Awhile back, I pointed out that the current scarcity of hops was not an isolated event. It has happened before, but it should also be noted that the coinciding scarcity of barley (malt) has just as much to do, if not more, with the rise in the price of beer.
I mention this because of a few comments I made over at The Brew Site pertaining to the craft beer industry’s latest fascination with the canning of craft beer. In two of my books, Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago and Beer & Food: An American History, I’ve pointed out that in the brewing industry, the phrase “History repeats itself” is almost a mantra. Beer has been brewed in the old colonies and the eventual United States for centuries. And despite the surprise and subsequent gnashing of teeth when something goes wrong today, scarcity of brewing materials, for instance, or in the case of some enterprising craft breweries deciding to can their beer, these are not NEW occurrences. They’ve happened before, and a study of the failures and successes of the brewing industry of old might help today’s brewers from making mistakes that were made a century ago, or even just a few decades ago, or inspire them to capitalize on a long-forgotten or ignored, but successful practice, and resurrect it; the canning of beer, for instance.
But I digress. The following is a little tale of another period of grain scarcity and how the the brewing industry worked around this problem. You might not like the outcome, but the passage also heightens another observation that is often ignored by armchair beer historians. American beer has gone through many changes in its development, and according to your personal perspectives, these changes have been either good or bad.
When some beer writer who feels the need to critque a beer happens to mention National Prohibition, he usually opines with a profound statement that goes something like this; “Prohibition irrevocably changed the character of American beer.” Sure it makes good copy, but if you read Beer & Food: An American History, you’ll find that governmental restrictions on the use of grains in beer were in effect years before Prohibition. Hell, at one point, brewers were left with the mandate of producingbeer with an alcoholic strength of no more than 2.75% abv. But even before this period, beer had gone through a number of changes, most of them a result of government interference, wars, trade restrictions and such, and yet, more often than not, the American brewing industry found a way to work around these problems.
Even after the restrictions placed on the American brewing industry during World War II, more problems were encountered, and here again, the industry worked around the obstacles and survived.
On March 1, 1946, the federal government imposed a thirty-percent cut in the use of grains for brewing purposes. With the war over, grain exports to the European theater were desperately need until a stable agricultural industry could be restored to the war-torn area. The initial result of this grain curtailment when it was announced was a move by U.S. brewers to quickly use up existing stocks of fermentable grains before the March deadline. As a result, national beer production levels rose by an average of 18.5% over 1945’s levels though Illinois’ production numbers topped off at 23.5%. While giants like the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company tried to make do with the grain restrictions when they went into effect, the nation’ smallest breweries were granted an increase in their grain quotas, giving them a slight advantage in keeping their production levels up.
The move to restrict grain to the industry as a whole, however, was challenged by a number of wet politicians when evidence surfaced that exported barley was going to countries that not only were in full beer production, but also had enough excess beer on hand to send to the States. The exportation of Heineken beer to the U.S, a product of Holland, was soon banned by the Dutch government after it was revealed that over 8 million pounds of American grain had been shipped to Holland, some of it making its way to the Heineken brewery.
While politicians tried to placate the U.S. brewing industry but still keep grain restrictions in place, the industry turned to the idea of using other fermentables to keep up production. In a meeting of the Master Brewers Association of America in Reading, Pennsylvania in June of 1946, Kurt Becker, a respected master brewer and member of Chicago’s J.E. Siebel Sons’ Company delivered a speech to the organization’s members advocating the widespread use of fermentables that were regarded by the brewing industry as less than regular brewing materials. Rather than watch as beer production levels fell from a lack of grain, Becker proposed the idea of using whey, sweet or white potatoes, and lower grades of brewer’s syrup, including molasses and blackstrap.
Though the government grain sanctions ended in 1947, a self-imposed brewers’ grain conservation program began on April 15, 1948 that promoted the idea of adding additional adjuncts to American beer. One of the more unusual starches that also gained some industry acceptance was manioca, sometimes known as cassava or arrowroot, derived from a Brazilian tropical plant. Once again, the rich-tasting brews of the turn-of-the-century faded from the legacy of early American beer as government and economic influences reshaped the taste and quality of it.