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America’s Founding Lagers: The Pre-Prohibition Landscape

There were Munich-style dark lagers, American bocks, and paler, pilsner-like beers. Adjuncts abounded. Here, historian Michael Stein of the research firm Lost Lagers digs into the recipes and methods of the time.

Michael Stein Aug 17, 2021 - 12 min read

America’s Founding Lagers: The Pre-Prohibition Landscape Primary Image

As a beer historian, I know the past is a foreign country with strange norms and customs that we can’t always comprehend. So anytime I start feeling sad or annoyed about the state of American craft beer, I reflect on the past and think of all the weird crap Americans have had in our beer throughout the centuries.

The further back you go, the weirder the ingredients get—but maybe that’s unfair to the brewers back then. Malted beans or malted peas are strange to us as 21st century brewers, but they might be normal to an 18th century brewer. And what would that brewer make of adding lactose for sweetness or tossing in some pea shoots to turn the beer a beautiful purple color? So what if their molasses beer and persimmon beer had no barley in them? Typically, they were boiled with hops, just like ours.

American lager follows those early beers of colonial America. Those beers—persimmon beer, molasses beer, strong ale—are not well-known today. Theirs was a time in American history when beer was brewed by enslaved people and women. We might know the names of their beers—ale, strong beer—but likely not the names of brewers, such as Peter Hemings (who brewed ale at Monticello) or Eliza Smith (whose cookbook, the first printed in the United States, features a recipe for strong beer).

In Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood, there is a historical marker honoring what is believed to be America’s first lager brewer. It reads, “In 1840 John Wagner brought lager yeast from his native Bavaria and brewed the nation’s first lager beer.” In many ways, Wagner was a saloon or brewpub brewer. His brewery was in the back of his house, his boil conducted in a kettle on a crane over an open hearth. Wagner’s home brewery was likely in line with those that came before him in 1840, even if—according to another Philadelphia brewer—Wagner was the first to use Bavarian lager yeast.

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Whether or not Wagner definitely was the first lager brewer in America, his lager predates the world’s first pilsner, commemorated two years later in Bohemia. There is little doubt among beer historians that America’s first lagers were darker than the popular pale, pilsner-style beers of today.

But what was in them, how were they brewed, and what were they like? From America’s first in 1840 to national Prohibition in 1920, American lager experienced radical changes. We know, because some witnesses kept excellent notes.

Master Brewer Kaiser

Paul Kaiser was a member of the Master Brewers Association of America and eventually became chairman of its Educational Committee. He brewed, he wrote, and he advocated for the industry from the 1880s to the 1950s. He also was one of many brewers in the employ of Adolphus Busch.

Besides his brewer’s notebook and numerous articles written for MBAA publications, Kaiser kept a personal diary. Here is a retrospective entry—likely written in the 1950s, but looking back on the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

This brings me back to the old time good beer you hear people talk about. The saloon brewers almost all brewed a dark Munich type of beer, a good deal of it unfiltered, sold over the bar. But as time marched on, the demand was for a lighter, Pilsener type of beer; and this eliminated the saloon brewer. The same thing happened to the brewer of exclusive dark beers, who could or would not adjust to the existing conditions; and quite a few of these plants dropped by the wayside. We also had a few exclusive ale breweries who gradually disappeared from the picture. The introduction of the crown cap and the improvement of bottling machinery brought the larger plants into the bottling line, gradually eliminating the small bottler, and by the way supplying the drinking public with a better product.

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The vast majority of Kaiser’s pre-Prohibition recipes feature adjuncts such as grits, rice, sugar, and wheat flakes—though he does have an all-malt Munich recipe. This beer was brewed with pale, caramel, and dark malts, and it stands out because there is no rice, grits, sugar, or wheat. In the 84-page notebook, the Munich is one of only five all-malt recipes.

American Bock

Kaiser was a member of the Vereinigten Staaten Braumeister Bund, which was the name of the Master Brewers Association of America until World War I, according to his diary. From 1900 to 1917, he brewed at the Weger Brothers Brewing Company in Philadelphia.

In Kaiser’s brewing notebook is a recipe for “Weger Brothers Bock, 1909.” The grain bill: 46 percent pale malt, 36 percent grits, 10 percent wheat flakes, 7 percent caramel malt, and 1 percent porter malt. For hops, it got a bittering charge of California hops and two later additions of imported hops. I’ve yet to determine whether those were Canadian, Czech, English, or German, but we know all four can be used to make excellent American bock.

As a style, American bock is different from German bock. It’s lower in alcohol and comes from a time when American public taste was transitioning from Munich-style brown beer to paler pilsner. The best-known holdout of this once very popular style is Shiner Bock, which today is 4.4 percent ABV and has 13 IBUs. Its lineage is a product originally made for the brewer’s home market in Texas.

Sometimes darker and often hoppier than Shiner, American bock was born well before the invention of the IBU scale. Shiner Bock holds true to the strength, if not the pre-war color or hop character. While it does contain roasted barley, the Weger Brothers Bock of 1909 used porter malt—a dark malt that could vary greatly from maltster to maltster. Porter malt even varied within a single batch, with some grains closer to the color of corn and others closer to charcoal.

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In trying to reproduce this recipe today, in place of the porter malt, we’ve used different Carafa varieties as well as brown malt. We also were lucky enough to have some porter malt hand-roasted over an ironwood-fed fire by Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt in Massachusetts. Changing the one variable of what you’re going to use for the now-extinct porter malt will yield wonderfully different American bocks … but the best ones are infinitely crushable, with an ABV on the south side of 5 percent.

Pre-Pro Lager

Two pages later in Kaiser’s notebook is a recipe for “Draught Beer 1912.” This recipe consists of 46 percent pale malt, 42 percent grits, and 12 percent wheat flakes. It gets two charges of California hops and one of New York hops. My research firm, Lost Lagers, first brewed Draught Beer 1912 at the Lake Anne Brew House in Reston, Virginia. The two-barrel batch was called Praize the Maize, and we sourced historic Cluster hops from California and from New York—and they tasted quite different during a sensory trial before we brewed the beer.

We served Praize the Maize alongside other historical beers at the Gordon Biersch in Washington, D.C., during the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference. It was at this event that Dusan Kwiatkowski, head brewer at Live Oak in Austin, Texas, got the idea for their Pre-War Pils. It’s interesting to study the similarities and differences.

Praize the Maize was 4.8 percent ABV, whereas Live Oak’s Pre-War is 5 percent. Live Oak dropped the flaked wheat from the original recipe. They also dropped the proportion of brewer’s grits from 42 percent down to about 35 percent.

Praize the Maize featured Cluster hop varieties from Crooked Creek Hops Farm in New York, as well as an heirloom Cluster variety from California called Ivanhoe. (Per the grower, Hops-Meister, the California variety is from Lake County, resuscitated after a 100-year sabbatical.) In their Pre-War Pils, Live Oak swapped in German hops for the American hops.

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Praize the Maize was a single-infusion lager and not decocted, whereas Pre-War Pils gets a cereal mash prior to decoction.

More about Ingredients & Process

Both the 1909 Bock and 1912 Draught recipes list higher percentages of corn than what the Beer Judge Certification Program recommends in its Pre-Prohibition Lager category. The BJCP suggests 20 to 30 percent flaked maize or rice. Likewise, the Brewers Association’s Great American Beer Festival guidelines say that American Pilsner, which is supposed to “hew to American-style lagers typical of the pre-Prohibition era,” should have “up to 25 percent corn and/or rice in the grist.”

Yet these two pre-war, pre-Prohibition lagers were brewed in Philadelphia with 36 percent and 42 percent corn, respectively. Factor in flaked wheat, and Kaiser’s 1912 Draught Beer is technically 54 percent adjuncts.

In 1920, the national average was 11.2 oz (318 g) of hops per barrel of beer. Averaging that out to five gallons today, it’s about 1.8 oz per five-gallon batch. Whether you’re using American, Czech, English, or German hops, my preference for these lagers is firm bitterness and fair amount of hop aroma. Consider the classic hopping schedule of additions at 90, 60, and 30 minutes. Also consider first-wort hopping and using your “best hops” at the end of your boil—as Kaiser himself recommended in one of his MBAA articles.

It’s harder to find a pre-Prohibition lager that was dry hopped and advertised as such, compared to beers immediately following Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. From these ads, we know that New York brewers were dry hopping with Bavarian hops in 1934, and Indiana brewers were doing so in 1936. We know that Pittsburgh brewers were dry hopping with Saaz and that they were using “Pacific” hops—likely grown in Washington state—in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1940.

It was common to age these beers for a significant amount of time. Before Prohibition, about 1912, Minnesota had lager aged from four to six months, and D.C. had lager aged from eight to 10 months.

I’ve never delayed gratification long enough to age my lager more than four months. But be they bocks or pale lagers, I always enjoy seeing them disappear soon afterward.

Michael Stein is president of Lost Lagers, Washington, D.C.’s premier beverage research firm. His historic beers have been served at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Polish Ambassador’s residence.

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