The Autumnal Lager Of The 1800s


A review of numerous 19th and early-20th century beer and brewing references suggests that American (and probably Canadian) lager took three main forms:

  • an emulation of dark Munich beer that was all-malt between 1845 and 1875
  • a reddish-brown beer, all-malt initially but increasingly with adjunct up to Prohibition
  • an emulation of Bohemian beer, or the blonde Pilsener style which became popular around the world ultimately.

The Pilsen style, although all-malt in its homeland at least today, frequently employed corn or rice adjunct in North America. This beer was paler than the reddish-brown lager, drier, and sometimes quite bitter. Robert Wahl, in his What Is Beer? essay of 1912, stated the Bohemian style could be high-hopped or low-hopped.

In his text reproduced above George Ehret, who founded the famed Hell Gate, NY brewery of his name, wrote in Twenty-Five Years of Brewing (1891) that reddish-brown lager was being challenged by the Bohemian style. Note his reference to adjunct as a characteristic of Bohemian beer, while he calls the reddish brown lager “heavily malted”.

Some accounts, as Ehret’s, called the Bohemian style “winy”. I think this was meant to denote a drier, cleaner taste than the rich-tasting standard lager.

Of course in practice brewers could differ in the specific colours of their beers, and e.g. some offered both a Bohemian and “extra pale” beer.

A fourth type could be added, bock, almost always dark brown, but I think this was a variation on Munich dunkel. Sometimes Kulmbacher (or Culmbacher) was the term used describe a dark strong lager of similar Bavarian origin.

The reddish-brown standard lager continued into the post-Prohibition era although the Bohemian/extra pale style became dominant by mid-century and probably even before 1920. It was exemplified by Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser, Miller High Life, Schlitz, Coors Banquet.

Red-brown lager was possibly influenced by the light amber of Vienna beer but in any case was the default American style in the latter 1800s. Given most of the hops used in all these beers were American-grown, they would have constituted distinct styles as compared to European originals.

What became American adjunct lager by 1977 – very dry, light (low FG), spritzy was a derivation of the Bohemian/extra pale type. The reddish-brown type disappeared although Anchor steam beer may be a survivor in colour and some other characteristics.

It is not always easy to pin down colour from over 100 years ago, even when you have the benefit of well-executed colour illustrations. And certainly black and white photography rarely delivers the proper nuances even to distinguish pale, brown, and black. Still, occasionally a good illustration tells the tale, as I showed with Pabst bottled beers recently. And here is a glittering example, from a Boston brewery called Roessle, a lager brewer (c. 1850-1919).


Here is another depiction of beers from Pabst:


The beer in the centre, called I believe Standard, clearly has a reddish-brown tint as does Roessele’s beer. Those were the flagships of those breweries and countless others. PBR is on the right, lighter. The beer on the left is either a dunkel or a malt tonic (no alcohol, Prohibition was on the horizon).

Note re images: the first image above is via HathiTrust from the link provided in the text. The second, is via DPLA and Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts, here. The last is via DPLA and Wisconsin Sheet Music Database, here. All copyright therein or thereto belong solely to their owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.