How did lager beer become America’s most popular libation, sold everywhere from convenience stores to luxury hotels? It began in the mid-19th century when throngs of German immigrants brewed the light, pale, effervescent alcoholic beverage in their kitchens for a taste of home.
Resourceful German brewers grew 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 both alcohol and immigrants tried to derail their progress. A fight over the right to drink lager even pulled apart the professional baseball league, launching what would become the American League.
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The ‘German Triangle’ and the Rise of Beer Barons
Nearly 5 million Germans immigrants entered the United States between 1820 and 1900, many flocking to growing manufacturing hubs around the Midwest, especially in and around St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, the so-called “German Triangle.” By mid-century, some craftsmen brought over the yeast and recipes for Bavarian lagers and golden pilsners. The bubbly, palish beers took six weeks to eight months to make in temperatures slightly above freezing, but could be stored for longer periods of time, a sales advantage over darker Anglo-inspired ales, which had dominated U.S. beer consumption until then. Because ales had short fermentation times, they soured quickly, limiting brewers’ batch size and market reach.
An estimated 4,000 German breweries popped up around the country by the mid-1870s, according to beer historian Carl Miller, becoming neighborhood hubs in growing cities. New “beer barons” forged brewing dynasties around 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 City; and Jacob Ruppert, another New Yorker who bought the struggling New York Yankees in 1915 and used beer profits to build Yankee Stadium and hire Babe Ruth and other star players.
Headiest among America’s beer boomtowns was Milwaukee, which by the late 19th century boasted four of the world’s largest ethnic German-owned breweries and became the top beer-producing city in the world for years. One reason: the intense rivalry between brewers Frederick Pabst and Joseph Schlitz.
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Brewers Seek Expansion to Non-German Markets
To grow the market for German lager, brewers had to get non-Germans to drink it. Pabst and Schlitz found opportunities in both tragedy and war.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871—some 90 miles down the coast of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee—left 100,000 people homeless, leveled 18,000 structures and burned virtually all the city’s breweries. Pabst used his newer steam-powered ship to quickly move barrels of lager south, buying up warehouse space in Chicago to store them. Schlitz transported barrels by rail and gave free beer to forlorn survivors, fostering widespread goodwill.
Ten years earlier, Schlitz had made a similarly savvy move during the Civil War, shipping ice-chilled barrels down the Mississippi River to some of the 200,000 German immigrants fighting for the North. Germans comprised the largest ethnic contingent in the Union Army—one out of every 10 soldiers—and all along the river and near the battlefields, they mixed with locals, spreading the crisp, light lager taste to more non-German palates.
New technologies and brewing techniques also helped expand markets. Steam engines improved shipping and brewing. Refrigeration and artificial cooling, which arrived in the 1870s, allowed lager makers to store beer longer and ship it farther. Countrywide, brewers kept tweaking their recipes, searching for the right ingredients to make a crisper, cleaner, more bubbly beer with a much longer shelf life.
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At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Pabst and Schlitz vied on the international stage for the title of America’s top brewer, showcasing their beers to more than 27 million visitors. While Schlitz took prizes for three lagers, Pabst’s Best Select beer earned top honors. Henceforth, it was called Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Brewers Fight Bigots and Tee-totalers
As the German-dominated beer industry grew, opponents emerged, decrying the double scourge of immigrants and alcohol.
The anti-alcohol temperance movement, driven mostly by Anglo Protestants, made strides in the 1850s when 13 states banned the sale of alcoholic beverages, which were blamed for ills ranging from domestic violence and political corruption to gambling and prostitution.
In the battle for public morals, “lager-loving Germans” and “whiskey-soaked Irishmen” were often lumped together as targets. But for Germans, drinking beer was not just the province of rowdy men in pubs. It was part of their daily lives and culture—and it was a family affair. Just as they brought kindergarten and hot dogs to their new home in America, German brewers established open-air beer gardens where working people, flirting couples and young families went on Sundays to socialize, hear live music and enjoy the outdoors—with, yes, beer on tap. Some took on a mini amusement park atmosphere.
The temperance fight in the 1850s overlapped with nativist, anti-immigrant movements like the Know-Nothing Party, which sometimes employed violence. In 1855, the Know-Nothings in 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 protest over the trial of eight German saloon keepers sparked a violent police crackdown, ending in one death and several dozen arrests. Also in 1855, Know-Nothings angry over election losses rioted, attacking German communities and breweries in Columbus and Cincinnati in Ohio and in Louisville, Kentucky.
A Battle Over Beer Spawns a New Baseball League
The morals fight even spread to baseball fields.
In 1878, the relatively new National Baseball League, seeking to sanitize its image, stopped selling alcohol in stadiums, banned Sunday games and hiked ticket prices out of reach for working people. Fans of a team in Protestant Worcester, Massachusetts complained about league stadiums with drunkards, gamblers and prostitutes.
The league expelled the team of Cincinnati, a German-dominated city, when its president refused to follow the new rules. Six teams responded by bolting from the league, including four from heavily German-American St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In 1881, they formed the American Association, derogatively called “The Beer and Whiskey League,” which eventually became the American League in Major League Baseball.
War and Prohibition Stop Beer From Flowing
After the turn of the century, though, opposition intensified.
During World War I, anti-German sentiment made life and business for German Americans considerably harder. In 1920, the passage of Prohibition banning alcohol sales in the country dealt the death blow for all beer gardens and breweries, giving rise to organized crime trafficking in liquor. When it ended in 1933, only the large brewers with national brands, who had found ways to adapt—including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz, Miller and what would merge into Anheuser-Busch—remained.