I wrote over two years ago about the 1944 beer tasting held by the Wine and Food Society of New York at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. In fact, I recreated the event at a local restaurant to salute some early pioneers of beer appreciation and evoke the gastronomic experience of a past era.
In researching early tasting menus of the Society, which generally focus on wine, by yesterday I had identified three beer events. This is based to be sure on publicly-available menus, most archived at the New York Public Library. (The extracts of the menus below were sourced from the New York Public Library’s historic menu archive, www.nypl.org).
The tastings occurred in the 1940s: one in 1941 before America entered the war, one in 1942, and the 1944 one. I intend to write in another forum in greater detail on all three tastings.
Just this morning I found a fourth tasting, held more recently in 1973. The program appears below and was sourced here, at the archive mentioned.
It is interesting to compare the 1973 program to those of the 1940s. 1973’s is shorter, and the earlier ones featured more beers and a broader range of foods. The 1973 event was a gourmet sausage-tasting, resolutely focused that is on the encased viands specialty.
The 1940s beer menus included numerous cheeses, vintage hams and other meats, and smoked fish and herring, all from high-end suppliers.
All the tastings can be viewed as gastronomic but the one from 1973 was more limited in scope.
Also, the beers tabled in the 1940s had a pronounced New York and regional character. By 1973, no New York or Jersey beers were represented, in part since many fewer local breweries existed. Imports were selected almost exclusively, and only one American beer, the rather ordinary Schlitz – with roots in the Midwest, moreover.
The Schlitz was served with a hot dog, no doubt to evoke the ballpark idea. A more interesting approach might have been to pair a Rochester, NY “white hot” with a beer of that city, Genesee Cream Ale, say, or 12 Horse Ale.
The 1973 program matched a sausage speciality of a country with a beer from that land. Since the event took place at one of the Society’s old haunts, the Waldorf-Astoria, no doubt the kitchen produced high-quality versions of these foods.
The choice of a lager from Ireland was odd since lager was well-represented at the tasting. Guinness stout would have made more sense (tasted at the 1940s events), or say Murphy Stout. Moreover, lager is not a style traditional to Ireland.
Still, for the time, Harp offered an exotic note, as did Kronenbourg of France, or Sweden’s Pripps. Offering a dark Heineken instead of the familiar blond version – New Yorkers knew regular Heineken well, even then – was a good choice. Everything is relative to time and place.
Carta Blanca from Mexico was a satisfying link to the 1940s since it appeared on some of the earlier menus.
The extracts above from the 1942 menu give a sense of contrast. The earliest tastings sought to explain the beers more by type and individual characteristics, just as we do today: things have come full circle. Perhaps with a range of lagers not greatly dissimilar in palate, it was felt taste notes were not necessary for 1973.
But to classify beers by nation, versus style, was a potent idea in the 1950s-1970s. Beer writing then often used this approach, even the famed beer authority Michael Jackson did so in his early books.
The styles he helped popularize, and in some cases essentially invented as we know them today such as Imperial stout and Trappist beer, have now become known almost everywhere. Therefore, classifying beer by geographic area is not as useful as formerly. There is little difference between a Black IPA made in Italy, say, and one made within a mile of where I write in Toronto.
Wine is somewhat similar given the spread of the well-known varietals although local grapes still have a say, perhaps increasingly so in the future. For the foreseeable future though the lexicon of beer appreciation will remain international.
There are a couple of anomalies in the 1973 menu, but not serious ones. Brewmaster Pale Ale to pair with haggis might be questioned. Brewmaster was a classic southern English taste: flowery and delicate. A banger sausage, say the Oxford type, might have done better with that beer. Or, a Scotch ale such as MacEwan’s with the haggis. Still, they did pair British with British.
Holland’s national sausage is not bratwurst, which is German, but braadworst, but perhaps that was served in fact, just under a name familiar to New Yorkers.
Most of the beers were certainly good or excellent for their style: Pripps’ lager for example, or the dark version of the Dutch Heineken.
The choice of Pilsner Urquell, known in New York since the late 1800s, was a wise one. So was Germany’s Wurzburger, a popular import in the 1970s. I believe it was tanked in from Europe and bottled close to distribution point by Anheuser-Busch. I remember the light version (Helles or Pils) in that era which was very good: matured, zesty, not sulphury as some lagers are today: satisfying on its own or with food.
The dessert and brandy look just about right after a culinary/beery whirl like that.
Who led the tasting? I believe Harriet Lembeck did, described in the program as the commentator. Ms. Lembeck is still active in the New York wine and spirits world. She gives classes to this day on wine education in the city and has been called the doyenne of wine education in America.
Her mentor was Harold Grossman, an influential Manhattan wine and spirits importer who in 1940 inaugurated wine education in the city. He also wrote a well-known guide to wine, beer and spirits. Ms. Lembeck edited a couple of editions after his death, in fact.
Harold Grossman and Ms. Lembeck are part of the story how wine appreciation migrated from small influential groups in the U.S. onto a much broader canvass.
The beers in the 1973 menu show changes that occurred via transformation in the brewing industry in the preceding 30 years. Brewery consolidation in NYC and the expansion of national brands such as Budweiser and Miller High Life, based in the Midwest, took their toll.
Also, the old ethnic ties – Anglo, Irish, German, and Central European – that had kept distinctive beers going had weakened by the 1970s. The old neighbourhoods that supported local breweries were breaking up with increasing prosperity and social mobility.
To be sure newer ethnicities came along but for many beer was not a cultural acquis, other perhaps than to favour light international lagers. That’s how things go, change is ever present in society.
Still, the 1973 tasting had to be enjoyable, both the beers, which included numerous reputed imports, and the food, too. Not only that, but the combination of food and beer would have added that “third taste”.
I wonder about the condition of some of the imported beers in 1973. Having commenced beer tasting then, I can say many imports tasted a little tired. Logistics and handling have improved immeasurably since then.
Consequently, imported beer today is much more reliable. Indeed all beer tastes better today (all things being equal) as brewing technology has improved considerably since the 1970s.
Recreating the event would be most valuable. If anything, the results would be more authentic now given that beer imports generally taste better today as noted. And the food would be certainly interesting to try as a canvass of Europe’s treasure of sausage specialties.
A 1970s soundtrack would perfect the picture by further summoning up period atmosphere.
Note re images: the menu images herein were sourced from the digitized historic menu archive of the New York Public Library. The Brewmaster Pale Ale image is from the fine Tavern Trove website, a collection of historic beer labels and brewery information, here. The last image was authored by “IG Zuger Chris – Ueli Kleeb”, was sourced from Wikipedia, here, and is used pursuant to the terms and conditions of this Creative Common intellectual property licence. All property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.