What modern beer tastes most like old-fashioned beer?
August 23, 2014 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I was thinking about the Ken Burns Prohibition documentary today, and it got me thinking: if I wanted to find what beer tasted like in the United States a century ago, what would I try?

I realize that there may have been little change in your basic lager, but just in case, I am curious: how has the taste of beer changed over the last hundred years?
posted by 4ster to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Can't speak to its authenticity or taste but Coors make as "pre-prohibition style beer" called Batch 19.
posted by Medw at 3:12 PM on August 23, 2014

Here's one called De Molen 1914, ostensibly made from a recipe from 1914. The shop is in the Netherlands, so you might have to do some jiggery-pokey to get your paws on some, but it might be worth it, it sounds delicious. There may also have been a stout.

This is a very good and interesting question. I've fallen down the rabbit hole, and I'll pop up if I find something else.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:21 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here in Texas we have Spoetzl brewery that's been operating since 1909. Allegedly their most popular beer, Shiner Bock, has used the same recipe since 1913, and they intermittently produce Shiner Premium that is "inspired by" the original 1909 golden lager recipe.
posted by muddgirl at 3:25 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ales of the Revolution
actually a lot of smaller breweries make historically accurate beer.
posted by steinwald at 3:28 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


Greenman Brewery in Asheville, NC has 2 beers from that era. A 1914 IPA and a 1915 Traditional Mild. They may be specialties, so call them and see if that's something you can get samples of or what...

I also keep coming up with Olympia beer, which was a Pacific Northwest brewer, purchased by Pabst in the eighties. Something to think about.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:29 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Given that "pre-prohibition" seems have become a thing in beer marketing in the past few years, it would probably good to get past the PR-influenced pieces that come up when you google the term. This 1994 article might be a good start. It focuses on lagers, but notes that 'Steam' beers were quite common at the time.
posted by Good Brain at 3:40 PM on August 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

The De Molen and Green Man recipes are English, so they're probably not what you're after.

[ For those interested in historical British beer, how to recreate it, and who's trying to recreate it, Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins is your man: he provided the De Molen recipe. In the UK, the Great War was the cleaving point: pubs were more strictly regulated, hours were tightened, and the strength of beer was significantly reduced. ]

Flaked maize lagers were common: stronger, sweeter, with lots of Saaz hops, and more or less extinct in widescale production, though homebrewers make them. And steam ale, too.

The big general change in mainstream beers: less sweet, less tolerance for strong flavours. Because of that, the malt liquor shelf might be a place to start.
posted by holgate at 3:52 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

August Schell brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota was founded in 1860 and survived prohibition. Their Deer Brand lager is brewed from a pre-prohibition recipe.
posted by Area Man at 4:12 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

PBR did win its blue ribbon at the 1893 World's Fair, ya know...
posted by hwyengr at 4:13 PM on August 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Pretty Things!
posted by makeitso at 4:38 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

PBR did win its blue ribbon at the 1893 World's Fair, ya know...

Recipes change, ingredients are cheapened.
posted by goethean at 5:04 PM on August 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

how has the taste of beer changed over the last hundred years?

Quite a bit - see the article by George Fix linked above.

Brew one: Classic American Pilsner.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:11 PM on August 23, 2014

Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Lager claims to be brewed according to a pre-prohibition recipe. Anchor Steam (one of my favorites even if not one of ratebeer.com's) is also supposed to be a quite old-fashioned style of beer.
posted by dis_integration at 8:40 PM on August 23, 2014

In addition to Brooklyn Lager, Anchor Steam, and Shiner Bock, Yuengling Lager also bills itself as a "pre-prohibition" beer. The Yuengling brewery bills itself as "America's Oldest Brewery" and stayed in operation throughout Prohibition by producing "near beer". It's been owned by the same family since it was founded, and while I suppose the recipe has changed over the years, there's no reason to think it's any different now than it was in the nineteen-teens. No different, at least, than any food is from its historical antecedents.
posted by Sara C. at 12:09 AM on August 24, 2014

Another piece from the 1990s on American Pils with corn in the mash.

Recipes change, ingredients are cheapened.

This is true: the standard shift for brewers who use corn has been from grits to syrup. But beer is still an industrial product, made with relatively cheap inputs (even high-grade barley and corn are inexpensive compared to the cost of cultivating grapes for wine) and so you can also say that people's sense of 'cheapness' in beer has changed over time.

That context is what's hardest to recreate: a time before the kind of specialised cultivation that introduced the Cascade hop, its west coast peers, and the American pale ale; a time before adjuncts got a bad name for their association with mass-produced megabrands.
posted by holgate at 8:32 AM on August 24, 2014

Even with the exact same recipe, beer production has modernized and improved a lot in the last 100 years. Regular sterilization, consistent water supply, reliable refrigeration, precise fermentation control.. These all change the taste of the product, particularly the reliable consistency. Wine is generally acknowledged to be a whole lot better now than it used to be thanks to modern production methods; I suspect beer is similar.

To address one suggestion, Shiner Bock is a much better product than it used to be. Growing up in Texas in the 80s it was the cheep crappy beer high school kids bought, on par with pre-hipster PBR or Olympia. The brewery was bought in 1989. At the time it was making 30,000 barrels of beer, now it makes some 10x that.

Your question is about American beer, but I wonder if basic German lager has changed much in flavor? The purpose of the Reinheitsgebot is to ensure proper German beer is made like it always has been. And I suspect German beer production methods were modernized more quickly than anyone.
posted by Nelson at 8:51 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

if I wanted to find what beer tasted like in the United States a century ago, what would I try?

The Albany Ale Project.
In 2010, beer bloggers Alan McLeod (agoodbeerblog.com) and Craig Gravina (drinkdrank1.com) stumbled across an early 19th century advertisement for Albany Ale—but what exactly was Albany Ale? That question took them on a journey through history spanning nearly 400 years—from the arrival of the first Dutch brewers to the 21st century. Along the way, the duo has re-discovered the city’s mid-19th century phenomenon—a double-strength XX ale, brewed across the city and exported around the world—known as Albany Ale.
The first Albany Ale recreation, Amdell’s 1901 Albany XX Ale was made by C.H. Evans. The beer was only on tap, and is long sold out, but you can find a recipe in the local homebrew shop's Fall newsletter. More recreations are planned, so keep an eye on the project website.
posted by zamboni at 9:25 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yep, if you look at the career of William Sealy Gosset (who, as 'Student', gave statistics the t-test) you can see the analytical pursuit of consistency at scale taking shape just over a century ago, and that was before the modern advances in determining the purity of yeast strains and the flavouring compounds in hops. Aluminium kegs, consistent cellaring and sterile lines make a difference as well.

It's rare for American drinkers these days to be served beer that's gone bad at some point between brewery and glass. (It's more common in the UK among those who drink cask beers, but that's part of the deal.) That would have been a fairly regular experience before prohibition.
posted by holgate at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2014

There were a few American styles of beer that essentially went extinct post-prohibition that some American breweries have begun to revive over the past decade.

The first that comes to mind is the Kentucky Common, a beer that was allowed to slightly sour in the production process. Several breweries have released modern attempts at the style.

The second is the Pennsylvania Swankey, a very regional spiced session beer. The only modern version of this beer that I know of was brewed by Sly Fox, for a special event and to my knowledge has never been brewed again.
posted by nulledge at 6:09 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

ChuckAlek in San Diego County is brewing a series of porters and stouts off of historical recipes from 1804 - 1933. Here's the tumblr dedicated to the project. You're not going to find these beers outside of San Diego (I'm not even sure they're bottling them), but the tasting notes are pretty detailed.
posted by natabat at 9:05 AM on August 25, 2014

ChuckAlek is also working from British or Irish recipes via Ron Pattinson, so while I'd like to try them all, they're not beers that would have been familiar to most Americans at the time they were made.

Here's an article [PDF] aimed at homebrewers discussing pre-prohibition pilsner-style lagers in the US, and explaining the use of corn and rice adjuncts to balance out the higher protein of the six-row barley that grew better in North America than the two-row varieties preferred by most European brewers. Link via a Pattinson blog post on the rise of lager in the US, perhaps because a fermentation methods and refrigeration meant it kept somewhat better than ale in American climates.

For comparison, Pattinson talks here about the difference between Oktoberfest beers of a century ago and modern Märzens: as with many other examples, the main difference in the stats is a higher original and finishing gravity, leading to speculation that renegade yeast would impart acidity during fermentation, which would in turn need more residual sugars for balance.
posted by holgate at 9:56 PM on August 25, 2014

Upland Brewery (Bloomington, Indiana) brews Champagne Velvet, a pilsner based on a pre-prohibition recipe.

"Champagne Velvet is a Classic American Pilsner, reminiscent of what local beer tasted like before prohibition. The balance of corn and malted barley provides a golden straw color and subtle sweetness, reminding the drinker of a time when corn would be used to provide flavor and stability to beer. Cluster hops, the oldest variety grown in the United States, were used for bittering, and a late kettle addition of German Tettnang provides noble hop flavor and aroma. Grown in the southwest region of Germany where Anton Mayer was born before immigrating to the United States and taking over the Terre Haute Brewing Company, our choice of Tettnang hops are both a tribute to the man who would make Champagne Velvet’s original popularity possible while also adding a historically authentic ingredient to our recipe."


posted by steinwald at 1:29 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. This was very helpful. I thought I would also add this for posterity.

posted by 4ster at 10:25 AM on August 30, 2014

« Older Paint me a picture. A picture of Austin, Texas.   |   Spending quality time with my parents Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.