Just the Teutonic

American beer’s Germanic roots continue to define its modern craft brewing scene, writes Hugh Thomas


An 18-year-old boy named Adolphus Busch steps off a Mississippi riverboat into the city of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s 1857, and North America’s in the midst of a beer boom. Breweries are multiplying, and incomes are on the rise, giving workers better means to knock back a few after their shifts. Three of the Adolphus’ brothers have already settled in the country and, somewhat modestly, capitalised on the growing hop and beer trade. All while divulging to their little brother Adolph much of the wild adventures the New World has to offer.

After a stint as a river dock clerk, and then at a supply house, Adolphus becomes a partner at a St. Louis firm selling brewery supplies. A young woman – the daughter of one of his clients down the road from his office, no less – catches his eye. In 1861, Adolphus Busch and Lily Anheuser marry, forging the family alliance that will help bring Adolphus’ father-in-law’s near-bankrupt Bavarian Brewing Company into a new era.

Like so many of their compatriot immigrants in the second half of the 19th century – including Frederick Pabst, Frederick Miller, and Adolph Coors – Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser start to make their indelible mark on North America’s beer culture.

A new beer for the new world

In the late 19th century, 80% of brewers in the US were immigrants from Germany. But before 1840, Americans had barely heard of the term ‘lager’. Many breweries across US cities – and New England especially – were owned by British immigrants, so porters and ales dominated taverns up and down the country. The growing number of thirsty German settlers, many of whom were driven from their homeland by the political unrest and harvest failures of the 1840s, meant there was a lot of money to be made if someone came up with a half-decent taste of home.

Some say it was Adam Lemp, a grocer from Eschwege in Germany, who was first to brew and sell lager on US soil. Others claim that honour goes to John Wagner, who, settling in Philadelphia, brought a yeast strain back from his native Bavaria in 1840. 

Whatever the case, Americans began taking notice, with lagers proving themselves clearer, lighter, and not as bitter as the ales or porters they were used to drinking. “English porter, stout, and ale, besides being exorbitantly dear, were not well suited to the climate, but Lager bier supplied the very article required,” Scottish journalist and author Charles Mackay wrote in 1859. Contemplating why it caught on with the American working classes in particular, he added, “What American will give thirty-seven cents for a pint of English ale or porter, when he can procure a pint of home-brewed lager for five cents?”

Often, it wasn’t necessarily the beer Americans liked, but the culture that came with it. Traditional saloons in the US were male-dominated degenerate dens of liquor-drinking, cock-fighting, and gambling. Doing little to entice them anyway, women were rarely admitted into saloons. Unless, of course, they were selling sex. 

German beer gardens, on the other hand, were where women would drink, children could play, and families would meet to socialise. Sometimes, a brewery’s garden would be the main attraction. Putting modern day taprooms to shame, Schiltz brewery’s garden, in Milwaukee, evolved into a park with a pavilion, bowling alley, dance hall, ‘refreshment parlours’, and circus-style entertainers. Beer gardens became a popular spot for political gatherings. Over the rough-and-tumble of saloons, they were looked upon more favourably by the temperance movement, and was where many Americans would start to understand Gemütlichkeit, the German pursuit of warmth and conviviality.

Anheuser-Busch lead the way

Even though lager and Gemütlichkeit were met with enthusiasm among the American public, breweries could not simply rely on their German name to equate to success. When Adolphus Busch joined forces with Eberhard Anheuser, the Bavarian Brewing Company was trying to pick itself up from insolvency. Adolphus tried bribing tavern owners to stock his barrels, and giving away beer to tavern patrons. But of the beer he noticed one specific problem: It was terrible, leagues behind what fellow St. Louisian Adam Lemp was producing.

In 1868, Adolphus returned to Europe, turning his attention to the pilseners brewed in Bohemia. There was a lot he liked about how they were made, not to mention the name of the brand they were shipped under – barrels labeled ‘Budweiser’, from Bohemia, were already a registered cargo into New York ports. Adolphus Busch wanted to “brew a beer similar in quality, color, flavor and taste to the beer then made at Budweis”. And so, in 1876, The E. Anheuser Company's Brewing Association launched their own Budweiser, causing copyright consternation that rumbles on to this day. 

Though the quality of Eberhard and Adolphus’ beer did improve, they had another trick up their sleeve. Four years before Louis Pasteur published his book on pasteurisation, Adolphus and Eberhard had become the first brewers in the US to pasteurise their bottled beer. It allowed them to ship to places like Texas, in which thousands of German immigrants, but not many brewers, resided. The same year they launched Budweiser, miners were drinking Adolphus and Eberhard’s beer in Colorado, some 900 miles away from their brewery in St. Louis.

War breeds prosperity

In April 1861, Confederate forces attacked and overwhelmed Fort Sumter in South Carolina. It helped trigger a mass mobilisation of American men, many of whom later conscripted, to defend the North and preserve the Union. Ultimately, two million soldiers were deployed by the Union throughout the course of the Civil War. 

For many of them, it was the first time they’d seen – let alone travelled through – a US city. The vast majority of the American population lived in rurality, and so their first encounter with urbanisation coincided with their first encounter with breweries. Some were stationed next to lager-producing breweries, or were peddled German-made beer on behalf of sutlers (civilian merchants provisioning armies).

In total, 177,000 German-born men would serve the Union Army. Some, like Eberhard and Adolphus when Fort Sumter fell, volunteered to take up arms and keep the state of Missouri out of Confederate control. Many Germans, as Anheuser had already done in 1848, renounced their pledge of allegiance to Prussia to become formal U.S. citizens. They were keen to fight for, and prove loyalty to, their new nation. 

This was a bit tricker by the time WWI came along. Anti-German sentiment in the US was rife, sometimes amounting to lynching. In 1918, German immigrant Robert Prager was stripped down naked by a mob, wrapped in an American flag, forced to walk on broken beer bottles, and hanged. War in Europe meant German brewers got even more stick from prohibitionists, while temperance groups saw German immigrants for what they supposedly threatened the country with, rather than for what they offered. “We have German enemies across the water,” said John Strange, a prohibitionist and former politician in Wisconsin, in a speech. “We have German enemies in this country, too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.”

German and German-American breweries responded. Anheuser-Busch removed German language and motifs from their branding, but to little effect. And while hostilities did quell in the interwar period, to avoid any unpalatable associations once WWII broke out, sauerkraut became known as ‘liberty cabbage’ and hamburgers ‘liberty steak’. Ironically, US troops fighting the Wehrmacht during WWII were rationed with a 3.2% lager brewed by the likes of Pabst, Schaefer, and Pfeiffer Brewing Company. 

Fritz’s legacy

Innovation in the US brewing industry in the 1800s was almost exclusively pioneered by Germans. The United States’ Brewers Association used to hold all its meetings in German, and until 1864 was named the Lager-Brewers Association. Some trade journals published in North America continued to include German translations right up to the early 1900s. 

The dynamic between the US beer industry and German immigration in the 1800s snowballed. German men came off the ships from the fatherland, trained at a German-run brewery, before moving on to start up their own, often in towns and cities that otherwise lacked a brewer. One such man was Christian Heurich, who emigrated in 1866, started his own brewing company in Washington DC, and eventually owned more land than anyone else in Washington DC bar the federal government.

The surviving breweries from this period are, as it might be expected, German only in name. To call Miller Lite, Coors, or Budweiser ‘German’ lagers would yield some very strange – disapproving, even – looks. Though inescapable (Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors now control 60% of the US beer market) most traces of these brands’ German ancestry are ostensibly non-existent.

A few do remain, however. Peter Straub learned most of his trade in Germany before he emigrated to the US in 1869, eventually settling down to work at a brewery in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, in 1872. Six years later, he’d own it. Straub’s brewery still pumps out lager, kolsch, and Marzen, making it perhaps the closest the US has to a traditional German-American brewery. But Schell’s in Minnesota could also make that claim. August Schell founded his eponymous brewery in 1860, which now serves up a dozen different German-inspired beers like Berliner weisse, gose, Vienna lager, and ‘Bavarian-style’ wheat beer.

Maybe there has been something of a renewed appreciation for German styles and heritage in the US, if a handful of contemporary breweries dedicated to them is anything to go by. 200-odd years after brewer Leonhard Eppig emigrated from Bavaria to the US in the 1800s, his great granddaughter Stephanie set off to continue his work. In 2016 she opened Eppig brewery in San Diego, at which are brewed pilsners, black lagers, Vienna lagers, kolsch, and altbier. 

Then, halfway across the country and of no direct German lineage, there’s The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. Brewer Amos Lowe finds other beers can rarely hold a candle to a well-made pilsner. “I think it was inevitable that pilsner would take over the world,” he tells me. “But the Germans certainly brought the beer over and exposed Americans to their perfect beverage.” As well as pouring out helles and pilsners all year round, which provide some respite from the Texan climate, perhaps the brewery’s greatest asset is its beer garden. “We love the environment it creates,” says Amos. “It is definitely a tip of the hat to the ones that came before us.”

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