How did lager become America’s most popular drink, sold everywhere from convenience stores to luxury hotels? It all started in the middle of the 19and century, when crowds of German immigrants brewed the light, pale, and effervescent booze in their kitchens for a taste of home.
Resourceful German brewers turned the lager industry into a powerhouse by aggressively promoting the new drink to American palates, even turning war and tragedy into opportunity. They cemented their dominance by adopting new industrial technologies and continually improving their recipes. Along the way, opponents of alcohol and immigrants tried to derail their progress. A fight for the right to drink lager even split the professional baseball league, launching what would become the American League.
The “German Triangle” and the Rise of the Beer Barons
Nearly 5 million German immigrants entered the United States between 1820 and 1900, many of them flocking to growing manufacturing centers in the Midwest, particularly in and around St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati , the so-called “German triangle”. In the middle of the century, some craftsmen brought the yeast and the recipes for Bavarian lagers and golden pilsners. Sparkling and pale ales took six weeks to eight months to be made at temperatures slightly above freezing, but could be stored for longer periods of time, a commercial advantage over darker Anglo-inspired ales -Saxon, which until then dominated the consumption of beer in the United States. Because the beers had short fermentation times, they spoiled quickly, limiting brewers’ batch sizes and market reach.
According to beer historian Carl Miller, around 4,000 German breweries sprang up across the country by the mid-1870s, becoming neighborhood centers in growing cities. New “beer barons” forged brewing dynasties across the country: Adolphus Busch at the helm of his father-in-law Eberhard Anheuser’s operation in St. Louis; Christian Moerlein in Cincinnati; George Ehret, who ran Hell Gate Brewery in New York; and Jacob Ruppert, another New Yorker who bought the struggling New York Yankees in 1915 and used the beer profits to build Yankee Stadium and hire Babe Ruth and other star players.
Milwaukee, which at the end of the 19and century had four of the largest ethnic German-owned breweries in the world and was the world’s leading beer-producing city for years. One reason: the intense rivalry between brewers Frederick Pabst and Joseph Schlitz.
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Brewers seek to expand into non-German markets
To develop the market for German lager, brewers had to make non-Germans drink it. Pabst and Schlitz found opportunity both in tragedy and in war.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, some 90 miles from Milwaukee on the Lake Michigan coast, left 100,000 people homeless, razed 18,000 structures, and burned down virtually every brewery in the city. Pabst used his new steamer to quickly move barrels of lager south, buying warehouse space in Chicago to store them. Schlitz transported barrels by rail and gave away free beer to desperate survivors, fostering widespread goodwill.
Ten years earlier, Schlitz had made an equally shrewd move during the Civil War, shipping icy barrels down the Mississippi River to some of the 200,000 German immigrants fighting for the North. The Germans were the largest ethnic contingent in the Union Army – one in 10 soldiers – and all along the river and near the battlefields they mingled with the locals, spreading the light, crisp taste of lager to more non-German palates.
New technologies and brewing techniques have also helped expand markets. Steam engines improved navigation and brewing. Refrigeration and artificial cooling, which arrived in the 1870s, allowed lager makers to store beer longer and ship it further. Brewers across the country continued to tweak their recipes, searching for the right ingredients to make crisper, cleaner, more bubbly beer with a much longer shelf life.
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At the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Pabst and Schlitz competed on the international stage for the title of the best American brewer, presenting their beers to more than 27 million visitors. While Schlitz took home awards for three lagers, Pabst’s Best Select beer took home top honors. Henceforth it was called Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Brewers fight zealots and totalizers
As the German-dominated beer industry grew, opponents emerged, decrying the twin plagues of immigrants and alcohol.
The anti-alcohol temperance movement, led mostly by Anglo-Protestants, made headway in the 1850s when 13 states banned the sale of alcoholic beverages, which were blamed for evils ranging from domestic violence and political corruption gambling and prostitution.
In the battle for public morals, “lager-loving Germans” and “whiskey-soaked Irishmen” were often lumped together as targets. But for the Germans, drinking beer was not just the domain of rowdies in pubs. It was part of their daily life and part of their culture – and it was a family affair. Just as they brought kindergarten and hot dogs to their new home in America, German brewers created beer gardens where workers, flirtatious couples and young families came on Sundays to socialize, listen to live music and enjoying the outdoors – with, yes, draft beer. Some have taken on a mini amusement park feel.
Temperance struggle in the 1850s overlapped with anti-immigrant nativist movements like the Know-Nothing Party, which sometimes employed violence. In 1855, the Know-Nothings of Chicago elected Mayor Levi Boone, who increased saloon license fees six-fold and hired a nativist police force to close saloons on Sundays. That same year, a demonstration against the trial of eight German saloon owners sparked a violent police crackdown, which resulted in one death and several dozen arrests. Also in 1855, Know-Nothings angry at election losses rioted, attacking German communities and breweries in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky.
READ MORE: When German immigrants were America’s undesirables
A battle over beer spawns a new baseball league
The fight against morality has even extended to baseball fields.
In 1878, the relatively new National Baseball League, seeking to clean up its image, stopped selling alcohol in stadiums, banned Sunday games, and raised ticket prices beyond the reach of workers. Fans of a Protestant team in Worcester, Massachusetts, complained about league stadiums with drunks, gamblers and prostitutes.
The league expelled the team from Cincinnati, a German-dominated city, when its president refused to follow the new rules. Six teams responded by leaving the league, including four from heavily German-American St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In 1881, they formed the American Association, pejoratively called “The Beer and Whiskey League”, which eventually became Major League Baseball’s American League.
War and Prohibition keep the beer from flowing
After the turn of the century, however, opposition intensified.
During World War I, anti-German sentiment made the lives and businesses of German Americans considerably more difficult. In 1920, the passage of Prohibition banning the sale of alcohol in the country dealt the deathblow to all beer gardens and breweries, giving rise to organized crime in liquor trafficking. When it ended in 1933, only the major national brand brewers, which had found ways to adapt – including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz, Miller and what would merge with Anheuser-Busch – remained.