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In our market research we uncovered some interesting information about the way America responded to lager biers when they were introduced to our ancestors in the mid 19th century. This document provides some of those stories:

Background:

Johann Wagner is most credited with brewing the first lager bier in the US in 1842.  At that time Americans did not drink very much bier; one gallon per capita in 1840.

Americans did drink a tremendous amount of beer but because we did not have a taste for the prevalent beer styles of the day, ales, porters, and stouts; rye whiskey was the drink of the day. There were over 14,000 distilleries and only 230 breweries in 1820 and America was gaining the reputation of a land of drunkenness.

Every occasion, from breakfast to dinner, birthings to funerals, weddings to barn-raisings, unfolded to the accompaniment of copious amounts of whiskey.  Americans’ appetite for spirits stupefied and astounded foreigners.

By the 19th century, fourteen thousand distillers were producing some twenty-five million gallons of whiskey each year or some seven or eight gallons per adult capita.  Compared to the seduction of a tot of whiskey, beer had all the allure of an aging maiden aunt.  A mere two hundred or so breweries produced English-style ale.[1]

With lager bier’s introduction consumption habits began to change.  It’s traits seemed well fitted to the American climate and charater.  A cold lager was perfectly matched to the heat of American summers, and it further complemented the American practice of over consumption.  A person could more easily down a great quantity of lager than ale.  It was on f the several external factors that were silently shaping the future of American beer. [2]

During the period of 1845 to 1920 (just before prohibition) Americans went from 1 gallon of beer consumed per capita to just under 20 gallons of bier per capita. All but a very few breweries in existence made lager bier and most of the ale breweries were out of business.

…In 1877, the (Ballantine Ale) company brewed 107,592 barrels of ale exclusively and was the fourth largest brewer in the country.  Two years later, the firm bowed to the ever growing popularity of lager and began brewing that as well.  By the 1880s, this expansion helped them hold their position among the nation’s top brewers.  Ballantine consolidated all of its production at the lager brewery site in 1912…[3]

…these are the stories that provide some color around how lager bier influenced every part of American life upon its introduction…

POLITICS:

Prior to 1854 the two major political parties were the Whigs and the Democrats.  The Whigs hated slavery and immigrants but loved prohibition, a combination that repelled German and Irish voters.  The Democrats welcomed immigrants and lager lovers alike.  Unfortunately the party also supported slavery, and men like Phillip Best (German founder of Pabst) had not fled Europe’s oppression in order to join hands with politicians who ignored the distinction between free labor and slavery.

In 1854 a group of Wisconsin men started the Republican Party to fight slavery and reject prohibition.  When prohibitionist tried to gain a foothold in the Republican Party a Milwaukee man said, “Nearly all the Germans of this city were prepared to cast their lot against slavery and with the new party, but they refused to bow to the dictates of fanatic and zealous temperance men.  Can you expect of a brewer that he will tear down with his own hands his brewery? Or ask a laborer after a hard days work paving your treets to throw away his wholesome and nourishing Lagerbeer sacrifice his comfort for the sake of restricting slavery?”[4]

PROHIBITION:

In 1851 the Maine Law was passed prohibiting the manufacturing, distribution, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.  In 11 of the 31 states and two territories similar laws were passed as the temperance movement gained momentum.   Violence broke out as the laws were unfairly applied based on the nationality of the ownership of the saloon.  In Chicago The Lager Bier Riot ended with death and violence causing many to wonder which was worse; death or drunkenness.

The answer lay close at hand…Germans and their lager.  Weary of the temperance movement and the conflict that it sparked. Native-born Americans latched onto lager and the German model of sociable drinking as a compromise that allowed them to avoid the two extremes of prohibition and drunkenness.[5]

TAXATION:

The country needed to raise money to support the war and in 1862 President Lincoln signed the first excise taxes on liquor.  The view of many that lager bier is special was seen recorded conversations stemming from the new tax.

The first ever trade association was called the United States Brewers Association established to proactively guide how taxes would be measured and collected.  It was the German lager brewers that felt that unless they proved their adherence to the new taxes they would have unskilled agents of the government in their lager plants.

The brewers claimed they were willing to pay taxes and that they had founded their organization, in part to prevent fraud and non-compliance.  Compliance meant the brewers would obey the law, but they felt that cooperation gave them the right tot conduct their business without interference.  The USBA always maintained that their industrial practices could not be easily explained or understood by those not directly involved in the manufacture of beer.  As a result, they felt that local revenue officials should treat them with a degree of respect and understanding that might not always correspond to the letter of the law. [6]

In addition, there were many people that believed that lager bier was the answer to the temperance movement and that by incenting Americans to drink the non-intoxicating lager bier prohibition could be avoided.

German brewers often described their product as special and different, not only from shiskey, but from other malt beverages as well.  Several members of the House also saw lager beer in this light and sought to have the tax reduced.  John B Steele (D., NY) desired to “reduce the tax on those fermented liquors that have not the intoxicating effect which strong liquors have.  Of all of them, lager beer is the least intoxicating.”[7]

MILITARY:

This was a (Civil) war fought with beer.  Military commanders banned intoxicants from camp and field, leaving lager – officially nonintoxicating – as the troops choice of drink.  Military supply clerks contracted with hundreds of brewers to supply men with lager, which traveled better and lasted longer than ale.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers forged friendships and built camaraderie over tin cups of lager, an experience they carried home when the war was ended.

Lager even received a stamp of approval from the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian organization that monitored troops health.  A USSC physician who studied camp diets reported that lager drinkers suffered less from diarrhea than did non-bier drinkers.  Lager, he noted “regulates the bowels, prevents constipation, and becomes in this way a valuable substitute for vegetables” (a food is short supply).  “I encourage all the men,” added the doctor, “to drink lager”.[8]

BASEBALL:

In 1882 Base Ball (two words) was in trouble.  The puritanical president of the league had banned bier sales or Sunday games and sold tickets for $.50 all in an effort to attract a better class of fan.

A cadre of German immigrants who where brewers and team owners started what became the National League (American Association originally) selling bier at the parks and holding games on Sunday.  This league wanted to cater to all Americans and sold their tickets for $.25.
The American Association flourished.  [9]

PRODUCTIVITY:

As Walter König, one of the general managers of the Bavarian Brewers Federation, pointed out during his visit to the 2010 Craft Brewers Conference in Chicago, “If American craft brewers want to reach more than four or five percent market share, they need to focus more on drinkability, not just on extreme experimentation.  German beers, especially lagers, are sometimes derided by American craft brewers because they are deemed too unremarkable.  However, these are beers that are suitable for quaffing when you are thirsty.  In America, it seems, if you want to sit down and have a long social evening with friends over a few beers, you need to drink an industrial, not a craft beer. In my view, with very few exceptions, German lagers are not all that well made in America as yet, probably because many single-infusion systems won’t permit it.  If American craft brewers want to grow, however, they might want to consider making more and better craft lagers; and with the growing sophistication of American brewers, I see a real growth potential there.”

In 1842 Johnann Wagner brewed the first bottom-fermented bier on the American continent.  From that point forward Americans would change how and what they drank.

[1] Ambitious Brew, pg. 23
[2] Beer In American, pg. 271
[3] Brewing Battles, pg. 39
[4] Ambitious Brew, pg. 29
[5] Ambitious Brew, pg. 30
[6] Brewing Battles, pg. 37
[7] Brewing Battles, pg 25
[8] Ambitious Brew, pg. 44
[9] The Summer of Beer and Whiskey – How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.

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