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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
In the history of American beer, the modern period begins on the spring day in 1882 when the short-lived American Association of baseball teams opened for business. The establishment-leaning National League, aiming for a tonier clientele, had recently doubled ticket prices and banned gambling, Sunday playing, and—most important—beer. Franchise owners in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and other brewing centers refused to accept the new rules and seceded from the league. Several of them were brewers themselves, and they had learned to count on a sizable increase in collective thirst on home-game days. So, banding together, they formed the American Association. Dubbed the Beer and Whiskey League by the competition, it scorned the toffs and made its pitch directly to the average workingman, keeping the ticket price an affordable 25 cents, playing on the Sabbath, his only day off, and serving what had already become his signature drink.
Though there were strange days ahead for the mostly German-born beer barons, here, in this heady mix of beer, baseball, and fun, were most of the elements that would come to define beer’s role in the American living room and the American imagination: its connection to sports and other places men go to escape and to bond; its connection to leisure, especially of the American working class; and its implicitly rebellious, nose-thumbing attitude toward the tastes and rules of social “betters” and other authority figures.
Beer had been part of America from its first settlement by Europeans. Or, more precisely, the lack of it had. The Mayflower, which was headed south, had to make an unplanned stop near wintry Plymouth because, as William Bradford noted in his journal, “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.” (Their hogsheads of ale, a crucial provision on long voyages since water would not keep, had been maintained by the ship’s cooper, John Alden, who decided to stay on in the New World.) Forced to drink fresh water, always a cause for nervousness in those days, one colonist, with either pride or surprise, found that “those that drink it be as healthful, fresh, and lusty as they that drink beer.” Farther south in Virginia there was more bitterness about being stranded without good English ale: “There remained neither taverne, [nor] beer house,” wrote a new immigrant. “Had we beene as free from all sinnes as gluttony, and drunkennesse, we might have been canonized for Saints.”
But beer was food, and soon the colonists began to brew their own, from malted barley imported from England or from malted local corn. Small beer, weak in malt taste and alcohol and meant for immediate drinking, was a standard beverage at meals. Table beer, ship’s beer, and strong beer were more powerful brews meant for keeping. Everyone drank beer. Gentlemen kept barrels in their cellars next to their wine. Harvard College had its own brewhouses, and students were served dinner and supper and two “bevers” between; morning bever was bread and a pint of beer. In 1648 an ailing niece of Gov. John Winthrop, Jr., praised her husband to him: “I am sory he shold sofer soe much for me he drinks water that I might drink bere.”
Despite all the cultural factors in their favor, Englishstyle ales, as well as the Dutch-style beers brewed in New Amsterdam, were quickly eclipsed by other beverages as the settlements grew. Beer couldn’t keep long, and it wasn’t stable enough to be shipped over the vast spaces and widely variable climates of the New World without going flat and sour, so it was commercially viable only for local consumption in a few towns. Some farmers turned to cider for everyday drinking, but mostly people drank rum, distilled from cheap West Indian molasses, and then, as American grain fields developed, whiskey. Both rum and whiskey, which could be shipped anywhere and kept indefinitely, became very, very popular.
So popular, in fact, that by the late eighteenth century American leaders were actually strategizing about how to promote the making and drinking of beer. One reason was patriotic: England was doing a thriving export business in beer to the colonies, while suppressing the development of American industry. The colonists retaliated by boycotting English beer and buying American. “It is to be hoped,” wrote the maltster Sam Adams in 1750, “that the Gentlemen of the Town will endeavour to bring our own OCTOBER BEER into Fashion again, by that most prevailing Motive, EXAMPLE , so that we may no longer be beholden to Foreigners for a Credible Liquor , which may be as successfully manufactured in this Country.” In 1789 George Washington wrote to Lafayette: “We have already been too long subject to British prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America: both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.” (Washington was a steady customer of the Philadelphia brewer Robert Hare, whose porter, introduced in 1774, quickly won a reputation throughout the colonies and the Caribbean.)
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.
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.”
Such, at any rate, was the view from above toward the end of the century, and it was reinforced by the naturalist novels of the period. The beer drinkers in Stephen Crane’s 1893 Maggie: A Girl of the Streets fit the bill—laborers and immigrants all: “The vast crowd had an air throughout of having just quitted labor. Men with calloused hands and attired in garments that showed the wear of an endless trudge for a living, smoked their pipes contentedly and spent five, ten, or perhaps fifteen cents for beer. … The nationalities of the Bowery beamed upon the stage from all directions. Pete aggressively walked up a side aisle and took seats with Maggie at a table beneath the balcony. ‘Two beehs!’” Beer is the alcoholic ensign of class degradation, and the heroine’s final ruin is marked by the appearance of a beer-soaked demon: “The girl went into gloomy districts near the river, where the tall black factories shut in the street and only occasional broad beams of light fell across the pavements from saloons. … The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. … When almost to the river the eirl saw … a huge fat man in torn and greasy garments. … His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face. He laughed, his brown, disordered teeth gleaming under a grey, grizzled moustache from which beer-drops dripped.”
It was the same on the other side of the country. As whiskey and cocktails climbed the social ladder, beer descended it. Frank Norris had his poor brute McTeague, in the novel of that name, make the point at his own wedding when a guest proposes a champagne toast: “The guests rose and drank. Hardly one of them had ever tasted champagne before. The moment’s silence after the toast was broken by McTeague’s exclaiming with a long breath of satisfaction: ‘That’s the best beer I ever drank.’”
But there was a flip side to the association of beer, saloons, and workingmen—a view, so to speak, from below. And this bottom-up perspective has done more than anything else to shape what beer means in America. If the saloon was a place of sin to middle-class reformers, to working people and immigrants it was a place of refuge. For the five cents a glass of beer cost, the saloon offered cards and billiards, information, food, and, most of all, company. “The saloon exists in our town,” a Westerner wrote in 1912, “because … it offers a common meeting place. It dispenses good cheer. It ministers to the craving for fellowship. To the exhausted, worn-out body, to the strained nerves, the relaxation brings rest.” In cities, workers transferred their traditional social drinking and bonding to the saloon from the factory, where industrialization and rigid timetables made it both unacceptable and dangerous. In a saloon, over a beer, where the ritual of treating your neighbor to a drink made every man equal, there was a kind of virtual democracy, a haven from the economic pressures of the workplace and the aspirational pressures of home.
Beer acquired a new attitude from the working-class culture of the saloon, a kind of macho bohemianism that potently combined bravado, rebelliousness, masculine sentimentality, self-deprecating humor, and a large dose of skepticism about American middle-class success. Jack London, appropriately, was probably the first writer to capture it in print. His 1913 memoir John Barleycorn , ostensibly a temperance tract, is rather more an ode to beer, male bonding, and a devil-may-care attitude toward work and money: ” ‘Come on and have a beer,’ I invited. Again we stood at the bar and drank and talked, but this time it was I who paid—ten cents! A whole hour of my labor at a machine. … Money no longer counted. It was comradeship that counted.… There was a stage when the beer didn’t count at all, but just the spirit of comradeship of drinking together.” Beer, for the first but hardly the last time in our literature, is part of the workingman’s rite of passage: “Ay, even the barkeeper was giving me commendation as a man. ‘ He’s been sousin’ here with Nelson all afternoon .’ Magic words! The accolade delivered by a barkeeper with a beer glass! … And so I won my manhood’s spurs.”
London understood something else as well. This new culture of beer contained more than the low comedy of rebelliousness and the sentimentality of male friendship. It also held the romance of adventure and the elegy of a lost era of freedom, of heroism and power, when those now humble were kings: “The more beer Captain Nelson and I drank the better we got acquainted. … So he drifted back to his wild young days, and spun many a rare yarn for me, while we downed beer, treat by treat, all through a blessed summer afternoon. And it was only John Barleycorn that made possible that long afternoon with the old sea dog.” All this was part of the working-class retort to the reformers and evangelists, and in one form or another it would resonate in the American popular imagination long after Crane’s beer demon had become period melodrama.
By the early twentieth century, beer—the drink of moderation, of fun, of sports, most of all of workingmen—was poised to assume its place as national drink and national symbol when it ran into a weird detour. American beer had not yet entirely shed its links with Germany and Germans, associations wealthy beer barons like Adolphus Busch, with his estates in America and Germany, his backing of the Tyrolean Alps beer concession at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and his support of Germany’s exhibit there (which won him the Order of the Crown from the Kaiser), did nothing to discourage.
As America’s entry into World War I neared, these associations became, to say the least, a liability. The brewers’ support of German-American cultural groups, and their lobbying of the federal government to fend off politically well-organized prohibitionists, suddenly looked like a secret plot to undermine the war effort. Antialcohol feeling merged with nationalism and xenophobia, and suddenly beer was under attack. “We have German enemies in this country too,” declared one leading Wisconsin prohibitionist in 1918, “and the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.”
When Prohibition came, beer was banned along with more potent beverages. Some companies tried to market “near beers” with most of the alcohol removed, under brand names like Bevo, Yip, Ona, Chrismo, Famo, Luxo, Quizz, Vivo, and Hoppy. Drinkers, not surprisingly, weren’t having any. (The food authority Waverley Root called near beer “such a wishywashy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop that it might have been dreamed up by a Puritan Machiavelli with the intent of disgusting drinkers with genuine beer forever.”) Most brewers, unable to compete with bootleg beer and whiskey, went broke. Home-brewing supply stores mushroomed, but the quality of home brew was awful and the effect unpredictable. “After I’ve had a couple of glasses I’m terribly sleepy,” one drinker reported. “Sometimes my eyes don’t seem to focus and my head aches. I’m not intoxicated, understand, merely feel as if I’ve been drawn through a knothole.”
The irony was that Prohibition torpedoed a century of temperance campaigning. Since the Civil War the consumption of spirits had declined as beer became more popular. Prohibition changed that, driving people away from beer and toward spirits, which carried a higher profit margin for bootleggers. Samuel Eliot Morison recalled that “college students who before Prohibition would have a keg of beer and sit around singing the ‘Dartmouth Stein Song’ and “Under the Anheuser Busch,’ now got drunk quickly on bathtub gin, and could manage no lyric more complicated than ‘How Dry Am I!’” Heywood Broun dubbed the Volstead Act “a bill to discourage the drinking of good beer in favor of indifferent gin.” Worse, there were dangerous grumblings. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor fumed that Prohibition was a class law directed against the beer of the workingman, since wealthy people had laid in supplies of wine before the ban and were the only ones who could afford to drink in speakeasies.
Repeal was an act of sanity as well as of political expediency, and it established a legal distinction between beer and spirits that remains to this day. Government was back in the business of promoting beer, allowing it to be sold in grocery stores and supermarkets alongside its new competition, soft drinks. Prohibition had killed the old saloon, which had offered beverages of all kinds both for drinking on the premises and for carrying out. New laws restricted public drinking and encouraged package sales of beer for home consumption, which grew steadily through the thirties and forties, fueled by the introduction in 1935 of the beer can. Anyway, beer drinkers had gotten out of the tavern habit during Prohibition, and new refrigerators made it easier to keep beer at home.
Ever since the 1880s, beer had a powerful connection to sports.
World War II showed how far Americanization had come. This time there was no talk of prohibition for the sake of the war effort, nor was there a whisper of anti-German sentiment directed against brewers. Instead, brewing was designated an essential national industry, and the largest beer companies were asked to set aside 15 percent of their production for servicemen. Grateful returning soldiers would help make beer an inextricable part of postwar American life and would contribute to the dominance of a few powerful national chain breweries.
The story of beer in America since World War II, apart from skyrocketing consumption, is about the shift in power from sales to marketing. By the 1960s the big brewers were in every market, and the battle had become one for market share. Advertising spending increased exponentially, brand image became all important, and new products—lite, low-alcohol, no-alcohol, “draft,” malt liquor, ice beer—proliferated as the giant brewers fought among themselves and tried to fend off flanking moves, first from imported beers and then from the micros.
But the symbols and emotions with which these battles were (and continue to be) fought were already familiar, and the marketing blitz simply confirmed their continued power in the American imagination. Or, in one case, continued implausibility. Beer and temperance, for example, a theme that went back to the Puritans and the Founders, was the centerpiece of a fifties advertising campaign, “Beer and Ale—America’s Beverages of Moderation.” Family picnics, fishing trips, and boating jaunts all were used to suggest that beer was just a normal part of middle-class life, or, as an early Pabst television commercial put it, “It’s beer, Mama, and TV … three ingredients of a recipe for successful living.” Mad , with its unfailing nose for hype, quickly parodied the ads, depicting pie-eyed, Bermuda-shorted suburbanites stumbling around at their backyard barbecues.
Beer as fun has had slightly more staying power, but it is closelv tied to faddishness and can easilv eet out of hand. As it did in the late eighties, when Bud and Miller resorted to spring-break promotions and wet-T-shirt contests to carry their message to college students, roughly half of whom were under the new federally mandated 21-year-old drinking age. A bizarre-looking female bull terrier named Honey Tree Evil Eye, better known as Spuds MacKenzie, party animal, was the last straw. Lawmakers were convinced that brewers were intentionally targeting children. The industry, under threat of an advertising ban, had to accept warning labels in 1988, and two years later the federal beer excise tax was doubled.
Ever since the days of the Beer and Whiskey League, beer has had a powerful connection to sports. (Just as you would never serve beer at an art opening, you’d never bring wine to a Super Bowl party.) And it’s no wonder, considering the aura of men-at-work-andplay they share. It was in the 1920s that New York brewer Jacob Ruppert, co-owner of the Yankees from 1915 and sole owner soon thereafter, raided the Boston Red Sox for Babe Ruth, and then built him a stadium. Thirty years later Gussie Busch bought the St. Louis Cardinals, acquiring the right to sell his beer to thousands of fans and also to place Budweiser signs all over a stadium seen by millions of television viewers. But this would turn out to be child’s play compared with the marketing wars of the 1970s, when Miller and then Bud would between them buy up every available minute of ad time during sporting events, using jock spokesmen to make the point that the new “lite” beer was just as macho as the fullcalorie kind.
Beer was about holding on to a heroic and humorous stoicism.
But most enduring, and most powerful, is beer’s connection to the culture of American workingmen, a connection that’s grown only stronger as the idea of the working class has morphed over the past century into the idea of the average Joe, Joe Six-pack. With all of beer’s obvious success in all social strata, it still carries overtones of nose-thumbing at class pretension and high culture. A classic example is the Marx Brothers’ 1935 A Night at the Opera . When the highbrow singer Lasparri is knocked cold by his dresser (Harpo), bystanders Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) and Fiorello (Chico) each plant a foot on his body as if stepping up to the bar. “Two beers, bartender,” says Groucho, and Chico pipes in, “I’ll have two beers too.” It’s a straight shot from there to the wild, beer-soakedantiauthoritarianism of the 1978 Animal House , with Bluto (John Belushi), the symbolic center of the movie’s anarchy, crushing beer cans and smashing beer bottles aeainst his head.
In another and subtler guise, this is the macho bohemian side of beer culture, a line that stretches from Jack London’s waterfront dives to the Beats, all variations on working-class skepticism. The person who may have understood this strain best was John Steinbeck, whose 1945 novel Cannery Row gave us the nonconformist scientist Doc and the ne’er-do-wells of Monterey’s sardine district. “‘There,’” Doc says of them, “‘are your true philosophers. … In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. He waved two fingers in the air and smiled. ‘There’s nothing like that first taste of beer,’ he said.”
The deepest layer of all, though, lies in the ties between beer, work, and the saloon and the connection of all of these to a working-class vision of democracy that has seduced the whole culture. Somehow, by the middle of the twentieth century, the bar where men shared beer had picked up resonances of both the colonial tavern, mythical birthplace of patriotism and democracy, and the pre-Prohibition saloon, refuge from the competitive marketplace, from confining domesticity, from the coldness of modern life, from the pressure to rise and “better” oneself. The Miller brand discovered the power of the image when, in the late sixties, marketers changed the advertising approach. “The Champagne of Bottled Beers,” with its implicit appeal to class, became “It’s Miller Time,” an ode to the workingman, and Miller found itself shooting up from seventh place in beer sales to second.
If wine was about class aspiration, and cocktails were connected with the compulsive striving for success, beer, in this deepest layer, was about accepting who you are and trying to get by. It was about effacing, for a time, the bruising society outside the bar with the joy and dignity, the original democracy, of the community inside. And it was about holding on, in a harsh world, to your sanity and your sense of humor.
This is beer’s stoic poetry, a song that carries memories of the generations of struggling new Americans it has soothed and restored—first Germans and Irish, later Poles and Czechs and Russians and others in their turn. The writer Joseph Mitchell understood its quiet music. In 1940 he described an old saloon almost as if it were a secular church —a sacred refuge, out of time. “It is a drowsy place,” he wrote, in a passage that goes to the heart of the matter. “The bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the wall have not been in agreement for many years. The clientele is motley. … In the summer they sit in the back room, which is as cool as a cellar. In the winter they grab chairs nearest the stove and sit in them, as motionless as barnacles, until around six, when they yawn, stretch, and start for home, insulated with ale against the dreadful loneliness of the old and alone, ‘God be wit’ yez,’ Kelly says as they go out the door.”