The Distinctiveness of American Brewing Before WW I

Three mantras stand out in the 1911 Second International Brewers Congress. One is the use of adjuncts in brewing, generally rice or corn but sometimes sugar, syrups or starches. A second is pasteurization for bottled beer. The third is the triumph of bottom-fermentation. Robert Wahl estimated 90% of all beer produced in America then – approximately 60,000,000 bbl per annum – was lager, of which 95% was pale or “Bohemian” style – basically what is called American adjunct lager today.

Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft, Molson Canadian, all the lights, would be examples of adjunct lager.

The 5% would have been Munich-style dark lager with perhaps some Vienna, or amber lager, in the mix, and some Export-style as well (a little stronger and darker than Bohemian).

All this was achieved in the last generation and no one questioned the changes, they were viewed as permanent. The American brewers who attended the event would be rather surprised to know that modern craft brewers have created an annex to their imposing edifice, one housing top-fermented beers such as IPA and porter which are generally unpasteurized even in the bottle.

Both John Siebel, of whom more below, and Robert Wahl made addresses dealing with adjuncts. Each basically said the same thing, that they were necessary to ensure pale and clear beers but also had the advantage of cost and consumer preference. By cost, it was meant, not so much that corn or rice was cheaper to buy than barley although often they were, but that their yield in fermentable sugar was greater than for barley malt. The consumer was said to prefer adjunct beer as being less sweet and lighter than all-malt beers.

American 4 and 6 row barleys, derived from a type termed at the Congress Manchurian, had a high protein content (albuminoids) which resulted in hazy beer. Rice and corn had only tiny amounts so their use diluted the protein in the malt sufficiently to ensure clear beer. Some 2 row low-protein barley was grown, e.g. in Montana and California. However, the variety at the time could not successfully be grown “east of the Rockies”.

With adjuncts too came greater stability. All-malt beers especially if shipped cold might cloud, adjunct beers would remain clear.

Adjunct was advised to a maximum of 30% of the mash. I believe Budweiser uses that percentage, of rice, today. It would be interesting to know what the adjunct/malt ratio is for Coors Banquet or Coors Light, say. I bought Banquet recently and a corn taste seemed quite evident to me. The 1911 brewers claimed that if corn was processed to exclude the germ in which resides the oil, no corn taste would be apparent. Flaked corn was said to have this quality, for example.

But I feel I can taste corn in many adjunct lagers today. Perhaps it is a relative issue, this matter of corn taste. Rice was claimed to impart little taste (no oil) but I think it has some, one indeed comparable to the sake flavour.

The legendary Chicago brewing scientist John Siebel was a pioneer of advocating adjunct use in American brewing and also numerous other advances.

A quick word on him. He was born in 1845 in Germany, Dusseldorf. He immigrated to Chicago when about 20. He had advanced degrees in science and had mastered not just chemistry but physics and hydraulics. Siebel was the first to establish a “scientific station”, or research laboratory in Chicago. He also set up an early school, Chicago’s first, to teach brewing to students intending to enter the brewing industry. He did this as a venture with a Chicago brewer, Michael Brand.

As John Siebel explained in a presentation at the 1911 Congress, the demand for brewing studies wasn’t sufficiently great in Chicago then, so the school was discontinued after a few years. He focused on his lab work, not just for the brewing industry but also e.g., sugar and food manufacturers. Meanwhile, Henius and Wahl had developed their own analytical lab from the back of their drugstore in the city (1886). Finally they set up their own brewing academy, in 1891. As part of the 1911 Congress, their 25th anniversary was celebrated.  They had graduated about 1000 brewers by this time, with about 1200 in total by the time the school closed during WW I.

John Siebel with his sons incorporated a company and set up a brewing school in 1901, so by 1911 there were two competing schools in Chicago. There was a handful elsewhere in America, notably in New York and Milwaukee.

So, Siebel set up the first school, it last only a few years, Wahl & Henius’s more permanent school followed in 1886 and in 1901 Siebel with his sons re-established his own school – that is how I glean the history.

The Siebel Institute continues to this day and is internationally recognized in the beer and brewing world. A form of Wahl & Henius’s school came back after Prohibition and may have continued for a time after Henius’s death in 1935, but clearly the Siebel Institute ended by trumping its old competitor.

John Siebel participated in the 1911 Congress, indeed he was listed as a Patron. But given the Congress was organized by Max Henius who was its Secretary, and given too that the silver anniversary of Wahl & Henius’s school was being celebrated concurrently with the Congress, it was Wahl & Henius’s night so to speak. John Siebel spoke at the event but there was no special recognition accorded him from what I can see.

Siebel died in 1919. In 1933, an aged Max Henius rendered him and another American brewing science pioneer, Anton Schwarz, significant homage in a book written by John P. Arnold on the history of brewing and its scientific advances. Any old rivalry was put aside, perhaps the passage of the years made it easier. I’ll return to that book in a further post.

Regarding a consumer preference for adjunct beer, this was asserted regularly at the time in American brewing, seemingly without dissent. I have doubts whether such preference ever really existed. The fact is, to make beer clear which everyone wanted, you had to use high protein barley – there wasn’t enough 2 row barley, and it wasn’t close enough to the market. This required corn or rice to lower the protein level.

I think perhaps the industry convinced itself the consumer preferred this new lighter beer because it assisted to explain why American practice differed from the practice in Bavaria, heartland of lager beer.

The fact is, you can use all-malt but have a relatively dry beer, Heineken is an example. This is done by increasing the attenuation rate, you leave less fermentable sugar in the brew. Adjustments in mashing temperature also can be made to produce a balanced, clean beer. Try a Bud and Heineken side by side, I doubt many would think Heineken is heavier. It has more hops, but if you factor that out, is one really heavier than the other? I don’t think so. They do taste different though, the Heineken lacks the dry, starchy edge of the other.

Today, I understand 2 row barley has largely supplanted 4 and 6 row in the North American market yet mass market beer still uses adjunct…

Earlier, in regard to the style of beer and places to drink it, I suggested European and not least German influence continued to play a strong role in American brewing in 1911. However, that influence did not apply to the issue of adjunct. Anton Schwarz, John Siebel, I believe Robert Wahl, and many others working in American brewing or consulting were of German heritage. Max Henius was Danish-born but had studied at doctoral level in Marburg, Hesse.

But when it came to brewing technology, these gentlemen were resolutely of the new world. In this sense, American brewing as it developed to that point (1911) was in good measure a local phenomenon, a product of American conditions and genius. It was the purpose of the 1911 Congress to highlight that achievement and it succeeded by all measure.