An interesting tidbit from The New York Times of 6 February 1858 in an article entitled “An Important Question Decided“:
It has long been a disputed point whether lager bier can be properly classed among toxatious drinks, but yesterday, Judge Strong of Long Island, decided, in the case of Jacob Staats, who was indicted for selling intoxicating liquors on Sunday, that lager bier is not an intoxicating drink. If the question had been whether lager is a stupefying drink, or not, the decision would probably have been in the affirmative. The decision is a very important one, and it will have a decided effect upon the habits of a very large class of our population, to whom lager bier has become almost a necessary of life. There will be great rejoicing over the decision of Judge Strong by our German population, and the “saloons” where their favorite beverage is sold will be crowded to-morrow with thirsty devotees.
There some interesting things in there. Is “saloons” in quotation mark to challenge the use of the term? Were they then too lowly? There are certainly plenty of stories in the newspapers of the period of dark deeds done in the lager saloon. And on the scale of words for drunk wouldn’t “stupefying” represent a higher state of affairs than “intoxicating”? A reminder to be wary of familiar words arising in other eras. The ruling ended up not deciding the matter. More court cases would follow as the role of the new lighter German style beer was assessed. Not just drinking on the Sabbath but drinking after midnight. Theater owners complained about entertainments in beer gardens, not required to pay the same license fees. Evidence is given of astounding feats of consumption over and over, of drinking 30 quarts in two hours… without “intoxicating” effect.
The stories are laced with an undertone of cultural conflict and, as part of that, an understanding of what beer is. To those writing the laws and drinking older styles, beer is stronger and something that could not be downed in such volumes. Beers like the over 8% Albany ales needed legal regulation even before the full rise of the political power of the temperance movement. In the 1850s, “lager bier” is a new social technology that doesn’t fit and may threaten. By the 1870s, however, Germans are presented as the model immigrants, supporting savings banks and charities even if they still have their lager bier saloons. If there had been a culture war, they may well have won.