Proto-Craft Beer man: E.A. O’Brien

E.A. O’Brien Rang Them Bells

We have seen examples how the press covered American beer and breweries in the latter 1800s. Often they appeared in New York-area papers, especially the New York Times and New York Sun, but occasionally elsewhere.

The big city was more open to such coverage, as were trade directories and commercial histories.

It was less common to find a press account of beer and saloons in the regions – not to mention an admiring one.

Yet a stellar example appeared in Omaha, Nebraska in 1887. Even in large centres editors were usually careful not to offend propriety and have the pulpit come down on them, so the Omaha case is atypical.

E.A. O’Brien wrote an appreciative account of beer and saloons that didn’t defer in any way to rising Prohibition sentiment. His account is quite modern in tone, a frank and appreciative story of drink used rationally.

O’Brien was a proto-craft beer man. The rhythm of his prose reminds me of the great beer writer Michael Jackson’s style. O’Brien signed his piece, too, disclaiming any cover of anonymity.

From his piece:

[Beer] finds patrons where a dealer in the necessaries of life would drop into bankruptcy. It has dethroned ale and weaned from whisky many a victim who had lingered dangerously near its throne. As a consequence, there has arisen all over the land a species of massive structures of peculiar shape and design in which it is brewed, and there have also sprung into existence edifices of less magnitude, but proportionately as valuable, in which, amidst elegant surroundings, this amber fluid is dispensed to thirsty mortals….

The beer saloon is a thing of exceeding life and interest. It is a babel of many tongues. It is a mixture of many races. It is a collection of thirsty souls, fatigued frames, weary minds and convivial spirits. There are sweltering bartenders, rushing waiters and the clinking of glasses together with an eagerness to supply a demand which seems to exist at the same time in all quarters.

The bar is lined with hasty mortals who imbibe the fluid and again rush into the sunshine and the heat. But the tables are surrounded by more leisurely mortals who drink, think, rest, or discuss such subjects as may to them be of interest and importance. The heat without is forgotten, as the temperature of the frame is reduced by the beautiful, milk-white, transparent drink which, though brought only from vaults beneath, is as cool as if conducted from the Arctic seas.

What can be more beautiful than this glowing, delightful beverage, temporarily crested with a creamy, snowy substance, which gradually, and in countless thousands of tiny globules resolves itsclf not into the nectar of the gods but the refreshing, invigorating, motive-inspiring libation of weary mortals! … It circulates through the frame, producing an indescribable feeling as if rejuvenation were being affected by its rational indulgence.

There have been poets who have sung of wine, as there have been and are those who have sung and still sing of beer; but no greater tribute has ever been paid to the latter than the grateful appreciation accorded it by the rational drinkers of this vast country.

How could such a tribute to the work of the devil, as many viewed it then, be published? We need, first, to understand who owned the Omaha Bee.

He was Edward RosewaterRosewater was a Jewish-Bohemian immigrant. Coming from a part of Europe where beer was deeply appreciated, and considering too the spirit of ’48, his license to O’Brien makes sense.

Rosewater is still remembered in Nebraska. He was a Union Army veteran and progressive: anti-slavery; pro-education and school board; anti-Temperance.

His one blind spot was opposing female suffrage, but I suspect the affection of many suffragettes for Temperance soured him on the voting issue.

Indeed in the 1890s Rosewater ended up in court against the nationally-known Temperance campaigner Helen Gougar. She had him charged with disturbing a lecture she gave in Omaha.

During her speech, after remaining silent for 30 minutes he asked if he could pose a question. She called the cops!  Rosewater had the charges thrown out although it took an appellate decision to do so.

See the excellent article by Pat Gaster for further background.

O’Brien, for his part, was a Vermont-born Irishman.This informative account fills in his career. He passed away about 1910 after a second career in California. Rosewater died earlier, in 1906.

Read O’Brien, he offers an early connoisseur’s perspective on American and imported brews, while noting peculiarities of sliders and jerks in the bar – they meant something different then, of course.

On beer, he writes for example that Kulmbacher (from Franconia, Germany) was similar to porter except when fresh, when not “hard”. This shows that porter, at least in Omaha, reached the barfly in sourish condition.

There were people in America then who weren’t intimidated by those who claim a monopoly on what is just and right for society. There still are.