Historical Brews The American Lager: Part 2
The Saga Continues…
So when we last left the story of the American Lager. It was the mid-1800’s. The German population was exploding and with it, interest in a new style of beer. The Americanized version of a German lager was light, crisp, highly drinkable and so flavorless that people assumed it was non-alcoholic.
Seriously, there were questions at the time about whether or not American lagers were actually intoxicating.
In upstate New York in 1870, there was even a court case to try and decide the matter once and for all. One Benedict Haberle testified that he regularly drink 30 to 40 glasses of beer every day without getting drunk. Another man by the name of Jacob Pfohl also testified that he could drink one or two gallons of lager without feeling drunk at all.
Two things should be noted at this point. Both men were heavily involved in the production of beer and, yes, lagers have alcohol. Why was the question even brought up? Well this was the time when companies like Pabst, Miller and Anheiser-Busch were becoming household names and big business, doing what big business do, had a vested interest in misleading the public whenever possible.
But, still, the idea that lagers were actually a healthier form of alcohol continued to spread. That coupled with an increased anti-immigration sentiment (particularly toward the Irish) drove the demand for ales into the ground. At the same time, the temperance moment continued to spread and laws were passed all over the country which shut down many ale-producing breweries.
The American Lager And The Civil War
This will probably surprise nobody, but soldiers largely missed the memo when it came to the temperance movement. Early in the conflict, Union commanders found themselves with a major problem. Even though alcohol was officially banned in army camps, there was no shortage of unscrupulous civilians traveling nearby willing to sell them booze. At best, this was highly over-priced whiskey which simply rendered soldiers broke and ineffectually drunk. At worst, it was some hell-brew cooked up in somebody’s shed and had much more dire consequences.
So Army leaders came up with a solution. Remember that trial I mentioned earlier? Well they seized on that and a few similar court cases and decided that, since lager was not intoxicating, it was fine to sell in camps. They even went so far as to issue tokens to soldiers that they could use for their daily ration of beer. And when the Civil War finally ended, hundreds of thousands of men went home with a taste for these light lagers.
And, in the years that followed, breweries found that Americans desired beer with even less body and flavor. So, to compete for market share, they backed off on the spicy bohemian hops they used to bitter. They added more corn, rice, and other adjuncts, not because they were cheaper —often as not they were more expensive—but because the resulting light, crisp beer was just what Americans desired. By the time the 1900’s rolled in, consumption of whiskey and rum had fallen 80% since the beginning of the century.
But as the 20th century dawned, a new catastrophe for American beer was brewing. The core support for the abolition movement came from, what we would call today, the religious right. And with the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation they could declare victory, cross that off their To-Do list and move on to the next thing which was…
Oh yeah, banning all alcohol.
As we’ve mentioned in this story, the temperance moment had been building steam for quite some time and, as the 20th century dawned, the uneasy truce between temperance leaders and lager brewers was officially over. As WWI set in the temperance moment took aim at breweries. They cited, among other things, grain shortages as reasons to shut down the production of beer. Also, the rather tolerant views of Germans and German culture in America understandably suffered when the U.S. entered the war. Germans, previously regarded as an example of ‘acceptable’ immigration, were now seen as home-grown traitors living right next door. More states began to pass temperance laws and local police forces targeted beer halls and beer gardens specifically as a form of revenge.
Gradually the movement built up enough political power that on January 16th, 1919 Congress ratified the 18th amendment effectively banning the production and transport of “intoxicating liquor”.
Overnight, thousands of breweries across the country quietly shut their doors. A few, like Yuenling, Anheiser Buch and Papst, managed to survive this post-apocalyptic nightmare by producing ice-cream, non alcoholic beer and cheese respectively. Coors actually got into ceramic production, a division of their business that continues to this day. Meanwhile, the rich history of American brewing slowly faded away. Never to be seen again. The prohibitionists won and it is because of them we now live in a perfect world devoid of crime and poverty. Where God-fearing men and women jump out of bed, salute the Sober Eagle of America and go to church and live happily ever after.
So anyway, that stupid idea fell flat on its face faster than an Olympic sprinter with his shoe laced tied together. Prohibition was hastily repealed thirteen years later and the population of America wandered bleary-eyed into the sun, went to the nearest bar and ordered a drink.
Only thirteen years is a long time to go without the taste of beer. And, collectively, Americans only had a vague idea of what a good beer tasted like.
It was a light… yellowish… thing. Not too bitter but not too sweet either. Not too strong, very very light… er… like water but with less… er water?
Add to that, prohibition ended right at the height of the Great Depression and brewery owners, still struggling to rebuild after prohibition, weren’t exactly ready to try something new. Their customers were broke and just needed a cheap drink that would let them go from vertical to horizontal with as little invested cash as possible. Breweries needed something that they knew people would buy. So those that survived blew the dust off their old recipe books and commenced to brewing what they knew. A light, light, light bordering on completely transparent, lager. If there was any soul daring enough to suggest adjustments like… I don’t know… making the beer taste like something, that person was quickly silenced by the grain rationing of WWII which made brewers even more dependent on adjuncts for making beer.
The Great ‘Shakeout’
By the time the war was over there were 407 breweries still in operation in the United States. If there was any diversity or nuance left in the American Lager by this point, it was about to face one final threat, the corporatization of beer.
Mass-produced beer was, on one hand, a great feat of engineering, logistics, and industrialization. Then, as now, the hardest thing for a brewery to accomplish was consistency. But consumers wanted to know that a Budweiser purchased in Chicago, Illinois would taste exactly the same if they bought another one six months later in Tallahassee, Florida. Developing the necessary technology and infrastructure to make that a reality was no easy feat. Especially with a style like the American lager in which any flaw stands out like a pound of black patent malt in a Budweiser brew kettle (some of you may have to locate your nearest home brewer to ask why that is funny).
The downside, especially when it comes to small family-run operations, is that they just couldn’t compete. In many cases they didn’t have the equipment to reliably create the clean, crisp lager that people increasingly demanded. And even those that could found themselves having to make do with a smaller and smaller market share. By the 1960’s there were only 230 breweries in the United States only 140 of which were independently run. In 1950 the largest brewery was Schlitz which produced 6% of all beer consumed. Twenty years later Anheuser-Busch would take that spot (natch) and was producing 18% of America’s beer supply.
By 1980 it was producing over a quarter.
American Lager: The Style
And by that point in time, the idea of the American Lager was pretty well cemented. It was and remains, a very light drinkable beer. Light on bitterness, light on body, light on sweetness, light on everything that a beer can conceivably be light on. It is a style of beer that could only have been invented in the Untied States. Born of a bizarre mix of immigration and anti-immigration backlash, religion and war, small entrepreneurs and global corporations, a fascination with health and personal improvement and an almost pathological tendency to say ‘screw it, let’s get drunk’. It is, like our founding documents, a great comprise.
It is beer so drinkable that it can literally be chugged by the gallon as a nod to the spirit of genuine excess. At the same time born of the Puritan ideal, ‘if it’s bland and kinda unpleasant it must be good for you’. A staggering marvel of modern engineering and, at the same time the embodiment of mediocrity. It is completely non-pretentious; fans of the style revel in its simplicity and it’s economy. And, yet it is, by far, the hardest style of beer to produce consistently.
Maybe because of all of this, despite the Craft Beer Revolution, every craft brewery combined produces and sells less beer than Bud Light, an American lager for those who tried a regular American Lager and said, “Whoa, there Buddy. Let’s just back off that flavor a bit. This ain’t the place for them there fancy beers.”
And I’ll leave the story with this thought. As much as Craft Beer has made American domestics seem like a relic of of the past; something one buys because that’s all Dad will drink, deep down I would bet everyone in the Craft Beer industry has a favorite American lager. On my podcast ‘It’s All Beer’ I recently had on Chris McGinnis the founder of Gem State Brewing, a soon-to-be-opening brewery in Eagle, Idaho. During the interview he admitted that his go-to beer for camping and other summertime activities was Coors Light. Because, as he said:
“Sometimes you just wanna drink a beer.”