Tuesday, June 29, 2010

American Beer Mythology, Revised

Faithful members of the Church of Real Beer (also known by their self-effacing nickname "beer geeks") can recite a common beer mythology. It goes something like this: Back before Prohibition, America was one of the greatest beer countries in the world, producing wholesome ales in thousands of quaint breweries around the country. Back then, America commanded the respect it deserved as a great beer-producing nation. Then came Prohibition, which Americans brought upon themselves, and they were thus kicked out of the beer Garden of Eden. After the United States realized that Prohibition only led to organized crime and moonshine, it was too late. The beer hiatus during Prohibition gave "big beer" a window to elbow out the smaller craft breweries. Through bribery, trickery, and thuggery, large brewing enterprises like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller, and Schlitz forced Americans to drink thin, watery lager and by the 1970s, there was nothing left but this swill. America became a beer laughing stock. But a miracle happened. A visionary named Fritz Maytag had a epiphany and decided his calling was to restore America's beer tradition. Maytag resurrected an old brewery in San Francisco, sparking a beer restoration in the 1980s that led to the founding of venerable breweries such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams), Mendocino Brewing Company, and Brooklyn Brewery. Through hard work and devotion to the movement, beer geeks have supported a return to America's great beer tradition and won over many converts.

A version of this mythic history of American beer appears in the introduction of Maureen Ogle's fascinating social history of the United States through beer Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. In this impressively researched book, Ogle sets out to debunk the beer geek gospel. Her book creates what one might call American beer history revisionism.

Ogle is a historian. The business of being a historian is to create new histories or new interpretations. In Ogle's new beer history, the world of good and evil is turned upside down. The heroes of Ogle's book are the villains in the beer geek worldview: Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst, the German-born founders of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Company respectively. Her core argument is that contrary to the belief that these two companies came to dominate the U.S. market through intimidation, cost-cutting, and swollen marketing budgets, in fact A-B and Pabst prevailed through hard work, quality, consistency, innovation, and ultimately adapting to tastes and giving the people what they wanted. The big breweries relied on these traits to overcome several obstacles, proving their worth.

To add to these two excellent reviews, I would like to describe some of the business drama that Ogle outlines in her book. A big challenge that the breweries faced and overcame was to keep beer fresh in markets outside of the breweries' local market. Determined to expand the market and grow their company, Busch and Anheuser by 1872 were shipping bottled beer to the Southwest of the United States, "making them the first Americans to exploit the commercial possibilites of Pasteur's ideas" on pasteurization. By 1879 A-B was shipping its products to every state in the United States--thanks to the innovative use of refrigerator cars--and even to India, Japan, and South America, and Europe in small quantities.

Another challenge early in U.S. beer history was the luxury tax. At the end of the Civil War, the Union Congress needed revenue and in 1862 began taxing items such as billiard tables, liquor, and beer--at one dollar per barrel. The German brewers in America wanted to show their patriotism but still hoped for a lower tax. Several Eastern U.S. brewers met in New York City to strategize and convinced Congress to lower the tax to 60 cents per barrel--thus inspiring the formation "of the nation's first trade and lobby of any kind, the United States Brewers' Association."

A third and reoccurring challenge to beer in America has been the varying forms of temperance movements. The 50 years following the American Revolution, according to Ogle, "proved as intoxicating as cheap whisky." Society saw the emergence of the confidence man (or con man) who spun "outrageous schemes" to trick people out of their money. Americans started to wonder about their nation's moral integrity. "Self-doubt and self-examination inspired action. In the 1820s and 1830s, hordes of well-meaning crusaders launched a multi-armed effort to reform and perfect the American character... the jewel in the reform's thorny crown was temperance."

This temperance movement in the 1800s eventually collapsed but it produced an "unintended, profound consequence that shaped brewing for the next fifty years." That is it drew attention to the virtues of Germans and their lager; the two lived together in harmony and moderation without the social evils Americans feared. German lager seemed to be the moderate answer between the problems temperance created and moral degradation liquor seemed to spur. Scientists, doctors, and others came to the German lager beer's camp, stating how in effect it was not intoxicating. Harper's Weekly even joined the bandwagon stating, "Good lager is pronounced by the [scientific] faculty to be a mild tonic, calculated, on the average, to be rather beneficial than injurious to the system." By the mid 1800s, lager beer saloons and gardens could be found in cities all over the country.

A later temperance movement succeeded in creating Prohibition. The success of the Anti-Saloon League had to do with the times in America, again a time of moral reflection after another revolution (industrial). "As one dry put it, 'You may exercise your personal liberty only in so far as you do not place additional burdens upon your neighbor, or upon the State.'" To many, alcohol seemed to do just that, Ogle writes. On January 16, 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution established Prohibition in the United States until it was repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first Amendement.

Interestingly, one of the finest American microbreweries, the 21st Amendment Brewery, named after the Amendment that repealed Prohibition, explains their namesake on their website. The story harkens to the beer geek mythos:

In 1920, Prohibition wiped out this culture and put the “local” out of business. For 13 years, social interaction was largely driven underground, to the speakeasies, where regular citizens became a nation of outlaws.

But with the passage of the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, we, as a society, were able to begin the slow climb back to reclaiming the essence of the neighborhood gathering place. At the 21st Amendment, they celebrate the culture of the great breweries of old, making unique, hand crafted beers, great food, and providing a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that invites conversation, interaction and a sense of community.

A final cultural wave helped give birth to the beloved microbrew. In the 1970s, only one-third of Americans trusted the government, down from 80 percent in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, writes Ogle, Americans rejected all things corporate and establishment, "thanks to the Vietnam war, crushing recession, and Watergate." The expression "small is beautiful" captured the feeling. It was in this environment that Fritz Maytag, who in 1965 bought the Steam Beer Brewing Company on a whim, was to succeed. Maytag, the great grandson of Maytag corporation founder Frederick Maytag I, was living in San Francisco and studying Japanese at Stanford's graduate program but pined for something meaningful. "That 'something' landed in his lap" in August 1965 when he leaned about the brewery was about to close.

In the rest of the book, the apostles of the microbrewery movement make appearances, including Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, who controversially used contracting brewing to expand production of his beers, Charlie Papazian, the founder of the Association of Brewers and author of perhaps the most famous homebrew cook book The Joy of Home Brewing, and Sam Calagione, the founder of Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery, which has pushed the innovation envelope by brewing with exotic ingredients such as raisins, ginger, and cocoa powder. Koch and Calagione, by the way, have been competing to produce the world's strongest beer; last I checked Koch was winning with his Utopias at 25.6 percent alcohol. And after Anheuser-Busch was sold to InBev in 2008, Koch's Boston Beer Company became the largest American-owned brewery, a title that Adolphus Busch had fought hard to achieve 100 years before.

Photo by Herkie.


porthos said...

Great piece Devin.

Funny how business transforms and evolves.
Bitter sweet for both Adolphus and Jim I'm sure.

You set out to do one thing and over decades, unwillingly bent by market demand.

Anonymous said...

Not so good news here on Craft Beer & Calories...