Post-Prohibition Beer Watery?

I mentioned earlier that American food and wine writer G. Selmer Fougner, active from 1933-1941, loyally reported readers’ negative reactions to post-Prohibition beer. Most were rather vague in nature, but one bore down with some detail. It was reported in a 1934 column in, of course, the New York Sun:

“I enjoy a glass of good beer, but find that the majority of beer served in New York is far inferior to that dispensed prior to prohibition,” writes our correspondent. “It has a flavored watery taste. There is not enough creamy body to it”.

Well, that’s pretty clear. Fougner gave the letter-writer space to vent his reasons. The best beer he had ever encountered, he wrote, was in Germany, at a country tavern where it had been stored for four months. In that case the storage was a necessity as the bar was distant from a railway station and the owner had to lay in stocks. The reader had drunk beer in Pennsylvania that was similarly superior, he stated, as the brewery always withheld deliveries until its beer was properly aged.

The reader seems to have confounded aging beer at the brewery, when it is not completely filtered and fermented, with a retailer storing finished and kegged beer at the bar, when it is unlikely to improve with prolonged keeping. But if we telescope his comments, he is likely stating, as had other readers, that the new post-Repeal beer was not sufficiently aged by the brewery.

Fougner had stated in earlier columns that while some “green” beer was released soon after Repeal to satisfy the huge demand, the brewers were now mostly aging beer properly.

In truth, five or six months aging had become the exception in American lager brewing even before Prohibition. The post-Repeal brewers were probably correct that the aging regimen after Repeal was similar to that of pre-Volstead.

Also, I don’t think aging would affect body. It would at most remove green flavours from lager such as dimethyl sulphide (DMS) which is the boiled veg or egg smell. Aging can affect beer in that sense, although today it is possible to vent off DMS without prolonged lagering, but this should not affect the body, really.

There are three things that might have accounted for a thinner body: 1) a greater use of barley malt adjuncts, rice or corn or sugars of some kind, than earlier; 2) a lower attenuation point than earlier, i.e., to create 3.2% abw from less fermentable materials; and 3) the disappearance of most pre-1920 all-malt lagers – this is a variation of point No. 1. True, adjunct use was extensive before 1920, but there were still many all-malt lagers on the market, and many fewer after Repeal.

Fougner lets the reader make his point, hobbled as the Trailer was by lack of technical knowledge, and does not seek to help him, I think because such deep diving was not Fougner’s forte – in beer. Fougner himself was satisfied with the new beers, or said he was, and left it at that.

I think there had to be something to the reader’s point, people don’t necessarily imagine such things, and the sensory recall was quite specific. Memory can mean a lot in some cases, I know this from my own experience. For example, I believe to near-certainty that current Fuller Extra Special Bitter in England does not taste the same as it did circa 1983.

Whereas, when I tasted, say, San Miguel Negra (Dark Lager) recently for the first time in at least 20 years, it tasted exactly as I remembered it.

Hence, if most beer did change in New York post-Repeal which I think it probably had, the cause was one or more of my three reasons advanced above.

I will return to Fougner soon, this time in regard to food and wine.