- Historic Sites
Beer And America
It came over with the Mayflower and stayed on to be the unchallenged drink of democracy.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
Until 1842 all beer was dark or cloudy or both. Then Austrian brewers discovered how to make it clear and golden.
The second reason for the promotion of beer was a desire to wean Americans away from their taste for the hard stuff—“temperance” in its original sense, before it was redefined by evangelical reformers several decades later as a synonym for abstinence . Both reasons were cited by the newly arrived Joseph Coppinger, who in 1810 petitioned President Madison to establish a national brewery in Washington, D.C.: “As a National object it has in my view the greatest importance as it would unquestionably tend to improve the quality of our Malt liquors in every point of the Union. And serve to counteract the baneful influence of ardent spirits on the health and Morals of our fellow Citizens.” Madison passed the letter on to Jefferson, who had recently begun experimenting with home brewing for the needs of Monticello (a job he assigned to Peter Hemings, the brother of Sally). Jefferson replied: “I have no doubt, either in a moral or economical view, of the desirableness to introduce a taste for malt liquors instead of that for ardent spirits … The business of brewing is now so much introduced in every state, that it appears to me to need no other encouragement than to increase the number of customers. I do not think it a case where a company need form itself on patriotic principles merely, because there is a sufficiency of private capital which would embark itself in the business if there were a demand.” But that, thanks to a remote city in Central Europe, was soon to change, and the change would transform American popular culture.
The beer Jefferson knew did not resemble what was poured at the American Association games in spring 1882 because until 1842 all beers everywhere were dark or cloudy or both. In that year brewers in Pilsen, in the Austrian province of Bohemia, discovered a process for making a clear, golden beer. The general type became known as lager, because it required storage, or lagering , in cold caves for several months before it was ready to drink. Introduced at the same time that mass-produced “glasses” were replacing opaque wood, leather, and ceramic steins, the new golden lager was light, stimulating, and visually exciting, and it took Europe and America by storm.
Colder and more refreshing than British ale, lager first appealed mainly to the German immigrants who were pouring into American cities in those years, more than a million of them by the 1850s, but it soon spilled over to the wider market. The New York Times in the mid-1850s sniffed that lager was “getting a good deal too fashionable.” And soon the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce noticed a growth in beer drinking due “in no little degree to the taste which has been acquired for ‘lager’ as a beverage, not only among the native German population, but all classes.”
A new cultural institution arose to feed the new frenzy: the beer garden. Distant but recognizable ancestors to the amusement park, the gardens, which could be either open to the air or enclosed “winter” gardens, welcomed families on Sunday outings and featured live music. They had tables and chairs instead of bars, and they were known for their food. New York’s Bowery had some of the fanciest, and beer gardens were also popular in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. The suburbs of Chicago had several, which, according to one observer, served 3,000 people a day in the summer: “The waiters, most of them fine-appearing elderly gentlemen, dressed in black, serve beer, wine, and soft drinks to the people out in the open, while at tables beneath the roof, dinners are being served. The garden is brilliantly lighted with Japanese lanterns hanging from the trees. The lights, the trees, the starry heavens above, the moon gliding now and then behind the clouds, soul-stirring music, now strong and full, now soft and sweet, make this a charming spot where lovers delight to come, where the businessman, returned from the crowded centers of the city, comes with wife and child, and the business cares float gradually away, borne on the lighter strains of music. Old men with their pipes find in this place a never-ending source of pleasure, and will sit by the hour philosophizing and reminiscing over a single glass of beer.” Festive places where people of all ages came to dance, flirt, eat, and relax, the beer gardens transformed the drink they served. Beer was no longer food. Now it was fun.
New American lager brewers established firms whose names would be familiar more than a century later. In 1842 the Prussian Schaefer brothers, Frederick and Maximilian, set up the first commercial lager brewery in New York City, and two years later Philadelphia had one, the forerunner of C. Schmidt and Sons. In Milwaukee the daughter of the brewer Jacob Best married the steamboat captain Frederick Pabst; her brother Charles set up a lager brewery in 1848 and seven years later sold out to a young brewer fresh from Germany named Frederick Miller. In 1856 in the same city the brewer August Krug died, and his widow married the bookkeeper Joseph Schlitz. Eberhard Anheuser, a St. Louis soap manufacturer, acquired a small brewery in 1860 and then had the good fortune to acquire a son-in-law as a partner, a talented salesman named Adolphus Busch.