The Ale Tradition of Old New York, Remembered

A recent post by Boak and Bailey (see here), referenced a periodicals index I wasn’t aware of, It has proved a good source for beer references in popular literature of the mid-1900s. Take the extract below from a 1932 article by Don Marquis. He was an American author active from about 1900 until his untimely death not long before WW II.

Marquis was a humourist, playwright, and journalist. He was familiar with Greenwich Village in its first phase of Bohemia, and Brooklyn too which then as now was an artists’ lair. (W.H. Auden lived near Williamsville, the part overlooking Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge. I need hardly refer to Walt Whitman, and these are just some of the best known).

I’ve mentioned earlier how there are relatively few appreciations of America’s ale and porter tradition by this time. The great success of the Germanic lager washed away, quite literally, almost all trace of the top-fermentation beers the British settlers had brought.

It’s interesting too that Marquis adverts to possible Dutch influence on surviving examples, but I think that’s not the case. The reason Brooklyn beer stood out from Manhattan’s was probably the relative isolation of Brooklyn. It hewed to older traditions both for lager and ale – more malt, more hops, longer aging.

Indeed “Bushwick pilsner” endured as a thing into the post-Prohibition era. See this appreciation by Ben Jankowski. It probably tasted a lot like Coney Island Mermaid Pilsener, a current property of Sam Adams for which I predict big things. Its stablemate Coney Island Lager is a right number too.

There is some irony in that Marquis’ eloge of B.V. (before Volstead) beer focuses on C.H. Evan’s ale. After all, Evan’s was brewed upriver in Hudson, NY, near Albany. However, it was easy to put the kegs on boats for a quick gambol down the Hudson to reach thirsty Brooklyn.

Evan’s can be viewed as an honorary Brooklyn beer, like Stilton cheese, say, which did not hail from Stilton but was sold there – at the Bell Inn if you want to know, beer and English cheese go round and round in an unbreakable circle.

And so let Marquis tell the tale of the surviving, B.V. Brooklyn and Manhattan ale houses. If you want to see a good image of the wood kegs he referred to, Jan Whitaker’s new post on “multi-tasking” American restaurants shows a fine example from about the same period.

Incidentally the James Huneker mentioned was another writer well-known around the period of the First World War. He was a pal of H.L. Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore” (the benign-sounding moniker is belied by Mencken’s mean streak, one aspect of which I referred to in a comment to Boak and Bailey’s post mentioned above).

Huneker is still remembered as a skilful, somewhat florid critic of numerours arts. He and Mencken were part of a group that included George Nathan, Philip Goodman, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Ben De Casseres, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Parker, and many more.

I will return to “musty ale”, English of nomenclature but essentially American, a rare bird amongst the rare flock that was U.S. ale and porter of c. 1900.

Of the ale houses in question, McSorley’s Ale House on East 7th Street is an authentic survivor albeit not mentioned by Marquis. Another is probably Pete’s Tavern, on East 18th Street in a chic nook. O. Henry was a frequent visitor.

… My serious beer drinking of that period was largely done in a saloon which stood in the triangle where Nassau Street and Park Row come together; a wonderful place which was practically a newspaper man’s club, and was known as “Lipton’s.” Ben De Casseres, Kit Morley, and I have solved most of the problems of the universe in that place, sitting in wooden booths under queer-stained glass windows.

A good place for ale at that time was Farrish’s Chop House, which used to stand at the corner of William Street and . . . and what? John? Or Fulton? I forget. I used to go there for the musty ale served in pewter mugs with glass bottoms, for the lush mutton chops, and, now and then, following a substantial lunch with a quart or two of ale, a delicate dessert consisting of a Welsh rarebit poured over a wedge of hot mince pie.

But the best ale served anywhere in the greater city in those days was set before you in the barroom of the old Clarendon Hotel, in Brooklyn, just across the street from the Post Office building. It was Evans’s ale, and it was drawn from wooden casks, through wooden spigots. A great deal of it was sold there, so it was always running fresh and cool—never very cold, only cool. It was, to my mind, better than Bass’s. I never got anything as good in the way of beer or ale anywhere in Manhattan, not even at the far-famed popular resorts; not even the imported German brews. That, of course, must be a matter of individual taste.

Brooklyn, for the most part, working through the streets in a casual catch-as-catch-can spirit, always seemed to me to have better draught beer and ale than Manhattan. Perhaps there was some lingering sentiment from the old Dutch days on Long Island which worked into the brew.

Before we leave beer and writers, here is a little note about the late James G. Huneker. I never met him, but about a year before he died he wrote me a letter asking me to have lunch with him. But towards the end of the letter he evidently grew a little melancholy, for he wound it up with a postscript which read: “Oh, what the hell is the use of having lunch together—we can’t get any good beer nowadays!” It was my impulse to get hold of a dozen bottles and hunt him up; but at just that period I couldn’t find any decent beer anywhere.

Note re images: the first image is taken from the Wikipedia entry on Don Marquis linked above. The next two are from current Ebay listings. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.