Jacob Haas got out of bed on Tuesday morning, May 18, 1858, and began the day his usual way—with a glass of beer. As he dressed, his routine continued with another glass. And another. And another. By late morning, he had consumed more than 20 glasses of beer.
This was not just any beer, but lager, or “lager bier” as the newspapers described it. It was a relatively new beverage in America, brought to the country by the thousands of German immigrants who fled Europe in the mid-1800s. Haas was one of those, a German who had found work as a carpenter in New York, and drinking lager was part of his heritage. Drinking large quantities was part of his lifestyle.
That morning, though, he didn’t want to overdo it. He was due in court to testify for the defense in a case before Judge Daly. One of the city’s beer garden proprietors, George Mauren, was facing a $50 fine for selling an intoxicating beverage on a Sunday. “The question at issue is purely scientific, as to whether lager bier is an intoxicating drink,” reported the New York Herald.
That’s right. Lager was on trial. Was it intoxicating? If the jury said yes, it would hamstring Sunday sales at breweries, saloons and beer gardens around the city. And that meant lager lovers would not be able to relax with friends and family on their one day of rest and share a glass of lager. Make that share glasses—many glasses—of lager.
The proceedings, and the question of intoxication, were only part of a swirl of questions, concerns, accusations and misgivings about this new beverage. Though dating back centuries in its homeland—the word “lager” comes from the German tradition of storing beer in cool caves—lager allegedly had its brewing birth in the United States in 1840 in Philadelphia. New York had its first draught a decade later, and lager would raise its sudsy head for the first time in Virginia at an Alexandria brewery in 1858. “It is an acquired taste,” wrote Englishman David Mitchell while living in Richmond, Va., in the early 1860s. One man described its taste as akin to tobacco juice. Another: “It tastes to me like a glass of soap suds that a pickle has been put to soak in.”
A medical journal, The Scalpel, asserted that lager is destructive to beauty, “which … is the reason women do not drink it, having intuitively discovered that momentous fact,” editorialized the New York Daily Dispatch. “The Scalpel has also ascertained that lager bier produces depressed and broad heads, flat though wide shoulders and chests, straight backs and a cow-like tread.”
How was lager different? Consider that America grew up with an English tradition of ales—porters, stouts, pale ales, bitters. Ales are distinguished primarily by yeast that ferments atop the batch at relatively higher temperatures. Lagers ferment at lower temperatures, and the yeast settles to the bottom, yielding a clearer, generally crisper brew without the fruity esters that characterize ales. In addition, Germans insisted on using only barley, hops, water and yeast; early American brewers used those ingredients and more—everything from corn stalks to molasses—because traditional resources were scarce in the New World.
Lager was the beer of the Fatherland, and Germans embraced it as part of a cultural tradition that elicited its own series of complaints. Their custom of gathering on Sundays in beer gardens—boisterously conversing in their native tongue and clinking glasses to the accompaniment of oom-pah bands playing at Wagnerian volume—offended those whose moral judgment regarded any consumption of intoxicating beverages on the Sabbath as a sin. A temperance advocate in Philadelphia wrote in 1850, “Much was expected of lager beer, when introduced into Philadelphia, for much was said of its purity, and the absence of all ingredients calculated to inflame the brain and stomach. Never was there a greater mistake. It elates and inflates as readily as strong beer; but under the plea that it cannot intoxicate, beastly quantities of it are swallowed every day by its admirers.”
Such temperance advocates yielded considerable political clout in the mid-1800s. Maine passed prohibition legislation in 1846, allegedly becoming the first state in the nation outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages except for “industrial and medicinal purposes.” New York followed Maine’s lead in 1854 with a bill that was vetoed by then-Governor Horatio Seymour. The following year’s effort stuck, leading to “The Prohibitory Law: An Act for the Prevention of Intemperance, Pauperism and Crime,” read a New York Times headline in a full-page rendering of the law in April 1855.
By many accounts, New York’s law was largely overlooked and unenforced; one provision fueled creative sidesteps. Exceptions were allowed for medicine and “sacramental purposes,” the latter fueling episodes such as this reported in May 1855: “SABBATH DESECRATION—On Sunday last the police in New York made a descent upon a lager bier saloon kept by Frederick Weiss, where it is said divine service with preaching and mock sacraments have been held during the winter past. The proprietor not only saw fit to defy law, order and decency by throwing open his doors, but accompanied by proceedings with a band of music, and a grand flourish of trumpets, which could be heard in every direction.”
The Prohibitory Law was soon repealed, only to be followed by a ban on Sunday sales. The beer, the bands, the noise, the foreigners—it all became too much for some New Yorkers who wanted Sundays to be quiet, restful and sacred. One resident appeared in the office of Mayor Daniel F. Tiemann to complain that the German lager “bier shops” in his neighborhood “made Sunday evenings hideous with their musical demonstrations, and that quiet citizens were much annoyed thereby.” Tiemann consequently ordered a squad of police to “make a descent” on all of the “lager bier stores where music, as well as lager, formed a part of the attractions.” The newspaper report concluded, “This is a fair warning to all musical Dutchmen to keep their harmony to themselves until Monday.” Tiemann’s crackdown began in February 1858, when a Sergeant Berney and four men on his squad, accompanied by a dozen reporters, set about enforcing the Sunday law.
Their first target was Lindenmuller’s Collisseum on North William Street. “There were nearly 500 persons present,” observed a Daily Tribunereporter. “Almost every man was accompanied by his wife or his sweetheart, and many parents had brought their little ones with them. All of them seemed to enjoy the opportunity afforded for spending a social hour with their friends. When we entered, some dramatic performance was going on upon the little stage at the upper end of the hall, and a portion of a popular German opera was being very acceptably rendered by an orchestra composed of two violins and a piano.” The police didn’t close down the place but asked Lindenmuller to dismiss the orchestra, drop the curtain on the drama and keep down the noise.
Berney’s squad continued its crusade. At one stop, “The proprietor of the place politely invited the officers and others to try the lager, which they did, and unhesitatingly pronounced it of excellent flavor.” All the stops weren’t so amicable. George Staats and others who ran a lager bier saloon and garden in Williamsburg, N.Y., were charged for selling intoxicating liquors on Sunday.
Their case went to trial in Kings County Circuit Court later that month. “More than a dozen witnesses swore to drinking from twenty to ninety pint glasses a day, as a usual thing, without causing any deleterious results; and one man swore that he drank seven and a half gallons within two hours,” according to the New York Herald. That equates to one 12-ounce glass every four minutes—for two hours!! The jury’s verdict? Because of its low alcohol content, “Lager bier … does not come within the provisions of the statute in relation to intoxicating drinks.”
Case closed? Apparently not. More arrests came, with Mauren and other defendants facing the same question: Is lager intoxicating? Haas was ready to take the stand that May morning.
A day earlier, a Professor Doremus had testified that lager, which averaged about 3 percent alcohol by volume, is far less intoxicating than brandy, various wines, cider, porter and ale. Lager’s ability to intoxicate “depends altogether upon the susceptibility of the person taking lager bier, whether it is intoxicating or not,” he said, according to the Herald. “But as a general rule it requires a great quantity to intoxicate.”
A physician took the stand, saying “that lager bier is the nearest thing to nothing that a man can drink.” When do you consider a man intoxicated, he was asked? “I consider a man drunk when he would say or do anything that he would not say or do when he is not drunk.”
One man, Heironymous Wilhelm, said that he knew men who could drink 30 to 40 glasses without bad effect. Another, Augustus Weismann, “swore that lager had a cooling and nourishing effect on those who drank; [he] did not drink it himself, being a strictly temperate man.”
Finally, Haas took the stand. How much lager do you drink, the defense attorney asked? Haas said that “he had drank one hundred and six glasses of lager beer in a day, equal of 10½ gallons,” one reporter wrote (italics are in the newspaper’s original account for emphasis). “The Judge asked him what effect it had upon him, and he replied, ‘It made me feel goot, and I sleep vell.’” Haas then admitted that he’d had a few before coming to court—“twenty-three or twenty-five glasses.” Another witness testified about drinking that morning—“twelve or fourteen glasses.” With such overwhelming testimony, the jury reached the same conclusion as the February jury: Lager is not intoxicating.
Not everyone was convinced. “[That] is about like asserting that Small Pox is not a fatal disease,” one newspaper editorialized. “There is probably not one in ten of the persons in Court when this opinion was delivered whom a liberal supply of Lager would not render stupidly, senselessly drunk.”
The issue was not isolated to New York. Under the headline “If Lager Can’t Intoxicate, It Can Make You Crazy,” a report from a Wisconsin newspaper described a German resident who “undertook, upon a wager, to drink an almost fabulous quantity of lager bier. The feat was more than accomplished. After performing this disgusting guzzling attempt, and while in a state of utter helplessness, he made another fool-hardy bet, and, to carry the game out, was allowed to swallow ten glasses more, in order to convince the witnesses of his folly. The consequence was that he became a raving maniac, a most frightful and offensive object to look at, and had to be removed to his home. For hours he hung between life and death, roaring and groaning, vomiting blood, and suffering the most excruciating bodily and mental agony.”
Extremes aside, the verdict in Judge Daly’s case and others like it allowed the wave of lager popularity to continue swelling in New York and beyond. “In almost every city and town of the United States, where a large German population resides, one or more breweries are to be found,” the Daily Tribune reported in 1854. “We believe we do not make an exaggerated estimate when we rate the number of German breweries in the United States to upward of five hundred, and the capital invested at seven to eight million dollars. The City of New York has twenty-seven breweries, and many of them … brew more than 10,000 barrels, of thirty-gallons each, of lager beer in the course of the year.” Another source noted that the number of breweries in the nation grew from 431 in 1850 to 1,269 a decade later.
Americans had definitely acquired a taste for this new beverage, and German immigrants learned there were fortunes to be made by brewing it. Jacob Schlitz, originally a bookkeeper, took over a small Milwaukee brewery in the mid-1850s and guided it to prominence. Valentin Blatz bought the City Brewery, also in Milwaukee, and capitalized on lager’s momentum. Frederick Miller joined the city’s brewing scene in 1855. In St. Louis, a soap maker named Eberhard Anheuser took over a small brewery around 1850 and combined with his son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, to lay the foundation for the iconic American brewery. Christian Moerlein in Cincinnati, Theodor Hamm in St. Paul, “in Chicago, Boston, Albany, Baltimore—in fact, all over the country—new breweries were established year after year,” says Stanley Baron in his 1962 book Brewed in America.
Lager slaked the thirsts of soldiers during the throes of the Civil War, which also served to cool the feverish pitch of prohibitionists. In the postwar years, demand for ‘bier’ spurred lager brewers to develop and patent innovations in refrigeration and mechanical systems. Research into the properties of yeast and bacteria by Louis Pasteur and other scientists led breweries to adopt pasteurization as a common practice to stabilize beer. The number of breweries swelled to a peak of 4,131 in 1873, and the United States Brewers Association, formed under a different name by mostly German brewers in 1862, wielded considerable clout.
Unfortunately, 1873 was also marked by widespread economic chaos—banks and business failed, and factories closed. The brewers’ deep pockets became the target for federal tax revenue. “Taxes paid by the brewers (and distillers) of America [in 1873] accounted for 55 percent of the entire Internal Revenue Tax collected,” Baron writes. But “this financial contribution that the brewers made to the government, and the political power it could not help giving them, were not lost on the Prohibitionists.” In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was born, and the march toward Prohibition gained momentum, culminating in the ratification of the 18thAmendment in 1919.
The failures of Prohibition became quickly apparent, and once the amendment was repealed, lager fostered the rebirth of American brewing in one sense—the United States became the highest-volume beer producer in the world. “There are single breweries in the United States which produce as much beer as entire European countries,” beer scribe Michael Jackson wrote in the seminal 1977 book The World Guide to Beer. By two other measures, however, it led to a nadir in beer culture. From the high of 4,131 in 1873, the number of breweries in the country declined to fewer than a hundred. And the lagers pouring from these beer factories had evolved into brews, many using adjuncts such as rice and corn, that were meant for mass appeal, the least offensive to the most consumers. As Jackson wrote, “A people usually anxious to proclaim the virtues of things American are uncharacteristically self-deprecating about their nation’s beers, despite a great brewing tradition.”
In the course of a century, lager had gone from a curiosity—an “acquired taste”—to a mainstream behemoth. Ironically, it would be subject to the swing of the same pendulum of change. The nation’s craft beer boom, which sprouted in the 1960s, fed beer lovers’ search for new tastes, brewers’ development of novel approaches and entrepreneurs’ eye for evolving markets. In 2015, that pinnacle in the number of breweries reached in 1873 was surpassed for the first time, and as 2018 closed the nation would boast more than 7,000 breweries. American craft brewers would be the darlings of a global renaissance in creative brewing.
The beer-related matters that end up in court these days are more likely to involve intellectual property, distribution rights and driving violations rather than whether beer is intoxicating. But one can’t help but smile to think of Jacob Haas testifying “I sleep vell” after drinking 106 glasses of lager.