H.L. Mencken, Homebrewer

“No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

You have undoubtedly heard that phrase before, perhaps in a discussion of politics, television or light beer. It comes to us from Henry Louis Mencken, and alone would have been enough to earn him a place in our collective memory. But he gave us more.

Newspaperman, editor and writer, H.L. Mencken was the foremost literary and social critic of the 1920s, co-founder and editor of The American Mercury magazine, creator of the landmark linguistic study, The American Language, the man who urged Clarence Darrow to defend John T. Scopes in the famous “Monkey Trial,” and an ardent foe of censorship, narrow-mindedness and prudery. And so he is remembered by most as a man with a well-sharpened pencil and an equally well-sharpened wit.

Unless, of course, you’re a homebrewer. In that case, you may remember him at home in Baltimore, opening a tin of malt syrup, wreathed in steam from his brewpot, or perhaps hovering over his stoneware crock studying a spider web of white scum, or seated in his favorite chair flinching as a bottle detonates in the basement.

:: A Passion for His Craft ::

For H.L. Mencken was a homebrewer with a passion for his craft and a missionary’s zeal when it came to spreading the word. The coming of Prohibition sounded to him like a clarion call and the starter’s gun combined. By day, he lambasted the Drys from his desk, and by night he fought them in the kitchen.

And, to our great good fortune, he wrote about his homebrewing in letters to friends, in his journals and in his books. Because of his literary fame, all these are preserved, and in them we see a marvelous portrait of a Prohibition homebrewer. Mencken was in many ways the typical homebrewer of the era, and in many ways he was uniquely more.

He was unique, in one sense, in that he didn’t even wait to run out of beer. He claimed to be the first man south of the Mason-Dixon line to get a brew going. And he soon established a brewing “seminary” taking on 10 pupils, teaching them the art and mystery, and then sending each student out to teach 10 more. He describes this enterprise in Heathen Days and notes wistfully that some pupils took the course 40 or 50 times, from as many different instructors, without ever mastering the technique.

Why did he care so deeply? First, of course, he loved beer. Next, he deplored Prohibition and Prohibitionists. Believing in hard work, as he did, it made sense to work hard at undoing “the Noble Experiment” in every way he could. Homebrewing was both a defiant and a productive gesture. As he became more involved with homebrewing, he found it to be a beautiful and instructive process. It appealed to his Germanic roots. And it made beer, even good beer on occasion.

That Mencken was a successful, as well as frequent, brewer can be attributed to his working habits as much as to his nature. Together with his love of beer, Mencken brought the thoroughness of a journalist and an interest in science to his homebrewing. He took notes and paid attention.

His foil in homebrewing was Philip Goodman, a Broadway producer who made up to $19,000 a week when he had a hit running. He was a lavish man and something of an impresario at the brewpot, being generous with the sugar and always inspired to throw in something new and unusual in his quest for a “hit” recipe. In a letter to friend Raymond Pearl, Mencken wrote,

“Goodman is home, and panting for beer. The New York brews are so bad that he has begun to boil the stuff himself again. His first batch I tried last week. A fair Helles, but without enough malt. It would, I believe, corrode the gallstones, and maybe produce female weakness in the fair.”

Again to Pearl he wrote, “Goodman is a bad brewer. He is always throwing in something extra, and ruining his batch.”

:: Imported Yeast ::

But Goodman’s expansive tendencies had their rewards. Because Mencken often complained about his ability to find good yeast in Baltimore, Goodman traveled to Munich and brought back yeast from the Lowenbrau Brewery for his and Henry’s homebrew.

In addition to his unique source for yeast, Mencken differed in other ways from his contemporaries. Standard recipes of the time called for five gallons of water, a two and one-half pound can of malt syrup, two to four ounces of hops (if the syrup wasn’t already hop-flavored), two pounds of corn sugar and a cake of yeast. Sanitation was by scalding; the hops generally were tossed in for the length of the boil, anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, and a stoneware crock covered with a cloth served as the fermenting vessel. Bottling took place anywhere from two to ten days after brewing, with or without sugar in the bottles.

It is no wonder homebrewing was seen as haphazard, if not simply hazardous. Wrote Mencken in one letter, “Flood and Woollcott have made 15 gallons of ale, and we are to have a picnic May 31st. Your prayers are asked for.”

Mencken’s equipment and materials were the same as those of his contemporaries, but he made many refinements. He was cautious with his water supply, using Baltimore’s city water for the boil but bottled water in the crock. About malt, he wrote to Goodman, “If you use only one can of malt you will not get beer, but a weak variety of mule piss. The current malts are all feeble. I used three cans to eight gallons.” We know he used Brohmeyer, German brand and Guilford malt syrups, both light and dark, and there certainly could have been others.

He used less sugar than was the norm. Even with recipes including three cans of malt (probably seven and one-half pounds), he added only two or three pounds of sugar, usually corn sugar but occasionally cane sugar.

As his technique improved, he used five ounces of hops, boiling three ounces for 15 minutes and adding two ounces at the end of the boil, obviously aware of the difference between bittering and aroma. He even experimented with dry hopping in the crock with favorable results.

Along with his stock of Lowenbrau yeast, he used yeast from Fleischmann’s and Anheuser-Busch, bringing it home from the merchant on ice and sometimes adding the ice to the crock. He liked to brew on Sunday and bottle on Wednesday, or vice versa, and sometimes bottled one batch and brewed the next on the same day. He added corn sugar to the bottles when bottling.

:: Other Secret Ingredients ::

And on occasion, in spite of his comments about Goodman’s brewing, he added the stray modification, a tablespoon of salt or some root licorice. And he had a secret ingredient. Brace yourself.

Milk of Magnesia. One teaspoon of magnesium hydroxide in a suspension of water, added to the crock after the boil. When I asked brewer F.X. Matt about this, he turned pale, but recovered sufficiently to offer a possible explanation. In order to thrive, yeast need a trace of magnesium, which they usually acquire from the malt. “But how could he have known that?” he wondered. Mencken did have friends who served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Perhaps they set him off on this avenue of experimentation.

But as advanced as Mencken was in some ways, he still fell prey to a famous Prohibition-era malady, common among those daring early pilots who flew without a hydrometer: the bottle as bomb. He described one of his more percussive episodes in a letter to friend Harry Richel:

“Last Sunday I manufactured five gallons of Methodistbrau. It turned out to be very tasty… but I bottled it too soon, and the result has been a series of fearful explosions. Last night I had three quart bottles in my side yard, cooling in a bucket. Two went off at once, bringing my neighbor out of his house with yells. He thought that Soviets had seized the town. I have lost about 12 good Apollinaris bottles, but still trust in God. Next time I shall wait until fermentation is finished. Just now another blew up in my cellar. However, I have the bottle covered with bags, and there is no damage. I invited two beer fanatics to test the stuff last night. I opened the bottle wearing heavy automobile gloves and with bagging and a fire-screen to protect me. When the stopper was thrown back, all save about two gills blew out. But the fanatics pronounced the two gills very soothing.”

Mencken and thousands of other like him persevered throughout Prohibition. Here’s to you, Henry.

* * *

:: But Where Did All the Malt Syrup Come From? ::

It is one of the delicious ironies of Prohibition that while World War I helped make it possible, it also planted the seeds of its undoing.

On one hand, the war enabled the Drys to whip up a powerful anti-German hysteria that was easily turned against the brewers, most of whom were German. The brewers, the stories went, were turning American grain into alcohol, thus taking bread out of the mouths of children and soldiers, and at the same time inebriating munitions workers. Indeed, the first stage of Prohibition was billed as a war-time emergency act, even though the war was over when it passed.

On the other hand, however much the Drys used the war for their own ends, they could not control all of its consequences. The war also created a severe sugar shortage, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its separate wisdom, recommended and encouraged the use of malt syrup as a sugar substitute in baking. Furthermore, they maintained it should be made available to housewives in convenient 2 1/2 pound tins.

And so at the same time that commercial brewing was (on paper at least) coming to an end, the raw material for homebrewing was already on store shelves with the government urging its use in every home.

Resourceful beer drinkers made the connection almost immediately. The demand soared and even the most naive manufacturer did not believe it was due to a wave of cookie baking.

From one or two companies in 1919, the number of malt syrup manufacturers quickly grew to more than a hundred. Brewers were represented in force. Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and Anheuser-Busch all leaped into the business. August A. Busch complained bitterly that he was powerless to prevent the perverse use of his product. But he added a hop-flavored malt syrup in 1925 and produced more than six million pounds a year.

By 1930, enough malt syrup was being sold each year to produce almost 700,000,000 gallons of homebrew.

* * *

In 1985, I met Charlie Papazian at the Great American Beer Festival and told him that I was working on a piece about H.L. Mencken’s homebrewing. I asked if he’d be interested in publishing it in the American Homebrewers Association’s magazine. He said, “I love Mencken, I’d love to have that in Zymurgy.” And so it appeared in the Winter Issue, my first national publication. Thank you, Charlie.

I also thank Dr. Vincent Fitzpatrick at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library who send me photocopies of Mencken’s actual homebrewing notes, from 1930 to 1933, in Mencken’s own hand. Because the notes were not to be published for several years, Dr. Fitzpatrick asked me not to quote directly, and I honored that request.

I also thank Trevor Gross, who introduced me to the writings of H.L. Mencken.

Other sources included Mencken and The New Mencken Letters by Carl Bode, On Mencken, edited by John Dorsey, Heathen Days by H.L. Mencken, The Homemade Beer Book by Vrest Orton, Making Beer by William Mares.

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  1. […] H.L. Mencken, Homebrewer […]

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