Read This Book: Ambitious Brew- The Story of American Beer

18 04 2010

Ambitious Brew- The Story of American Beer
by Maureen Ogle
Published by Mariner Books Boston, MA 2007
Available at most book stores and on Amazon.com

Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew- The Story of American Beer is, in itself, ambitious. To write the history of American beer is inherently different from, say, The Battle at Gettysburg or the opening day of Disneyland. It is a history that spans centuries, geography and incorporates science, technology, politics, popular culture and religion. And as is the case with many books that attempt to be comprehensive, it is hardly what it sets out to be. Ogle’s book begins in Milwaukee in 1840; a daring, if not controversial, time to begin a book on American history. At this point, the United States had been a country for about 60 years. And Europe had been on the East Coast of modern day USA for about 200 years. But this points to a reality of what this is really about: corporate, industrial beer.

Beer had existed here before 1840. Indigenous American Indians all had alcohol, much of it corn based–making it more closely related to Budweiser than anything in Germany or England. And famously, the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts instead of Virginia because they were running low on supplies, particularly beer. But people soon learned that the Eastern Seaboard was a poor environment for making beer. Barley did not grow well in the craggy soil of the North, nor the swampy mud of the South. There is a myth that the Founding Fathers brewed their revolution over flagons of foamy ale. But they more likely drank whiskey, coffee, tea and cider in their meetings. Ben Franklin, for one, while a lover of beer, was well known for haunting coffeehouses of his day.

For the most part, beer in America was rare until the 1800’s. Beer became more popular due to two occurrences: the opening of the West and the rise in immigrants. As rich, arable land became available and German and Czech immigrants¬† arrived, beer became easier to make and more favorable. This is why Ogle chose to start here. She follows the great brewing families of the 19th century: the Millers, the Buschs, the Pabsts and the Uiliehns. For the most part, she moves quickly; the rise of the beer barons and the empires, the battle for the top, the debate over prohibition, post-war mergers, the “dark ages”, the rise of micro and craft brews, and beer’s modern renaissance.

It is a quick read. At times it can get a bit bogged down in the details. It can become confusing when thirty years of brewing history gets condensed into three pages, especially when it comes down to remembering which eccentric relative is which. But overall, it is very illuminating. Ogle does a very good job debunking some common misconceptions about industrial beer. For instance, many people think that American breweries use adjuncts like rice and corn to make beer less expensive. However the use of these ingredients was a very well thought-out decision. Up until recently, it was actually more expensive to brew with rice and corn than just barley. It was not until the 1960’s and ’70’s that corn was a cheap commodity for brewing. Furthermore, people in Post WWII wanted bland food and drinks. The 1950’s saw the rise of Wonderbread, vodka and TV Dinners. Research and development teams were looking for ways to strip flavor from their products everywhere, not just in beer. People were looking for ease and convenience and had become used to bland wartime rationing, both on the home front and on the war front. Beer was just one of many products that fell into that trend.

Beer in America is hardly over. Which makes it difficult to end a book on American beer history. Ogle ends it with a “State of the Union” in the American beer world. She lists the top ten breweries in America with Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors on the top (interestingly enough Miller now owns Coors and A-B is now part of the Belgian company ImBev). And while all three (now two) are looking to best each other, they are acting like lobsters in a bucket, pulling each other down as they loose ground to newer, smaller competitors. Ogle attempts to bring it all together by mentioning the new Golden Boys (and Girls) of the brewing world: Dogfish Head, Russian River, et. al. And calls for more cohesion between the Old Guard and the Vanguard. By promoting a unified beer industry that shares and educates on the virtues of beer, all could rise together. Overall, an idea that is not half-bad.

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A Decade of Beer Ads: The 1950’s

6 12 2009

Today will be the first of a series of posts where we will hastily derive sociological statements about American Beer Culture through beer advertisements found on YouTube.

Post-War America and its relationship to work and leisure: After WWII, the United States pulled out of the Great Depression to see the first major growth in GDP in over twenty years. For the 1950’s American, the return to leisure was important. Note in the following ads how beer is used for a symbol of wealth and free time.

In the ads above for Stag Beer, Mr. Magoo is on vacation and enjoying a session with the BBQ. Not only is he *not* working, but he is also partaking in leisure activities. No doubt the financial and emotional troubles of the Great Depression and War are behind him.

Let’s say you are home, watching the big fight on you your brand new television, “What’ll you have?!” Why, Pabst Blue Ribbon of course! At this point, television was still a relatively new invention and becoming increasingly more popular. For the first time ever, the middle class could afford TVs and it was becoming an important medium for socialization and leisure alike. Or, perhaps, you are on the links after a game of golf. How will you celebrate? A PBR of course! Note how the golfer is apparently playing and drinking alone. It points to the stoicism common to the masculinity of the 1950’s. No need for friends when you have yourself!

But nothing says “leisure time” than this Budweiser ad from the 1950’s. No annoying announcer, no complex story line. Just a beautiful woman, a beach, some smooth smooth jazz, a little bit of grilled meat and, of course, Budweiser. This ad was part of a $40 million campaign produced by Anheiser-Busch and it paid off. To this day, Budweiser is still considered “The King of Beers” in the United States. And all it required was some relaxing images and some smooth jazz.

Rheingold Brewing Company attempts to bring people to their product not by tapping into their desire for leisure or glamor, but through patriotism. In post-war America, the pride of winning the War as well as the threat of the Communists instilled a new sense of pride and patriotism. Here, Rheingold recreates images of a ticker tape parade through Times Square in New York City. But rather than war heroes or politicians, the subject of this parade is their beer!

With America on top again, there was a certain sense of destiny coming manifest. Here, we see this represented in a Ballentine ad, where a creepy stop motion animated bartender gives beer to what appears to be a lumber jack, a cowboy and a gold prospector, three symbols of the wild west. (But, man, those characters are creepy!)

Hamm’s Beer, from Minnesota, was all too happy to cash in on its reputation of being “from
the land of sky blue waters” by riffing off a fake first nation’s song. By showing a funny bear and including some tom tom drums and some cheesy, pretend chanting, Hamm’s was able to create an image of wide open space, untouched by the White Man and open to all the possibilities of the future.

We finish today by continuing this train of White Man’s relationship with the Other by looking at two more ads. One deals with race relations in the 1950’s and the other deals with gender roles.

Any one familiar with the film adaptation of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” will recognize this common and offensive portrayal of Chinese immigrants. In a decade where the civil rights movement was just getting started, it is important to note just how race relations played out on nightly television.

Finally, we close out with this ad from Canda’s Black Label. While I suspect it is a bit tongue in cheek, we still see a strong gender binary in which the man comes home from work at the office and his wife, after working all day, brings him a beer to relax with. Merely a whistle and Mabel comes with that Black Label.

What do you think of these ads from the 1950’s? Do you think they speak to a greater truth of the way the average American man wished to see himself? Does it still? Have we made any progress since then?