History of American brewing has gusto & a few flat spots

THE NEWLY RELEASED “Ambitious Brew,” by Maureen Ogle (Harcourt, $25), calls itself the “first-ever history of American beer.” It may be the first, but – because America was making beer 200 years before this book opens – I wouldn’t call it complete.

The Pilgrims brought ale with them to Plymouth Rock. The colonies’ first retail businesses were taverns, and the earliest manufacturers processed malt, glass and barrels for beer. The Declaration of Independence was written over mugs of ale, and the nation’s first giant beer-maker, Engel & Wolf, made its home along the banks of the Schuylkill in a neighborhood that would eventually be called Brewerytown.

But this otherwise colorful tale skips over all that and more. It almost completely ignores the East Coast and begins on a summer day in 1844 when Phillip Best – the father of what would become Pabst Brewing – began work on his brewery in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee and beer. It’s like saying Bill Gates invented the PC.

It’s a telling misstep in an expansive, well-written history, and not just because the author shrugs off two centuries of early American brewing by claiming that before Milwaukee, “beer had all the allure of an aging maiden aunt.” It’s a statement that conveniently ignores, among other things, the worldwide fame of Philadelphia’s porter and its renowned maker, Robert Smith.

Moreover, Ogle blithely rejects our city’s well-documented claim as the birthplace of American lager in 1840, crediting that landmark achievement to some little-known brewery in Alexandria, Va., of all places.

But these are the quibbles of a homeboy traditionalist.

What’s worse is that by starting this history in Milwaukee, where American industrial lager indeed got its start, the book plays right into the hands of the very corporate henchmen whose hunger for profit obliterated full-flavored beer and left us today with some vapid fluid known as Michelob Ultra.

Not that these men don’t deserve recognition. Best, Adolphus Busch, Frederick Pabst, Valentin Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, Adam Lemp – these are giants whose stories of success were earmarks of 19th-century America as a land of opportunity. In just 50 years, they took a vacant landscape and created an entire industry, built on nothing more than clean, light, crisp-tasting lager.

As Ogle illustrates, it was these driven German immigrants, not Henry Ford, who deserve credit for the first factory assembly lines, not to mention the development of nationwide distribution networks, TV advertising and branding.

Especially revealing are the exceptional letters of the Pabst family, wherein the patriarch’s obsession with quality and growth turns a small, 10,000-barrel-a-year business into a 347,000-barrel behemoth in little over a decade. Pabst prospered, she quotes from one letter, because he “knew more about the details” of his company “than any other [brewer] in the business.” That, and because he had a mammoth ego: His own partner accused him of a “false ambition to be the greatest brewer in the land.”

Similarly, Ogle paints Busch in St. Louis as the consummate salesman. “Anyone who met him walked away with a penknife or deck of cards, a corkscrew or bottle opener, each decorated with the company’s trademark eagle.” Saloons everywhere were decorated with framed lithographs from the brewery, including a gruesome depiction of Custer’s Last Stand.

And he was quick to take his competitors to court. Ogle uncovered damning, laughable testimony from Frederick Miller in an 1893 trial in which Busch accused him of bottling beer with a Budweiser label. At one point Miller admits, “I am no brewer,” a quote A-B should use in its next ad campaign.

As much as Ogle dwells on the titans’ accomplishments, she skims over the corporate greed that ruined their competitors.

She quotes without judgment from an 1889 letter from Busch to Pabst suggesting that price wars were hurting the competitors and that they ought to be “working in harmony.” Busch wrote, “Now a perfect understanding between your good self, Schlitz, Lemp and myself ought to be reached [and] matters regulated… we could easily fix and hold” prices.

Missing is any acknowledgment that Congress – spurred by public outrage over exactly these kinds of robber baron practices – outlawed price-fixing the very next year in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Likewise, Ogle writes approvingly of Busch’s development in the 1870s of Budweiser (a style and name he hijacked from Bohemia’s early pilsner brewers), defending A-B’s use of nontraditional rice and corn adjuncts that lightened the lager’s body.

But a century later, when those very adjuncts would be used to further lighten the beers and cut production costs, she hesitates to blame brewers for “reducing once fine lagers to little more than yellow water.”

Instead, it was America’s fault. Postwar drinkers wanted bland, “pale, dry, less filling” and the big brewers, Ogle says, merely complied.

In fact, Milwaukee got old and lazy, and it never reacted to the next great stage in brewing, craft beers. Which, by the way, took their cues from the true beginnings of American beer: the full-flavored ales that were brewed right here in Philadelphia so many years ago.

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