Saturday, 7 February 2015

American brewing in the 1930’s – Lager and Ale

As promised, something about the beers being produced in the USA in the 1930’s.

First a couple of analyses of typical beers:

“The gravities of high-class beers are between 12 and 14° Balling or between 1048 and 1056°. Typical beer analyses are given in Table III.

Table: III
Analyses of Typical American Beers

Lager No. 1. Lager No. 2. Ale
Original gravity 1053 1051.4 1055.7
Present gravity 1013.5 1015.7 1011.8
Colour, 1 inch cell 11 11.5 14
Alcohol per cent. by weight 4.2 3.7 4.6
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 5, September-October 1936, page 418.

Now that’s useful. It’s answered a question which had been puzzling me: what colour was American Ale? The answer is pretty pale. A good bit paler than English Ales of the same period:

Barclay Perkins Ale colours in 1936
Beer Style colour 1 inch cell
XX 6d Mild 38-40
X 5d Dark Mild 85-90
XLK Ordinary Bitter 20-22
PA Best Bitter 21-23
KK Burton 85-90
DB Brown Ale 105-115
IPA IPA 19-21
Barclay Perkins brewing record held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number ACC/2305/01/621.

With a gravity of 1053º, PA is the closest equivalent to the American Ale. You can see that it’s around 50% darker. So it looks like American Ale had already become significantly paler in the USA. Presumably as a reaction to Lager’s success.

Interestingly, the Lagers are darker than most Continental versions. As this shows:

Some Continental Lagers
Year Brewer Beer OG FG ABV App. Attenuation colour Acidity
1939 Carlsberg Pilsenser 1044.5 1009.9 4.50 77.75% 9 0.04
1939 Tuborg Pilsenser 1044.6 1011.5 4.30 74.22% 8 0.04
1950 Pilsner Urquell Pilsenser 1049 1013.5 4.61 72.45% 10.5 0.08
Whitbread Gravity books held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document numbers LMA/4453/D/02/001 and LMA/4453/D/02/002.

I’ve thrown in Pilsner Urquell there as a marker, it being darker than most Pilseners. The American beers are a very similar shade.

Something else I noticed when I fiddled with those analyses a bit: the degree of attenuation of the Ale is higher than the two Lagers.

Beer OG FG ABV App. Atten-uation
Lager No. 1 1053.0 1013.5 5.23 74.53%
Lager No. 2 1051.4 1015.7 4.72 69.46%
Ale 1055.7 1011.8 5.81 78.82%

Now some description of American beer’s flavour:

“The visitor who, more often than not, confines himself to bottled and canned beers and ales will probably come away with the impression that American beers are as a rule pleasant, refreshing and highly carbonated beverages with a pale colour, but that they do not usually drink their gravity in comparison with English beers of similar strength. Generally the hop flavour is light and attractive, but sometimes the flavour of the Pacific Coast hops is detectable and occasionally there is a flavour that suggests imperfect removal of the fine sediment during cooling. In most cities there is a choice between beers of the breweries of St. Louis and Milwaukee with nationwide distribution and those of local breweries, in some cases almost equally large and famous. Many of the beers and breweries have German names and a large number of the workmen are of German origin, so that it is not astonishing to find that a large proportion of the beer is of lager type, though brewed from very different materials from those used for European lagers and by methods appropriate for those materials.”
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 5, September-October 1936, page 418.

Fascinating, too, that American beers were already lighter in flavour and less hoppy. You can see how unimpressed British brewers were by the flavour of West Coast hops. Having their flavour in the finished beer was clearly seen as a fault.

If you remember that table of nationally-distributed pre-prohibition bottled beers you’ll recall that all of them came from the Midwest. Which is where St. Louis and Milwaukee are located. Many of the breweries did indeed have German names. But note how the author stresses that the materials and brewing methods were very different from those on the Continent.

More about Beer and Ale:

“The term "beer" is restricted to the lager type. It is usually filtered and carbonated and sold very cold.

There is a very considerable and apparently increasing demand for top fermentation beers, which are always referred to as ales. The demand seems to be for a very pale ale with a distinctive hop flavour, and it is not difficult to realise that it is no simple matter to obtain the flavour typical of English ales from the very lightly cured Manchuria malts containing about 2 per cent, of nitrogen, mashed with a high proportion of maize grits or rice or brewed with some sugar which may be a glucose syrup or invert, particularly when the hops are mostly of the American types. It is difficult to estimate the consumption of ale, but a personal estimate is that approximately 10 per cent, of the entire consumption consists of ale. The popularity of the lager beer is due to the fact that the American public prefers cold drinks, and it is obvious that ale loses a great deal in character by severe chilling.”
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 5, September-October 1936, page 418.

I’m sure the irritating modern habit of calling all top-fermenting beers “Ales” has its roots in old American usage. I think it’s wildly optimistic – or just plain wrong – to say that demand for Ales was rising. I’m pretty sure it was in decline.

I think he’s politely saying that American versions weren’t a patch on English Ales. And were further ruined by being sold too cold.

Barley and malt next time.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Ron, I can't show you what color American ale was in 1936, but I can show you what it was ten years later—I have an unopened bottle of Beverwyck Cream Ale from the mid-1940s. It looks to be a light copper color (although it’s cloudy, and in a green bottle). The color reminds me of Yuengling lager—also in green bottle.

I'm not convinced that ale’s popularity wanes as much as everybody thinks it did after prohibition. A good number of American regional breweries in the 1930s and 40s still made a variety of top-fermented beer—especially in the Northeast. Everything from IPA and Scotch Ales to Porters Cream Ales and things just labeled "Ale". Was it on the rise? Maybe not, but I wouldn’t say it was in decline, either. I think its decline comes later—in the 1950s and 60s—when the regional breweries start buying each other and American beer starts becoming more homogenized.