Pabst Brewery in the Gilded Age



Pabst Brewery celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1894 and issued a swish commemorative volume. In my intermittent series on lavish corporate histories of the 20th century or earlier we see a here prime example, where no expense was spared to produce a frothy-prosed triumph of gas lamp-era marketing.

Every corner of brewery operations was explored from brewhouse to bottling to the aging in cellars and much more. The book’s main feature is its lavish pen and ink illustrations, giving good details and almost like photography.

image-37There is only one failing: no description of the current product line. A couple of illustrations are included of bottles sold, included here.

Above you see a fine depiction of what were probably the three main styles of the company: Export, the older type of American lager which was light amber or reddish brown as I’ve discussed earlier (possibly more a Vienna type than anything else); Bohemian, an emulation of the pilsener first released at Pilsen, Bohemia in 1842; and a Munich-style dunkel or dark lager.

Below you see the famous Pabst Blue Ribbon – and the origin of “blue ribbon” in the name, reflecting an award it won at the World Columbian Exposition or Chicago World’s Fair, 1893. This may be the Bohemian beer in new dress.*

Malting is discussed in good detail and a picture is shown of the older floor malting system vs. the new pneumatic method recently introduced.

There is no reference to corn or to rice. While American scientists confidently proclaimed the virtues of these cereals in an American context, the book, which hardly shrinks from the smallest production details, doesn’t go there. I think this reflected some uncertainty, particularly when German and Austrian eyes would page the book, whether cereal adjunct really showed an advance in American brewing. The scientists were not so reticent but they were talking largely to a professional audience.


In 1893, the company sold 1,300,000 barrels per annum. Of that number, some 15% was bottled. While admittedly the bottling number was growing annually (per the book), I was surprised it wasn’t much higher. As I have explained, American scientists, led by J. Siebel, A. Schwarz, M. Henius and R. Wahl, laid stress on the need for American beer to use raw cereals so bottled beer would not cloud under often-adverse shipment and storage conditions.

Yet in the 1890s, when adjunct use was well-established, Pabst was selling only 15% of its production in that form. The same had to be true for the competitors because the narrative explains that Pabst bottled more beer than most other brewers.

image-39This suggests to me that other factors were at work in the calculus of using 10-50% grain adjunct in the mash (a datum from Wahl & Henius’s 1902 brewing text) including the higher yield of this form of starch as against barley malt – i.e., it was cheaper.

Withal this book shows the power, status, and confidence of American brewing and more generally American industry at close of the 19th century. The future seemed bright – quite literally as the revolution of electric light was nigh.

Yet within a generation the superstars of American brewing and the smaller time players would be brought to their knees. Not by foreign competition. Not by wine, coffee or Coca-Cola. But by purse-lipped Prohibitionists, a nativist motley of preachers and social engineers/reformers who felt they could refashion an ethos existing for millennia. And they did, for a time. But Pabst emerged from the wreckage, and still makes Pabst Blue Ribbon, amongst other brands.



*Further reading suggests that Pabst Blue Ribbon replaced the brand previously called Best Select. This may have been different from Bohemian, perhaps with less body/more adjunct. Also, the question of what Pabst won at the 1893 Exposition is a little tangled, see this discussion by historian Neil Gale. One thing that seems clear is the brand carried a ribbon for some years before the Exposition.

Note re images: the image above are all sourced from the 1894 Pabst publication linked in the text. All trade marks or other intellectual property in or to the images belong to their owner or any authorized licensees. Images are believed available for educational or cultural purposes.  All feedback welcomed.