Historical Brews: The American Lager Part 1

Coming To America

It easy to forget as we ride the wave of the American Craft Beer Revolution, that the most popular beer in the country is still the American Lager and the American Light Lager.  Against all our craft beer sensibilities, big bold IPA’s, malty sweet stouts, balanced ambers and browns have yet to unseat bland, fizzy yellow beer as the most widely consumed style in the United States.  In fact, craft brewers have started producing lighter offerings to lure people away from their six-packs of Budwieser, Coors, Miller, Papst, and other American standards.

It is all too easy for beer snobs today to dismiss American Lagers as bland, flavorless relics of a past best left forgotten. Fun too. But I would argue that there is something particularly interesting and very… well, American about a beer known for being, as the joke goes, like having sex in a canoe.

The American Beer Scene Circa 1800’s

The early United States’ brewing tradition came from the British Empire where ales rule.  These dark, fruity, bitter beers were hugely popular in England and so brewers in the New World, having largely come from that tradition, were eager to replicate what their fathers and grandfathers made in Burton on Trent.

At this point I should stop and address the difference between an ale and a lager.

Ale VS Lager

Ales use ‘top fermenting’ yeast that ferment at higher temperatures (65-70).

Lagers use ‘bottom fermenting’ yeast that ferment lower temperatures (55-60). 

The top and bottom fermenting distinction refers to the amount ‘stuff’ at the top of fermenting beer. This combination of yeast, foam, hops, protein and other unidentifiables is known as krausen.  Ales produce a lot more of this foamy goodness, so people looking at the fermenting ale and assumed that everything was happening on top.  Hence ‘top-fermenting’. And lagers didn’t have as much krausen so the assumption was everything was happening at the bottom.  It’s more complicated then that but literally EVERYTHING about fermentation is complicated so we are just gonna go with ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ for now.

Cool?  Cool.

Brewing in America

It goes without saying, but is helpful to remember that this was before A/C or any other reliable method of temperature control was available. So the outside temp? That’s what your fermentation temperature was going to be. And England’s cool, rainy, foggy gloom made it easy to ferment ale most of the year. Add to that Britain’s soil produced the best quality barley for beer. Hops were plentiful and the water had the right amount minerals to bring out that bitter bite that English beer is known for. England, in short, was the Land of Ale. 

North America? Not so much.

For one, it was bloody hot in those colonies. This made fermentation unpredictable and gave the resulting beer a shelf life that was measured in hours. Add to that, the preferred type of barely didn’t grow particularly well on the North American continent and type of barley that could be cultivated was thicker, harder to brew with and gave the beer a sharp, astringent, husk flavor.

These are men in the 19th century enjoying their beer… in as much as that was possible.

In short, American beer at the beginning of the 19th century was a bit crap. So much so that people wouldn’t drink it. And let’s keep in mind these people had a type of meat call broxy which refers to meat from any animal that died of, shall we say, dubious causes. They weren’t the pickiest eaters, that’s what I’m saying.  The richest imported beer from the England but the rest of the plebs enjoyed cider, whiskey, and rum far more than the local beer. 

And all this drinking took place in the saloon or tavern which had gained a bad reputation. A glut of whiskey and rum led to a spike in, shall we say, ungentlemanly behavior, brawls were rampant, prostitution was common, not to mention unAmerican concepts like ‘workers rights,’ ‘five-day work-weeks,’ and ‘fair pay’ were being discussed by workers in hushed-tones over pints.

Which of course brings us to the Temperance Movement:

The Rise of ‘Dry’

From the very beginning, America had a rather complicated relationship with alcohol. While their European ancestors, at worst, regarded booze as a harmless vice, some Americans began to mistrust the demon drink and the Den of Sin that was the saloon. Painted harlots caroused, murders did their murdering, and otherwise good God-fearing, hard working men were fell into a life of poverty, disease and crime all in a relentless pursuit of booze.

A temperance poster from the early 1800’s with a cheery message about drinking.

And this attitude didn’t manifest from nowhere. Americans at the time, much like their European cousins tended to drink all day. Beer was a drink for every meal, including breakfast, along with a few glasses to get through the day and, finally, a glass or two to celebrate the end of a day’s work. Which worked when the alcohol in question topped out at 4%. But the virgin American soil produced enormous quantities of corn which distillers made into whiskey. At the same time, plantations in the Caribbean ran the waste products of sugar production to make rum. Both of which flooded the American market and made the time-honored custom of day drinking a tad more treacherous.

Alcoholism was rife in the United States and, with it, related societal ills. Bar brawls were commonplace. Prostitution and gambling was available at nearly every tavern. Men would spend their meager pay getting hammered and leave their wives and children at home without food. It wasn’t a great situation and the temperance movement gained popularity promising a solution to these problems.

It was in this America that John Wagner arrived from Germany in 1840 carrying with him the first supply of lager yeast to arrive in the New World and dream of producing the beers of his German heritage in the new world.

Lager Arrives in America

It wasn’t an easy project. As I mentioned, the American barley at the time wasn’t terribly good for brewing and had to be mixed with some other grain, usually corn, in order to replicate the light, refreshing German lager.  Wagner’s brewery in Philadelphia never advanced much beyond what we would consider a small micro-brewery but interest in these beers spread as the German population grew and fellow Bavarian brewers, sensing on opportunity, continued to expand and experiment. Among them was David G. Yuengling who started the Eagle Brewery in Pottsville Pennsylvania in 1829.

The name probably sounds familiar.

Within a few years Eagle Brewing (later renamed after the founder) and it’s lager became a national sensation. And lagers, in general, began to pop up in every major city. There are several reasons for this:

German Immigration

The 19th century saw the German population of the United States explode. Hundreds of immigrants fleeing religious and political persecution in their homeland found themselves in America and, like any good German, wanted a beer within minutes of getting off the boat. And in keeping with the tradition of their heritage the began to set up lavish beer gardens where families could go, children could play an men and women could socialize all while sipping pints of lager.

Xenophobia Light

Americans at the time regarded these German immigrants as pretty agreeable folk. As immigrants went, of course. I mean, they were better than the shifty Italians. And much better than those drunken Irish. And don’t even get us started on the Pols. In an era of some pretty hefty xenophobia, Germans immigrants largely got a pass from American society. I mean, it would be better if they were properly American. But they shared enough of the Protestant, English values to make them vaguely acceptable. And thus German culture was allowed to spread with relatively little pushback and beer gardens were allowed to flourish. And speaking of those…

The Beer Garden

And beer gardens had the fun, wholesome, what we would now call ‘family values’ feel to them. They weren’t like a tavern where awful drunks swore, spat and swilled some unGodly brown ale out of tankards before gambling away all the family’s savings.  No, it was a place where families could go after church and the parents could enjoy a glass of lager while watching children play on the grass. (Incidentally, this was the era when drinking out of glass became fashionable and one can understand why. Given the nature of ales at the time, it was probably better not to know what it looked like.). These sparkling yellow beers were so light so you know there’s basically no alcohol. So there’s no worry about daddy getting drunk and having another one of those ‘incidents’ involving a wheelbarrow, Mother’s good china and the family cow.

The World’s First ‘light’ beer

Because of this, Americans, in general, saw lager as a better alternative to ale. Despite being dens of sin, vice, excess and the other good things in life, taverns and saloons were the place most factory workers retreated to during their breaks. But since showing up for the second half of the shift half-drunk was generally frowned upon, lagers became a popular alternative.  Lager, in a sense, became the first ‘light beer.’ So bland, so flavorless so… freaking close to WATER that they couldn’t be as bad for you, right? It wasn’t as good as a nice, rich brown ale but you know, we’re watching our weight. Also we’re trying not to drink so much. And there’s too much booze in those ales.  I guess what I’m saying is the lager became the White Claw of the 19th century.

Temperance in Moderation

Even the temperance movement grudgingly accepted lagers. It was better if nobody ever drank any alcohol ever, but, if they had to drink, at least lagers weren’t as intoxicating and so it was sort of… fine. Lager brewers at the time even made a weird pact with the devil and used the temperance movement to market their own beer.

As the mid-19th century approached two things would happen that would change the face of American beer forever. The first was the American Civil War which would help the lager rise to dominance. And the second was prohibition which would essentially wipe out a hundred years of American beer history.

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