The Athens of America Contemplates Wine and Beer

In the 1960s and 70s, if you were interested in wine as a middle-class pursuit – the same for beer was much less likely – the wine (and beer) menu of the Wursthaus in Cambridge, Mass. answered the call.

Its approach to the main wine styles was no-nonsense, sprinkled with doubtful humour: the menu queried why anyone would choose its California selections (all-Almaden Vineyards) over imported.

Good basic information is given on different German wines, a focus of the house, but also on Bordeaux and Burgundy reds, and more.

The selection was sound for the time, with well-known appellations from noted shippers, featuring both “vintages” and “estate-bottled”. A young prof at Harvard who dabbled in wine would have felt at home.

We are a distance nonetheless from the sophisticated vintages and scholarly notes of contemporary Wine and Food Society menus, or of Manhattan’s Gourmet Society from 1933-1960s. These elite groups served a different market – the “oenophile”, a comparative rarity.

The specimen inhabited large coastal centres, nesting in faculty clubs and epicurean societies.

The Wursthaus was aiming for a broader demographic, from its original student base in choc-a-bloc Harvard Yard to students’ parents, Harvard faculty, and young professionals. The wine notes are exactly in that zone.

This was of course before the wine boom, before the Judgment of Paris (1976), before anyone knew what Napa or Sonoma were other than (at best) agricultural sectors in distant California.

A sense how different that time was is that the menu notes Almaden’s wines came “all the way from California”. California was in many ways as foreign to The Hub as Isle of Man.

What about the beer notes to elucidate the styles and examples of Gambrinus’ domain? Of course, there weren’t any. Just a list of beers by country of origin.

But not a bad list certainly. They had oyster stout in 1961 you know, from Isle of Man. The beer is in the earliest writings of the late, great English beer critic Michael Jackson, and launched a thousand inky-briny imitations once craft brewing got its legs.

Do you think anyone ordering that stout – it was still on the menu in 1972 – ever thought to ask why “oyster” featured in the name? There must have been an unusually reflective professor who wondered about it.

If he (she) did, it’s a safe bet they never found out, unless they were still drinking beer decades later, perhaps.

The list also featured Carnegie “stout”, probably one and the same with renowned Carnegie Porter. That was – is – a taste of Georgian London via Sweden.

Carnegie had a decided influence on the beer revolution to come. The porter is about as intense as beer gets short of sours and wild beers – pretty good for ’61 in one of the larger American cities, or anywhere.

Also, there was Black Velvet from Trinidad, a rich sweet stout surely, and Murray’s stout from Scotland. The great Pilsner Urquell was present, and both Bass pale ale and Whitbread’s ditto from England.

A bunch of good German beers featured including Munich’s fine Augustiner in both helles and dunkel. No less than four beers from America’s former enemy, Japan, were offered – only 16 years after Japan collapsed in an atomic cloud.

Ekla was a brand of Vanderheuvel, a brewery with early-1800s roots in Brussels – think of Uccle, Brussels. The brewery lasted until absorbed in Watney’s maw, and was closed in 1975.

No style of Ekla is mentioned. Vanderheuvel in the 1950s was known for its pils, export, and stout, and it bottled lambic as a nod to its earliest days. Whatever was in the bottle, it was “Belgian” and that was enough for the Stateside taster.

What could “India” have meant for the Puerto Rican beer? Maybe it was a India Pale Ale that survived from Victorian times in the (not always…) languid Caribbean. The beer originated in the 1930s and the brewery still continues.

I suspect the 1961 India Cerveza was very good, perhaps like today’s India Pale lagers.

There was no rhyme or reason to the beer selection other than being international; this was typical for the era. A helter-skeler selection was made from wholesalers’ inventories, and people chose without guidance other than the, um, small beer of national origin.

To treat of beer in the way the menu did for wine would have elicited astonishment. It wasn’t done, wasn’t on anyone’s horizon.

In 1961 Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, which made a distinctive beer that would have fit well on the list, was in deep financial straits (later rescued by white knight Fritz Maytag with help of washing machine money). Anheuser-Busch had just started to put rice in Michelob. Brewery consolidation was picking up rapidly almost everywhere.

The world seemed intent on vapid yellow beer.

A new day would take a while to dawn.

Some of the other U.S. beer haunts then were the late-lamented Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., the Peculier Pub in New York, Barney’s Beanery in L.A., and Tommy’s Joynt in San Francisco. Their approach to beer would have been similar to the Wursthaus.

Brickskeller was a bridge certainly to the craft beer era so perhaps its menu offered some beer instruction in 1961, it’s possible.

Barney’s Beanery is still going strong in Los Angeles, indeed is now a small chain. Its bottled selection (check online) shows a vestige of the simple national classification of the 1950s-1970s, which is satisfying in a way.

What happened to Wursthaus? It closed in 1996, a victim of changing times. A deli in the Square was established in the 1950s by members of the family, so some influence continues from the Wursthaus era, after a fashion. I’d guess a few 1960s-70s wholesalers’ brochures languish in the deli’s basement…

If I ever get to Beantown again, I’ll ask.

Wursthaus had been founded by a German-American in 1917, and was sold to an Italian family in ’42.

The pre-’42 owner probably thought a German-theme bar wasn’t a good idea for the next few years but the new owners didn’t change the name or sign. The menu did evolve, retaining finally just a few German dishes. It became all-American, mostly.

Do wish I could have visited Wursthaus in its prime? No, because I did.

Back in July, 1970 I took a car trip from Montreal south to Cape Cod and visited Cambridge on the way, to see Harvard.

I stopped in Tanglewood, NJ – I wanted to see The Who but I missed them by a day. I remember asking in town about it and was told the lawns were completely filled to the back and people were hanging in trees.

(Do you want to see why? Look here).

In Cambridge, I had lunch at the Wursthaus, and remember it was dark inside, as current remembrances attest. I think I had schnitzel and certainly draft beer, probably a “dark”. This was before I had ever read a book on beer, but the germ of the interest was there.

September, 2017 is “all the way” certainly from 1961. And in that month Doug Holder released his new poetry collection, Last Night at the Wursthaus. See an informative local report, here.

The old joint isn’t quite effaced from memory, yet.

Note re images: The first three images are from the archival menu linked in the text. The fourth was sourced from Pinterest, here. The fifth, of The Who, was obtained from Internet sources. The final image was sourced from the producer’s website linked in the text. Images belong to their sole owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.