all-malt. By the 1930s British beer usually employed 20% or more sugar or raw grains. At the same time, our research suggests the ale was a late-1930s addition to the Trommer line, so I can’t rule out that Brown October Brew was not technically an ale. Post-Repeal ads do not use the term “ale”, but possibly the terms “brew” and “beer” were retained because the N/A October Brew never used the term ale.

In 1934 in Yonkers’ Herald-Statesman, Trommer’s advertised the restored full-strength brew, as seen below. Now that’s a beer we’d buy.

Note #1, re images: the images above are drawn from the digitized news, or other, sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.
Note #2 on  sources: our account relies in part on a 1984 Trommer Brewery series in the Ridgewood Times of Ridgewood, NY, available courtesy Fulton Historical Newspapers. As an example, here is the second article. No author is identified, but we think Will Anderson may have contributed or assisted with the article as we understand he lived in New Jersey, broadly part of the New York conurbation.