History in the Making

Telling the story of American brewing is a daunting task, but historian Maureen Ogle is up to it. Her book, Ambitious Brew, is a well-crafted and yes, ambitious, chronicle of the industry's ups and downs. As she aptly noted, "like beer itself, the business of brewing is a living creature."

Her story begins with the arrival of Philip Best in Milwaukee in 1844. Best parlayed his biggest asset, the gift of gab, into a small brewery that served the city's burgeoning German population. Captain Frederick Pabst, who married into the Best family (a route to fortune also followed by Adolphus Busch) later built the brewery into the world's largest.

During the nineteenth century, larger-than-life men like Pabst and Busch dominated brewing. Like other industrial tycoons, they realized that the cautious didn't survive, let alone succeed. They were also innovators who greatly improved the product. Beer snobs dismiss Anheuser-Busch as downscale but Ogle points out that more than 100 years ago, it promoted Budweiser as a super-premium beer, packaged it in Champagne bottles, and sold it for $15 a bottle in today's money. She also lauds A-B for embracing new technology and vigorously defending the reputation of its products. Innovation and staying on top of the market have kept it on top.

We remember the 1890s for robber barons and tasteless ostentation, but according to the author, it was also a golden age of public life. Breweries opened ornate beer gardens, which her prose brings back to life. They also put up lavish displays at the decade's marquee event, the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. There, a beer brawl erupted between A-B and Pabst, complete with lawsuits and charges of foul play. Both breweries claimed victory, and Pabst celebrated by draping its plant with a blue ribbon--a symbol it uses to this day.

Entrepreneurship was one side of the story of American brewing. The other was a long-running culture war between those who brewed beer and those who tried to put them out of business. While Anheuser-Busch and Pabst were squabbling over top honors at the World's Fair, Henry Hyde Russell launched the Anti-Saloon League. A model for today's single-interest groups, the League was highly organized and skilled in the art of propaganda. Russell didn't let facts get in the way of his cause. He argued, among other things, that beer was laced with poison. The media, which weren't exactly known for fact-checking, eagerly printed his accusations.

Founded or not, Russell's message found a receptive audience. Reformers ranked saloons near the top of the list of health problems, and the beer barons' ties to the Old Country rankled Americans. Nor did the brewers help their own cause. Ogle faults them for being slow to fight back and when they did, for allying themselves with German Americans--just as the country was about to be sucked into World War I.

After Prohibition, another world war, and postwar consolidation shook it up, the American brewing industry came full circle. Once again it was rejuvenated by strong-willed visionaries like Anchor's Fritz Maytag and New Albion's Jack McAuliffe. Ogle notes that these pioneers' operations began on a scale of Philip Best's brewery and that they, like Pabst and Busch, were stubborn enough to defy convention and succeed.

Speaking of convention, Ogle challenges some commonly-held opinions about brewing. A century ago, little guys didn't make better beer than the mega-brewers. In fact, if their product were served in a bar today, it would get sent back. She sheds no tears for the breweries that disappeared after World War II. They make breweriana collectors happy and bring back fond memories, but their product was undistinguished. Besides, their owners were more than happy to be gobbled up.

Ogle also takes issue with purists over contract brewing. As she put it, "What felt to some beer fans like treason was simply business." She's even courageous enough to defend adjuncts. Rice and corn, she discovered, weren't put into beer by corporate bean-counters, but by scientists who needed a way to tame America's protein-laden six-row barley. (In actually cost more to brew adjunct beer than the all-grain variety.) As for the claim that big brewers forced inferior beer down Americans' gullets, Ogle insists that it's the other way around. After World War II, people wanted bland food and drink, and brewers had no alternative but to tone down their beer--a trend that didn't reverse itself until just before microbreweries arrived.

Well-organized and highly readable, Ambitious Brew is proof that history need not be dull. This book is essential reading for anyone who's interested in learning how our brewing industry got started, and how far it has come since then.