“The man who called it ‘near beer’ was a bad judge of distance.” – W.C. Fields
THIS autumn marks the 70th anniversary of the demise of the scourge of our favorite adult beverage:
Oh, the non-alcoholic brew is still around, for reasons that escape my ethyl-disoriented gourd. But 1933 – the end of Prohibition – was also the end of government-mandated near beer.
During the U.S. alky drought, Eliot Ness and company had made certain that the few breweries that somehow managed to duck Carrie Nation’s axe produced only beer minus buzz.
Thus, if you wanted a lager or ale, near beer was the nearest you could get to the real stuff.
Technically, it wasn’t really a beer – the labels called it a “cereal beverage.”
But the beverage started out as real beer. The alcohol was removed, usually by boiling or vacuuming off the booze.
Philadelphians subsisted on Puritan or Birell from Schmidt’s, Sansco from Arnholt & Schaefer, and something called Maola from Liebert & Obert (now the site of Yards Brewing in Kensington). Elsewhere, Pabst poured Pablo, Schlitz foamed Famo, Miller made Vivo, Stroh had something called Lux-o, and Anheuser-Busch brewed Bevo.
(Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery, also brewed a near beer. But its big bucks apparently came from ice cream.)
How’d the near beer taste? One food authority described it as “such a wishy-washy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop that it might have been dreamed up by a Puritan Machiavelli with the intent of disgusting drinkers with genuine beer forever.”
Of course, says Pennsylvania brewery historian Rich Wagner, the temptation was to just sell the real beer. Breweries were constantly exploiting loopholes, claiming, for example, that all those kegs of full-strength beer in the back room were “aging.”
“They’d tell the authorities that the vats developed a leak, and they had to keg it,” Wagner laughs. “Or maybe they’d have to keep the beer fridges running, or else the vats would explode.
“There was always an emergency!”
And what about all the alcohol that had been removed? If you knew where to look, you could find it sold in a separate vial – for medicinal purposes, naturally. Bootleggers often re-injected the alcohol with a syringe, creating a brew known as “needle beer.”
That was hardly adequate for the suds-thirsty masses.
In 1923, one newspaper report cried, “Beer with a kick to it, if too long denied the millions who clamor for it and turn up their noses at the Volsteadized beverage, may bring about bloody revolution in this country some day.”
It wasn’t revolt, but on Oct. 5, 1931, Philadelphia baseball fans showed their displeasure at the World Series. With President Herbert Hoover in attendance at Shibe Park, boo-birds disrupted the game with a thundering chant, “We want beer!”
Prohibition finally ended in April 1933, when real beer was legalized. By autumn, the remaining bottles of near beer had mostly disappeared from shelves.
I know, N.A. beer is still around. O’Doul’s, Buckler, Clausthaler, Kaliber, Sharp’s – in the spirit of the the end of Prohibition, I think I’ll pass.
Gimme a real beer instead.
Still curious about near beer and the dark ages of beer? Rich Wagner will lecture on “Philadelphia Breweries During Prohibition” at 2 p.m., Oct. 11, at Yards Brewery, 2439 Amber St. The event is free and open to the public.
Local brewers are boasting that the awards at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, held last weekend in Denver, are proof of the region’s wide range of beer expertise.
While other areas are known for specific types of beer (highly hopped pale ales on the West Coast, for example), they note that Philadelphia-area brewers won medals for everything from standard lagers to exotic lambics.
“Our area brewers won for Belgians, dunkels, even a Berliner weisse,” crowed Sly Fox brewer Brian O’Reilly, who took home a bronze for his pils. “I don’t think locals really appreciate how much good beer there is in the East.”
The other big story was the return of Bill Moore. The highly regarded former brewer at Stoudt’s had been out of the limelight for several years, scrambling for work after the collapse of Independence Brewing.
But he’s back at Ortlieb’s Brewery & Grille at the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown.
And he scored big with a his Ortlieb’s Select 69 Lager, taking home a silver in the European-style pilsener category. It was his first GABF medal since 1998.
“For us here, we really kind of entered it to show people we’re making what we think are world-class beers,” Moore said. “Out here in Pottstown, there are not a whole lot of beer geeks. But people starting to travel here now.”
If you can’t make the trip west, the beer is available in Center City at Maggiano’s Little Italy, 1201 Filbert St.
Tomorrow: Oktoberfest at Triumph Brewing (400 Union Square, New Hope). Sample beers from 10 local breweries at Triumph’s new brewpub next to the old New Hope & Ivyland Railroad station. Crafts, live German music and food, with proceeds benefiting the James A. Michener Art Museum. 1-5 p.m., $15 for unlimited beer samples, 215-862-8300.
Sunday: Oktoberfest at Stoudt’s Brewing (Route 272, Adamstown). Music, food, German-style brews – you know the drill. 717-484-4386.
Thursday: Oktoberfest at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (all four locations, in West Chester; Media; Newark, Del.; and the newest in Wilmington). Chefs prepare traditional dishes as well as their own interpretations of Germany’s cuisine, matching the brewery’s Oktoberfest beer. The festival continues on each Thursday of the month. 610-738-9600.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of St. Bernardus Abt 12.