Pre-Prohibition brews weren’t the tastiest beers

IF WE’RE living in the best of beer times – an unprecedented era of expansive choice, inventive styles and technological superiority – how do you explain the aberration that’s come to be called Pre-Pro?

Now, you can count me among the corps of traditionalists who hold it as an article of faith that older is better than new. I prefer worn jeans, experienced women and baseball played on grass.

But there’s no way that you’ll convince me that beer brewed before the invention of the flip-top can was any better, or even more “authentic,” than what we’re drinking today.

Nonetheless, nostalgia-minded brewers have jumped in the Wayback Machine to dig up old recipes from those heady days of yore. Session Lager from Full Steam calls itself “a classic all-malt pre-Prohibition style lager. ” Nebraska’s Lucky Bucket says its pre-Prohibition style “salutes a time when lagers had greater character and more distinct flavor, when beer wasn’t full of the additives found in many of today’s mainstream lagers. ” Brooklyn Lager describes itself as “a revival of Brooklyn’s pre-Prohibition all-malt beers. “

All of these are fine beers. Pure, smooth, malty, refreshing and satisfying, they’re exactly what you might imagine filled those kegs that Carrie Nation smashed with her ax.

Only none of them is what our great-grandfathers were actually drinking before the Prohibition. By the time the 18th Amendment rolled around, America was already hooked on corn and rice.

Scroll through the authoritative 1902 “American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades” by R. Wahl & M. Henius (go ahead, it’s on Google Books), and you’ll find that by the early 20th century, U.S. brewers had adopted and praised corn and rice as suitable adjuncts to traditional barley malt.

Really, they had little choice.

By then, beer-drinkers around the world were favoring clear, golden and light over murky, brown and heavy. Bohemia had its Pilsener, Germany had its Helles . . . and America?

Well, America’s brewing giants – Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst and Joseph Schlitz – couldn’t match the Europeans. Their malt was produced from domestic six-row barley, a variety that contains more protein than the two-row barley favored in Europe. More protein means unsightly haze and a harsher flavor.

The solution was adjunct ingredients. Corn and rice could smooth out the flavor and reduce the haze without adding body.

Brewers found that the cereals “not only gave a paler color, greater stability and other valuable properties to the beer,” the Wahl and Henius guide reports, “but also enabled beers to be produced more cheaply, and its adoption speedily became general. “

“All-malt Pre-Pro Lager,” it turns out, is a contradiction of terms.

If you really want a true taste of what was flowing in saloons way back when, do yourself a favor and track down a glass of Batch 19 made by – hold onto your mugs – Coors.

According to the brewery, the new lager (initially available only in five test markets, including Washington, D.C.) is based on a recipe from a brewer’s log dating to just before the Prohibition. The company isn’t saying, but I’m guessing from its sweetness there’s a good bit of corn.

It’s robust, quite smooth, medium-bodied and satisfying.

Which is more than just a little ironic.

For, if Batch 19 is truly authentic, then this fine lager was the first step toward the evil known as Coors Light. After Prohibition, big brewers would continue to lighten their recipes, adding still more cheap adjuncts, softening the bitterness and watering the beers down till they were utterly lifeless.

Kind of makes you wonder why any craft brewer would want to make a Pre-Pro.

Beer baron cemetery tour

You can get a good taste of what I’m talking about Oct. 23 when West Mount Laurel Cemetery hosts one of the coolest beer-drinking events I’ve encountered. It’s a home-brew contest combined with a one-of-a-kind tour of the graves and mausoleums of Philadelphia’s beer barons.

Hohenadel, Bergdoll, Poth, Betz, Bergner, Engel, Schmidt – the greatest names in Philly’s beer-making history – are laid out on the rolling hills of this scenic cemetery.

Brewing historian Rich Wagner will recount their stories and lead a tour of their resting places. At each stop, you can taste homebrewed versions of the Pre-Pro beers these men produced.

Joe Sixpack will be on hand as a judge. Proceeds benefit the preservation of West Laurel Hill Cemetery and the Mission Fund of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Roxborough. Tix are just $10, and that gets you a custom pint glass and hors d’oeuvres. The event runs from 3-5 p.m. Tix and info: 610-668-4258 or


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *