Rating the new Brews of 1920


Lady Sings The Brews

With the advent of Prohibition, the surviving U.S. breweries turned to non-alcohol brews. Powerhouse Anheuser-Busch made at least two, one under the name Budweiser. The law permitted a maximum of .5 oz alcohol, a far cry from the 5% lager norm before the war.

Still, Bud and many other brewers still in business dealt in the new article – better to keep some business than lose it all. Some breweries also made malt for baking industries, or soft drinks, ice cream, cheese – anything to survive.

In 1920 in New York, a feature appeared in the New York Tribune rating the new N/A beers. It’s a surprisingly modern piece albeit 96 years old, with a few changes of style it would fit well as a feature today.

Budweiser’s non-alcohol (N/A) brew and a few New York-area NAs were tested and tasted. A bottle of pre-Prohibition (genuine) beer was even included to ensure a full and fair assessment. The verdict was positive and upbeat. The new “brews” were good, and some very good and close to the real thing. Considerable information was given on how they were made. It was basically regular beer with the alcohol boiled off.  Some brewers added back hops to freshen up the taste. Not a few added sugars of various kinds.

The article was written by Anne Lewis Pierce. The prose is assured, snappy, informative. She makes a few jokes in the piece, like someone dispensing dry wit at the bar. She calls the real Budweiser “of sacred memory”. She says men were added to the panel so it would not be too “feminized”.  (Perhaps an ironic twist there if you get the drift).

Pierce was a practiced hand at beer types, clearly. Some people like dry light beer, she said, but others preferred a dark, sweet taste. One New York N/A reminded her of “strong porter”. One of the boys, almost. Unusual for the time.

Who was Anne L. Pierce?

She had had a long career working in Washington with the legendary Harvey Wiley, M.D. (1844-1930), a physician, chemist, and influential mandarin. After an academic career Wiley worked as chief chemist for the Department of Agriculture and pioneered food safety regulation. He basically wrote the Pure Food and Drugs Act which appeared just before WW I. After his government stint he headed up a lab run by Good Housekeeping magazine that tested foods and food equipment and advised on food safety.

After she left government Pierce joined up with Wiley again to work for Good Housekeeping. Later, she wrote about food for readers of the Tribune in New York. She gave recipes, advice on diet and nutrition, and chronicled visits to food plants including the early, large-scale processor, Campbell’s Foods.

She was no doubt an effective bureaucrat, one story described her as “staunch”. In line with the conventions of the day, it was noted she was “brown-eyed” and with a good complexion. All Washington called her “Anne” … (that’s how it went then). You see her pictured with Wiley, here.

I haven’t been able to determine her training, it was probably in chemistry or home economics. Certainly her writing shows sophistication about food and its technics. In the N/A article she reels off the final gravities like a pro.

And so her government food background explains Pierce’s easy familiarity with beer types and beer lingo. She would have participated with Wiley in government hearings on proposed beer and whiskey standards. She probably helped write standards for the new and highly consequential pure food law. She sounds too as if she liked beer and one didn’t have to read between the lines to see she thought all-barley malt beer was best. She was past the point of any idea that corn and rice, commonly used in U.S. brewing then, were adulterants, but still the admiration for all-malt beer comes through, both in regard to N/A and real beer.

You can read the full Tribune story, here. In a related feature recipes are given for “Dutch suppers”. These paired different kinds of fast meals with the new beers, and showed that real beer was used before Prohibition to accompany these foods. Welsh rabbits, frankfurters or “hot dogs” (the quotes are hers), and liverwurst, were among them.

I wonder where the term Dutch comes from, it was probably a corruption of Deutsch for German. There seems nothing specifically Dutch about the meals but Germanic, yes. And here too you see the early pairing of beer with food, i.e., as something formatted to recommend to homemakers.

Pierce didn’t say so but once in consumer hands a lot of that N/A brew was “needled”, injected with a shot of alcohol to make it like real beer.

Bud’s 1920 ersatz brew is again available at least in Canada – it’s called Budweiser Prohibition. I’ve tried it and thought it was awful, frankly. I wonder if A-B InBev dusted off the 1920 recipe. One thing that did change certainly is the new brew uses a vacuum process to remove the ethanol, vs. vaporizing it in 1920. But still, the two brews might be similar.  Either way, there’s no substitute for the real thing, IMO. Pierce was bullish on the new N/As but I think an element of politics probably played into it.

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