Historical Tidbits: Beer. One View of "Lager Bier," 1860

The 1850s was a decade of intense conflict in the United States, as Americans argued over slavery, western expansion, prohibition, and immigration. Lager beer, which was new to Americans, became a touchstone for the debate over immigration and the drive for prohibition. Xenophobes railed against lager and the German emigres who had introduced the stuff. Prohibitionists denounced the ocean of lager that threatened (or so they believed) to engulf the nation. (*1) Here's the view of one anonymous anti-lagerite (and witty punster), writing in 1860: "Lager," he lamented,

is one of our most modern institutions. Ten years ago it was only a vulgar German word of unknown import; then it was looked upon as an insipid Dutch beer; but finally, a majority, perhaps will vote that it is 'the people's nectar.'

Thanks to lager,

thousands of people . . . seem[ed] to have quite forgotten the use of plain water as a beverage." At beer gardens on Saturday night, the "flow of lager is incessant -- the voices which call for lager are never still -- lager is king!

Worse yet, many Americans believed the stuff was good for them, an idea this anonymous critic dismissed as "ridiculous." "Lager bier," he explained,

. . . contains less nutritive natter and more alcohol than other beer or ale." Even assuming "malt extract" contained a modicum of food value, a person would have to "drink two or three gallons in order to get from this villainous food" the same nutrition as grain provided when consumed in a "civilized way.

Moreover, "a pint of lager contains as much alcohol as an ordinary glass of brandy." People who claimed otherwise were probably "indulging in lager" to the detriment of their "sober judgment." "Finally, it is claimed that lager is a pleasant bitter tonic . . . ." Not so, wrote the anti-lager man. In his opinion, 'twas more the case that lager bier was "'too-tonic.'"


*1. For more on that debate, see Chapter One of my book. Source: "What Is Lager Bier?," Scientific American n.s. 3, no. 2 (July 7, 1860), p. 21.