- 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
Lager had to be brewed, stored, and shipped low temperatures, and the brewers created a huge market for natural ice. (Milwaukee’s early prominence as a brewing city was due partly to the availability of lots of natural ice.) Millions of tons were cut from frozen rivers and lakes and shipped each year. At first brewers lagered their beer underground. The Schaefer brothers in 1849 carved caves in the solid rock under their brewery at Fiftieth Street and Fourth (now Park) Avenue. A reporter toured Best’s vaults in Milwaukee in 1864 and wrote, “A prominent traveler and political writer who was one of our party, informed us that it very much resembled the Bastille.”
The Civil War would turn out to have been the high point of whiskey’s popularity. By the 1870s Americans had clearly chosen beer over spirits, and lager over ale. Breweries had always been regional, by necessity, but now a national market opened up to the big firms with capital to invest in new technology. Lager, if kept cold, was more stable than ale, and advances in bottling, refrigeration, and railroad transportation, along with the introduction of pasteurization (invented by the French chemist while studying the fermentation of beer), meant longer shelf life and the ability to ship beer long distances without spoilage. (The advent of the crown bottle cap in 1892 would extend shelf life even further.) Adolphus Busch was the first to see what all this made possible: the creation of a national brand. Near Pilsen was a town, once home to the royal court brewery of Bohemia, that made a slightly sweeter version of golden lager whose recipe Busch felt was ideally suited to American tastes. The town was called Ceske Budejovice, but it was better know by its German name, Budweis. The Budweiser brand, created in 1875, would make Busch a very wealthy man.
As beer became big business, and a national pastime, a specifically American beer began to emerge in response to consumer demand: pale, drier, and lighter than the Pilsener style, which was already very light by European standards. It was achieved by adding starch to the malted barley. Pabst (for its Blue Ribbon lager, introduced in 1882) and most other brewers preferred corn, but Anheuser Busch used rice, which it thought added “snappiness” to Budweiser. (Walt Whitman would use the same word, snap , to describe the special, fast American character of the game of baseball.)
The beer served in the Beer and Whiskey League stadiums in spring 1882 was recognizably the American beverage we know today. Milder, lighter, and less bitter than older American ales or European beers, pale, effervescent, low in alcohol, and served very cold, it was a refreshment, meant to be drunk quickly. No longer part of the history of American nourishment, it was now part of the history of American entertainment.
If the family-friendly, outdoor, music-and-lantern-filled beer garden had remained the model for beer consumption, today’s beer commercials would probably resemble those for Disneyland or Great Adventure. That their imagery is quite different, and often features blue-collar men, has to do with developments in the later nineteenth century. As the brewers sought to expand their markets and their sales, they took over or built thousands of saloons to retail their brands. To entice customers, they made the saloons gorgeous and impressive, offering extras like free newspapers, free lunches, and family entrances. But despite the money they spent, their clientele would more and more be drawn from the lower rungs of the social ladder.
The temperance movement, and especially the powerful Anti-Saloon League, targeted the saloons as places of prostitution and vice. As the movement gathered momentum, ice water began to be served in restaurants and at banquets and public occasions, and women and respectable middle-class men stopped drinking, at least in public. That left the saloons to immigrants and workingmen. (And to the desperate dinner guests who, an English traveler noted, “would be ashamed to be seen with a glass of beer at their dinner and prefer to go to the bar, where they are not so likely to be seen.”)
“—The worst of all our German enemies,…the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.”
Where once these men would have drunk whiskey, now they drank beer. Excise taxes introduced during the Civil War had raised the price of whiskey, so distillers began making an aged, higher-quality product aimed at the middle class. The more lightly taxed beer became the ordinary man’s drink. Social stigma soon followed. A Colorado physician, noting that opiates were a “growing and fashionable vice among the rich—especially the fashionable women,” went on to concede that this was only natural since “whiskey and champagne are painful in their after-effects rather than pleasant,” and “beer is vulgar.”