How 19th Century German Immigration Shaped The Current Environment in the U.S.
Fundamental to the psyche of the United States is the notion that it is a land of opportunity. The so-called “American Dream” is rooted in the principle that if you work hard enough, you can be successful. Today there are more than 2,500 breweries stateside and beer (directly or otherwise) employs more than 2,000,000 Americans, providing nearly $80 billion in wages and benefits. Despite a documented brewing history that stretches back more than 400 years, and a tumultuous last century that included two World Wars, Prohibition, The Depression and a flurry of acquisitions and mergers, it’s the immigration of Germans in the 1800s – and their pursuit of the American Dream – that planted the seeds of the industry as we know it today.
No written proof remains to back it up, but there’s a strong belief that sun-dried, sprouted maize (corn) was fermented in Mexico as early as the 16th century, long before Europeans started brewing in North America. This early product, called tesgüino, or chica, was mostly found in the Western and Northern parts of the country, and is likely the origin of tiswin (sometimes referred to as tulepai) – the beer-like beverage concocted by Apaches in the Sonoran desert regions of Sonora State (Mexico) and up into Arizona (USA).
Though never commercially relevant, tiswin was the source of many alleged flare-ups in Native American history, leading to General George Crook banning its consumption in the early 1880s.
The First Commercial Breweries
The very first known brewery in the U.S. – in fact, in the entire New World – was established by Adrian Block and Hans Christiansen in 1612, at the south end of what is now Manhattan. Twenty years later the Dutch West India Company set up the first commercial brewery nearby. Several of America’s founding fathers were brewers, including George Washington (whose recipe called for molasses), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Samuel Adams (cousin to John Adams).
British style ales, primarily drawn from local ingredients, dominated the young American landscape with few exceptions. One notable anomaly however, was the Eagle Brewery (Pottsville, PA), which was lagering beer in the coal-rich Pennsylvania mountains starting in 1829, Founded by David Gottlob Jüngling (also a German immigrant, who Anglicised his name after coming to America), the pioneering operation continues as D. G. Yuengling & Son, the oldest surviving brewery in the United States
Other Germans also sought a new life in America, especially as the political climate became more tenuous at home. Following the Märzrevolution of 1848, a mass migration of 4,000,000 Germans came looking for opportunity on the American Frontier. Upon arriving on the already settled Eastern shores, most moved on to the more open climes of Illinois, Missouri and territories of Wisconsin and Iowa (comprising present day Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota). With them came family brewing recipes, most of which involved lagering. Next to the ales of the day, which were less palatable and could quickly become stale, lager found a welcome audience in the areas it was produced.
Among the pioneering German emigrées were Jacob Best, founder of Best Brewing Company (later to become Pabst, Milwaukee, WI); Eberhard Anheuser whose purchase of the Bavarian Brewery (St. Louis, MO) evolved into Anheuser-Busch; Valentin Blatz, who merged his own brewery with that of his deceased father-in-law to create Blatz Beer (Milwaulkee, WI), and was first to distribute beer nationally; Frederic Miller, who transformed the Plank Road Brewery (Milwaukee, WI) in 1855 into what would become Miller Brewing Company; Joseph Schlitz, whose marriage to the widow of a brewery/tavern owner led to the formation of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company (Milwaukee, WI), and Bernhard Stroh, founder of Stroh Brewery Company (Detroit, MI) in 1850.
Civil War & Transition
Having fled oppression in Europe, the German immigrants were generally opposed to slavery and quite concerned when South Carolinians chose to secede from the Union following the election of President Lincoln in 1860. The American Civil War began in 1861, and despite his consternation, Anheuser, whose St. Louis brewery was situated close to a key strategic transportation point of the Mississippi River, profited greatly. Not only did a massive presence of soldiers head to and from conflict, but with them came and went a sizable supporting force of tradesmen, clerks, suppliers and refugees. The demand for beer was enormous; with a population of 160,000 at the time, St. Louis consumed 200,000 barrels per year. At the time each barrel could be produced for about $1.00, and sold for $8.00.
In the decades that followed a new generation of industry leaders, mostly still of German extraction, replaced their forebears as economic drivers. Frederick Pabst married into the Best family and soon took charge of what would become the largest brewery in the world. Adolphus Busch took a similar path, and married Anheuser’s daughter to head up what would also one day become the world’s most successful brewery. August Uihlein left a brewery in St. Louis, and along with three brothers (one of whom had experience as a brewer), took over operations from his uncle, Joseph Schlitz, in Milwaukee. Further west, Adolph Coors and Jacob Schueler founded the Golden Brewery, precursor to Coors Brewing Company (Golden, CO).
Innovation & Expansion
The end of the Civil War began an era of industrialization in America. Innovations in mechanization meant increased efficiencies, most visibly on display at the Philadelphia World’s Fair in 1876. Officially a celebration to mark the country’s centennial, the six month exposition was as much a celebration of how far America had come since achieving independence as a distraction from its ugliest period. America felt good about itself and continued to welcome Europeans to its thriving nation.
To the good fortune of New York’s brewers the local population exploded, jumping from roughly half a million in 1850, to 1.2-million just 30 years later. For Manhattan’s major beer barons – primarily George Ehret (the largest brewer in the country in 1877), Jacob Rupert Sr., and brothers Frederick and Maximilian Schaefer – there was more demand than even their expanding breweries could meet.
But while New York’s brewing barons were struggling to keep up, their more Westerly counterparts were building riverside cold storage facilities – ice houses – to extend their brewing seasons. Expansion-minded tycoons were planning national sales forces and forecasts.
Railway lines were opening up new shipping routes and Adolphus Busch was starting to put beer into bottles, rather than simply into kegs. He was also first to adopt Pasteurization, ensuring the quality of Anheuser’s exports as they stretched into previously unreachable areas in refrigerated rail cars (another concept Busch pioneered).
In the 1870s, in order to justify the investment in brewery expansion, Best Brewing Company made its first foray into New York’s bustling populace. A separate branch was set up on the burgeoning Eastern port with an ice house, several delivery teams and dedicated sales agents.
Around the same time breweries were giving more thought to marketing, with Schlitz branding itself “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous,” while Busch was giving out branded bottle openers (Adolphus being such as early adopter of bottling) and former sea captain Pabst having salesmen show up to taverns to loudly announce “This round is on Captain Pabst!”
1873 was a milestone year in the American brewing industry. Not only did the number of breweries reach an all-time high, capping off at 4,131, but another style of beer was being discovered on the other side of the Atlantic. A confidante of Busch, Otto Lademan, travelled to Austria that year as Missouri’s representative to the Vienna Exposition. Note only did he note that Bohemian beers were capturing most of the top awards, but he also got his first taste of a lager from Budweis, which was different from the others in the region. Colloquially called “The Beer of Kings,” it was a shade lighter and more effervescent than the traditional Pilseners. Upon his return to the United States he shared his discoveries, including Moravian barley and Saaz hops. Budweiser was born.
The Decline of Local Breweries
Increased productivity, quality control, distribution and marketing made it difficult for smaller breweries to compete. The number of American breweries plummeted to 2,830 by 1880.
Over the next 20 years more breweries fell by the wayside, while others merged their operations. In 1889, 18 local breweries came together under the banner of the St. Louis Brewing Association. A year later six Louisiana breweries combined to become the New Orleans Brewing Co.
Best Brewing Company re-flagged itself Pabst that same year and by 1893 grew to become the first brewery in the world to produce one million barrels in a single pass of the calendar, thanks in part to its own purchase of two recently merged Milwaukee breweries.
Adolphus Busch developed Michelob in 1896, as a “draught beer for connoisseurs.” Following on the success of Budweiser, this beer was also brewed in the Bohemian style, using Saaz hops.
Enduring the New Age
The 20th Century altered the beer industry enormously, but most of the great breweries started by Germans in 1800s still dominate American beer fridge inventory today. Anheuser-Busch brews ten of the twenty best selling domestic beers in America, while the more recently merged Miller-Coors produces another eight. Pabst continues to produce the 14th best selling domestic in the U.S. (Pabst Blue Ribbon) and distributes modern day versions of Stroh’s, Blatz, Schlitz and Old Milwakee (part of the Schlitz portfolio). America’s oldest surviving brewery, D. G. Yuengling & Son, is tops among craft brews, with Yuengling’s Traditional Lager at #16.
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