American Brewing And The Pre-Lager Question

One of the odder things about the history of American brewing is the failure to get a handle on the extent to which pre-lager brewing existed before roughly 1840. Earlier this fourth of July, Jeff, who is pretty good with this stuff, described it in negative terms this way:

For centuries, it was an immigrant’s drink… Locals pretty much didn’t touch the stuff. In 1763, New England alone had 159 commercial distilleries, yet were only 132 breweries in the entire country in 1810. By 1830, the US had 14,000 distilleries, towns tolled a bell at 11 am and 4 pm marking “grog time,” and the per capita rate of consumption was nearly two bottles of liquor a week for every drinking-age adult. We only started drinking beer when another wave of immigrants, the Germans, brought it in the 1840s. Their lagered beer, in a time when no one understood the mechanism of yeast, was clean, tasty, and popular. We enjoyed a flowering of brewing in the following decades–German beer, brewed by immigrants. It was stubbed out by the great puritan experiment of Prohibition, which also says a lot about America.

Setting aside the question of who was a “local” in the pre-Revolutionary context – are we talking about Mohawks? – by any account, it is pretty clear that there was plenty of ales, beers and porters going around the US before the Revolution and even before that later lager revolution. Craig has mapped at least 18 identifiable pre-lager breweries in Albany, NY – one of the larger national brewing centres with a history there of beer that predates 1776 by about 150 years. Gregg Smith wrote an entire book entitled Beer in America: the Early Years – 1587-1840 which does not seem to get the attention it deserves. Heck, Ben Franklin himself welcomed Washington himself to Philadelphia in 1787 with a cask of dark beer.

As a Canadian, I am not sure why there is this national amnesia with our cousins to the south. Yes, there were certainly other drinks. I recommend highly the chapter on apples in Michael Pollen’s book The Botany of Desire which explains how apples were an important pioneer resource for milder cider, hard applejack as well as the sterilizing properties of alcohol. There was also a strong tradition especially at the frontier wherever it was found for home made fermentables and distilled booze. The Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s in western Pennsylvania is called that for a good reason. But there also seems, despite the available record of ale production, a need to link light lager introduced to America in the 1830s and ’40s as being somehow something of a more American brewing genesis – even though pale light lager was at the time an unwelcome immigrants’ beverage that led to its own share of troubles. We also forget how few Americans there were in the colonial and Revolutionary times and how little of the present US they had actually settled. Beer is always part and product of a larger and a peaceful sort of economy.

American beer history is 200 years older that some would say – and far more complexly interesting, too. Last night I got to annotate a brewer’s log for an 1833 pale ale that, with a little more research, could likely be drilled down to where the field where the malt was grown. With any luck, it will be made for sampling this fall. By a Canadian brewer with pre-Revolutionary connections I won’t get into now. With a bit more luck, more of these brewing account books and day logs will be found and the actual pre-lager history of the US can be described.

One thought on “American Brewing And The Pre-Lager Question”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Pivní Filosof – July 4, 2012 6:38 PM
    It’s the same in the whole continent, actually…

    Most people in Argentina still believe that the first brewery, ever, was open by a German immigrant in 1869 or something, and yet, for those who want to look for it, there are records of breweries that go as far as the late 18th century, and that is not counting the breweries that monasteries, like this one in Ecuador, were likely operating…

    Amy – July 4, 2012 7:18 PM
    I don’t think it is amnesia. There were definitely breweries in the United States before the Germans came and brought lager. It is more that the popularity of beer did not take off until the introduction of lager. Prior to the Germans coming most American brewers brewed ale in the English style. The German lager was more pleasing to the American palate. The German brewers in America were determined to make beer the American beverage and by the end of the nineteenth century they had succeeded. After prohibition they continued to build their consumer base so that by the mid twentieth century macro lager beer was ubiquitous.

    Alan – July 4, 2012 7:34 PM
    With respect, Amy, that is simply anti-chronological. The average 1820s American was not sitting around head in hands saying “can’t wait for two decades from now when the good beer gets here.” You cannot prove what was before 1840 by what happened afterwards. And there is nothing at all indicating that the pre-1776 wheat beers of Albany, the porters of the Hudson Philadelphia or the pales ales of most everywhere else were ill thought of by those who enjoyed them.

    Amy – July 4, 2012 11:43 PM
    It isn’t that they were ill thought of. Relative to corn whiskey they were not as popular. When the Germans came and introduced lager beer got more popular. Of course people brewed and drank beer before the 1840s. I wasn’t saying they didn’t. Also people like Thomas Jefferson tried to bring brewers from Europe to improve the quality of American beer.

    sam k – July 5, 2012 1:03 AM
    Let us not confuse “light lagers” as being what the Germans introduced in the 1840s. Though lager beer was indeed lighter then many ales at the time, lagers were then and continued to be of a darker hue well into the 20th century. It took advances in the malting trades to come up with the lighter malts that were eventually combined with lager yeast to produce what we know as lager today. It was not until after the repeal of Prohibition that the “light lagers” we know today took over entirely.

    Also, there is not necessarily a collective amnesia to the pre-lager brewing industry in America. Beside the tomes you mention, one need only to look at the recently published “Philadelphia Beer” by Rich Wagner to realize that many people, even today, recognize the earliest contributions of America’s brewers.

    Jeff Alworth – July 5, 2012 2:44 AM
    A few thoughts. On a light note, the Mohawks probably didn’t drink a lot of beer–we can probably agree there.

    My comments were pointing out that the favorite drink by far was not beer. (I didn’t mention cider because I was trying to keep the word count down–but you’re right, it was quite popular. So much so that it was explicitly exempted from Prohibition.) I haven’t had time to go find the source material for the rise in per capita consumption, so we’ll have to call that a push. It is at the very least only poor scholarship on my part, not amnesia.

    I’m well aware of the colonial beer scene. Aware that, indeed, beer came over on the Mayflower. (Running out of beer was one of the reasons the crew decided to land illegally at Plymouth Rock.) I’m aware of the Dutch and their breweries in New York, of the beer that revolutionaries drank in the Green Dragon in Boston, aware that the founders brewed beer. (Or some poor facsimile thereof.) And that Philadelphia’s beer was actually eventually praised for its quality (though English porter was always the prize).

    None of which really changes the fact–or anyway, what I think is a fact–that drinking habits didn’t really shift from whiskey and cider until the Germans came. Beer was a niche product. It was the tasty German lager that finally turned American heads.

    (And Sam’s right about the brown beer the Germans first brewed, though if memory serves, the Busches figured out how to work with American barley and corn to produce a decent light lager well before the 20th century.)

    Jeff Alworth – July 5, 2012 2:47 AM
    Here’s some quick and dirty Googling on consumption patterns post German immigration. Note the huge spike after 1865. (Apparently the civil war wasn’t great for brewing or beer drinking.)

    Martyn Cornell – July 5, 2012 4:32 AM
    Jeff, the rise of German lager in the US was certainly in part to do with the attractiveness of the product but was at least as much to do with the technological developments that were taking place at the same time, in transport (until the arrival of the railways, outside those areas served by river/canal a brewery’s market was restricted to the 15-mile radius that a dray could reach in a day), in refrigeration technology and in bottling technology (with the arrival of filtration, pasteurisation, the crown cork) that enabled a mass market to be reached with a stable product. The point about whiskey was that its alcoholic strength meant it remained in a saleable condition much longer, and could be sold much further away as a result, than beer. Even then, it took some time for the “lager revolution” to happen: if you look at advertising in, eg, 1860s New York trade directories, the breweries are almost all British-style ale breweries, with only a very few lager breweries.

    Alan – July 5, 2012 10:18 AM
    Jeff: actually, the Mohawk were famous guests and partners with Sir John Johnson whose table was very complete and included a great volume of beer as well as other drinks. A very hosptiable Tory.

    I do think from your comment that there is a continuing underestimation of beer production both pre-1776 and from 1776 to 1840. Not in the anecdotal Plymouth Rock sense but the level at which production occurred. What I mean is that it would be very difficult to get statistics on the production of loaves of bread but everyone assumes people ate bread. We do not have the taxation records that Unger uses in medieval Holland or that Amy (above) uses in relation to later US brewing. My reading indicates pervasive brewing existed soon after the American Revolution on this side of the border… as soon as it was populated by Philadelphians and central NYers in this part of the Empire.

    There is also no indication that colonial beer was a poor facsimile of anything or a niche. Brewing was well understood and generally undertaken even with the other drinks too. It is likely that we would be astounded by the scale of drinking if we were placed in Colonial America (or any other setting of western culture pre-WWI for that matter). That has not been well discussed, researched or even recorded speaks more to its normalness and the lack of interest in the process as an industrial or scientific process until the 1800s. This is true of all agricultural production.

    Where I am going now is seeing if I can find records of the movement of grain and malt. It is clear that not only most brewers were their own maltsters before a certain point but that malting was also a skill well understood. Why else would the Hudson Bay company be sending malt to the Arctic in the 1600s?

    The good news is that this is a virtually unconsidered topic. The bad is that there are myths and assumptions are in the way. I have no doubt you are on the right track around the effect of German lager effect. I just have yet to see, however, any description of what came before 1840 that is in line with the evidence I am seeing.

    Alan – July 5, 2012 10:22 AM
    Martyn, for me, the main point on whisky or other strong booze was was the ratio of transport weight to the units of drunkenness. When I see transportation methods pre-Erie Canal or the movement of booze up the St. Lawrence on batteau, it is amazing that any beer was sent to the frontier. But few lived on the frontier as it advanced. In the generations old coastal cities, there was no reason for beer not to florish as it did.

    Martyn Cornell – July 5, 2012 10:53 AM
    Absolutely, Alan – and, of course, whiskey also converted corn (of all kinds – maize/rye/barley etc) into a much more easily transportable, high-value commodity than the raw grain represented, so it made huge economic sense to convert grain into spirits.

    Alan – July 5, 2012 11:53 AM
    At least in Western Pennsylvania where the rebellion took place in the 1790s, whisky at a gut rot sort of quality, was all locally made. It more aligns with the Federalist (whig) and Jeffersonian (broad democratizing) division. But then it also becomes something of a commodity, too. I have a book on it but it is at home. On this side of the border with more imperial supply lines, my city, Kingston established only in 1783 and centered around with its fort, quickly become a depot for the western end of British North America. Rum, whisky and brandy is shipped here but there is a brewer even in the 1790s. Beer is local and the hard stuff travels.

    Jeff Alworth – July 5, 2012 2:02 PM
    This is a great thread, Alan. Nice work.

    Martyn, no doubt industrialization and rail played a big role. But, sort of in support of Alan’s original thesis, I think that may overstate the change a bit, too. I have a great history of Northwest (US) brewing. Oregon and Washington were starting to receive serious populations in the mid-19th century, and a raft of breweries were formed then. All except one or two were lager breweries set up by German immigrants. They were frontier breweries largely unaffected by industrialization and all required ice. Except for a small handful, none survived the life of the original brewer (some didn’t survive more than a few years). I suspect this pattern was typical of the US as a whole–small, evanescent breweries that survived a few years and then winked out. I can’t imagine there’s any reliable data anywhere about how much those little breweries made or sold.

    As far as lagering goes, though, it’s also worth acknowledging that the German immigrants came just as the push west was really rolling. That gave them a huge tableau, and is probably one of the reasons the US evolved into a lager country–the brewers who staked out everything west of the Mississippi were Germans.

    In sum. We have certain data points, like the arrival of German immigrants, (potentially dubious) stats about consumption, the migration west, and the rise of industrialization. We also have holes in the record, which leaves the narrative highly subject to interpretation. I’ll put a big asterisk next to my understanding of the whole thing.

    Alan – July 5, 2012 2:08 PM
    Not at all. I think you are quite correct factually and from a west coast settler society perspective from the Erie Canal and after. It’s just a different and more eastern world before that. I only know about it through work and figuring out where the Tories who created our city in 1783 came from. It is not just the beer world of colonial society that is not well described. I am having a surprisingly hard time with just the nature of Dutch Albany. The revolutionary period gets all the attention to the detriment of what came before and a little (War of 1812 anyone?) afterwards. Plus, records burned. That happened in Albany for sure but also in every little brewery before brick or stone was available or could be afforded. They went up in flames with alarming regularity. My only point – which I should have been clearer about – is that there is more there if we could only get our hands on it all.

    sam k – July 5, 2012 11:40 PM
    I’m in agreement and awe with everything that’s been posted since my last comment. An excellent thread indeed!

    Jack R. – July 7, 2012 12:25 AM
    re: reasons the US evolved into a lager country
    American craft pilsner is my preferred beer.
    I was raised in and have mostly lived in hot climes. I want my beer to be light, crisp, thirst quenching [and soul lifting]. Ie, pilsner.
    I like all manners of beer; but, in a hot, dry climate, I feel the need to order a water chaser with most ales.

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