American Beer, 1975

This article appeared in the Syracuse New Times, September 28, 1975. The cliché has it that it is always darkest before the dawn, and that accurately described the state of American beer in 1975. The sun appeared to be setting on the last local and regional breweries and it had yet to rise on microbreweries and brewpubs. It was also a time before Title IX, before the days when women’s sports could actually be seen on television. Today, we live in a more enlightened era, with better beer and a women’s soccer team that wins the World Cup and Olympic Gold. What a difference a couple of revolutions can make.

* * *

American Beer Stinks!

And here’s why: a sordid tale of front office brewers, the terror of sex, and why we’re drinking just what we’ve asked for.

“Most of the beer and ale in our own country has become so insipid as to be quite meaningless for an occasion.” — Charles Morton, Atlantic Monthly, December 1973

The realization that American beer and the old gray mare have much in common is nothing new. Recently, as in years past, there have been many articles bemoaning the resemblance. But because beer does not enjoy the cultural position of wine, no one has thought to explain how and why the American product finds itself in such an enfeebled state.

The brewing companies know, but don’t wait for them to tell you. Why should they? Studies at Arthur D. Little’s Flavor Sciences unit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, indicate that one-third of America’s beer drinkers “don’t measure flavor at all,” and another third can tell differences but buy for other reasons, such as price. That’s a majority of the market.

“They should have passed it through the horse twice.” — Harry Rice, appraising a beer, 1970

A little historical perspective: British colonists tried to be the first brewers, with some borrowed corn. While the native Americans looked on, they failed miserably.

Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam were the first to do it right, in the early 1600’s. The British, using barley this time, came to predominate throughout colonization — and in spite of the Revolution. In the 1840’s, an influx of German immigrants created a market for German lagers. For a variety of reasons, the German lager style eventually supplanted British ales and porters.

In the late 1860’s, brewers learned that the starch in rice or corn meal could be converted to fermentable sugar by the excess diastase in barley malt. In other words, you can’t make beer from corn, but if you throw some corn starch in with the malt, the malt will provide the necessary enzymes to break the starch down to fermentable sugars and the corn starch will get a free ride, providing some additional alcohol for the finished product.

It was an auspicious discovery indeed. In the late 1870’s, some Americans (many of them brewers) were calling for a beer even lighter that the traditional German lager. There were two ways to lighten the beer. One was by more careful malting and the other was to add lighter grains such as rice and corn to the malt. Corn and rice being cheaper than malted barley, and the new process requiring less effort, it was a natural.

In Germany, the use of rice or corn in domestic beer is illegal. (It can be used in beers made for export.) In other European countries and in Great Britain, lighter grains comprise 10-25% of the grains used. But in America, the amount of adjunct grain has been pushed to as high as 40%; almost half of your malt beverage isn’t malt. One reason for the decline of American beer can be found in that 40%.

The question is why and how the brewers got to that figure.

:: Why & How ::

“We have German enemies across the water. We have German enemies in this country, too. And the worst of all, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller. They are the worst Germans who have inflicted themselves upon a long-suffering people.” — John Strange, February 13, 1918

World War I was a bad time for the predominately German brewing industry in America. Brewers were accused of hiding munitions in their storehouses, of communicating with the Kaiser from a yacht in Boston harbor, and collaborating with the Irish and the Jews to lobby toward evil ends in Washington. The Prohibitionists, a free-swinging bunch, seized gleefully upon anti-German sentiment to augment their regular line of “alcohol is poison” material. And with the coming enactment of Prohibition, brewers were soon to be criminals if they continued their trade.

While Prohibition was squatting on the face of the nation, brewers turned to making ice cream, soft drinks, furniture — anything to stay alive until the madness passed. They were learning two lessons. The first was that beer drinkers were not a very “together” consumer group, possessing little awareness and less power. The second lesson came from organized crime. Al Capone was clearing $2 million a week with no advertising and an erratic product. And he wasn’t paying taxes.

Brewers were embittered with the government and their respect for the public was damaged as well. Drinkers were left with rotgut and hapless homebrew, mauling their tongues and forgetting what beer tasted like in better days. It was a regrettable memory lapse.

Even though American brewers will glibly lie to you and say they’re still brewing the same great beer of yesteryear, there is one place you can go for the truth — the government (oddly enough). The Internal Revenue Service collects figures on the amounts of materials used by brewers and the amount of beer produced from these materials. The yearly totals are reprinted in the brewers’ trade journals and it is a simple matter to compute averages and compare with previous years.

IRS records for 1934, the first year of brewing after the Repeal of Prohibition, show that brewers used almost 48 pounds of grain to make one barrel (31 gallons) of beer. Three-quarters of that grain was malt.

Gradually, the use of adjunct grains (mostly corn and rice) rose, the percentage of malt fell and brewers used less grain overall. Shortages during World War II (1941-1945) led to the use of soybeans, sorghum, wheat and raw barley as adjunct grains. Since there are no beer cellars holding vintage years, you will have to imagine the effect of those changes.

But people kept drinking and sales increased. After the war, brewers returned to malt, corn and rice as their mainstays, but continued to lessen the percentage of malt. The trend continues.

Here is the “how” of how and why American beer is the way it is today:

– In 1934, brewers averaged 47.6 pounds of grain per barrel of beer. In 1974, 43.4 pounds.

– In 1934, beers were 75% malt, 38.1 pounds per barrel. In 1974, 63% malt, 28.9 pounds per barrel.

– In 1934, adjunct grains such as corn and rice comprised 18% of the materials used. In 1974, 32%.

– In 1934, brewers used 37 million pounds of hops and produced 58 million barrels of beer. In 1974, brewers used the same amount of hops but produced 145 million barrels. Same tea bag, bigger cup.

The use of sugars and syrups has fluctuated. Last year (1974), brewers used 345,287,027 pounds. That’s 2.37 pounds per barrel, roughly the same as in 1944, the first year of severe wartime grain shortages.

The remainder of your beer is head stabilizers, artificial coloring, preservatives, clarifiers — chosen from a menu of 57 allowable chemical additives in all — blended in to preserve appearance. No figures are available on who uses what and in what quantity, although Congress is moving with its customary rapidity and brewers will, perhaps, some day, maybe, be required to list “each ingredient used to produce a malt beverage unless it is removed in its original form before packaging.”

What all this means is that the brewers have had more than 100 years to judge their market. They have found their real business to be staying in business. They brew a saleable product, the outer limits of which they continue to probe. The American beer drinker has said, “Take me.” The brewers have obliged.

:: The Terror of Sex ::

“… some positive efforts by individual brewers and by the brewing industry as a whole seem in order to elevate the image of their products above that of a flavorless commodity.” — Ernie Pyler, editor, Brewers Digest, July 1973

It makes you wonder: What is American beer for? What does the brewer really sell you in 1975? This is the good part. He sells you relief from the terror of sex.

America, like many other cultures, has created many alternate means for proving manhood. (Alternate means because it is not always easy or “acceptable” to prove oneself in the primary way.) One of these means is athletics. Sports are an affirmation of life and health; there is nothing intrinsically male about them. But to those anxious to create an active/passive, dominant/submissive division by gender, sports are considered the property of the active class. And skill in athletics becomes a sign of manhood.

Little boys get balls and bats for birthdays. Pop shows them how to throw the ball around out in the driveway. People do it on TV. Brothers and friends spend hours daily practicing. Coaches are available from the high school to professional level.

Then there is the original way of proving manhood. You do not receive a uniform or equipment for your birthday. Pop will not take you outdoors to show you how, and it won’t be on TV. Your high school coach is suspiciously mum on the subject. Any practice you sneak in will probably be of the “shadow boxing” variety. Skill is supposed to be “natural.” It isn’t. For macho junkies, the real thing is a tension-producing situation.

Women’s Liberation has really put the heat on. Equality is a terrifying possibility for a man who expects and needs a submissive, blindly appreciative mate. And what if she’s (gasp) experienced? The horror might start with a few tips on your stance. She might suggest you “choke up a little.” Control problems? Sent to the showers?!

And so the shaken male flees back to the world of the bear-like handshake and jock-style pat on the ass to reaffirm his manhood. Of course, for those too lazy or inept to actually participate in athletics, there are spectator sports, where a man can make the right noises while other men go through the motions. Brewing companies know a market when they see one.

And it is the marketing experts who are the villains in this piece. The men who actually brew the beer are a decent and capable lot. They could brew a beer that would rank with the finest in the world, even with the 19th century American product. One brewmaster told me, “Bock beers are fun to make. And if the marketing department told us they could sell them and make a profit, we’d be glad to make them.” He seemed wistful.

But the American brewmaster has to brew what they like in the front office, with the ingredients that show up. The decisions are not aesthetic but financial. The bean counters and the polite sharks of marketing have a plan.

Beer advertisements show manly men doing rugged, gusto things like hunting, docking a freighter, playing basketball, and rounding up a herd in Brazil. A ship docks after six months at sea and what do the sailors do? Have a picnic near the boat with local fishermen. Women are avoided because they pose a threat to both the macho drinker and the brewer. To the quasi-stud, they represent the fear of failure, ridicule, a belittling and exposure that is unacceptable. To the marketing department, women are a diversion from drinking.

While drinking, you reach a point of decision: You can stop drinking and remain capable of sexual relations, or you can keep on drinking. Ads for Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Miller, Schaefer, Schmidt’s and others depict men at the decision point and say, “Keep drinking.” Beer doesn’t care if you can get it up, as long as you can get it out for an occasional whiz. And drinking beer is such a manly activity that you’ll still be a man. Without taking off your pants. No confrontation. No judgment. No failure.

Imagery is important, too. Men in the ads drink from cans, rather than longneck bottles. Or they drink from mugs, which are not so rugged, but more couth and still imagistically acceptable. In recent Miller Lite ads, the sports figures show you their longneck bottle, but they drink from the mug. Advertisers keep the symbolism tight; a subconscious hint of gay goings-on will disrupt the whole macho pattern just as severely as the active presence of a woman.

And so it goes, with little regard to beer’s value as a gustatory experience. The brewing company offers a dream of manhood and a prop to help you achieve it. The market exists and the beer sells. But there are better ways to find sexual identity — and a world full of better places to find beer.


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