Make your own free website on

Explorations in

Pre-Prohibition American Lagers

By Dr. George Fix


Pre-Prohibition American lagers differed significantly from modern domestic pale lagers. A sampling of recipes from that era reveals higher flavor profiles and greater variety than we expect from this style today.

If one were to poll a representative group of beer enthusiasts, home brewers, and commercial microbrewers about preferred beer styles, it is likely that American lagers would fall near the bottom of their lists. Descriptors like "tasteless," "bland," and "thin" would probably be offered as reasons for the low rating. This puts North America in a somewhat unusual position of having the vast majority of its beer intellectuals not only critical of specific versions of its major indigenous beer style, but in fact highly critical of the style itself. Some evidence suggests that this attitude is spilling over to the general population; many of the major brands are showing negative growth rates, and just about all of the large industrial brewers are showing interest in specialty and seasonal beers.

It is interesting to reflect on how this particular situation arose. Many suggest that it is a matter of overexposure - beer lovers have become bored of so many versions of the same beer style. This does not explain, however, why the same phenomenon has not occurred in the United Kingdom, where bitters are the popular style, or in Central European countries, where continental lagers predominate.

I believe that modern American lagers reveal the legacy of Prohibition. Unlike other major brewing regions, North America had 13 years during which commercial beer production was banned. This period had deleterious effects on just about all aspects of American brewing, including the traditions that were established in the period from the 1850s to 1920.

This article illustrates the dramatic change in the American lager style by examining selected American lager formulations. These formulations were considered "mainstream" and enjoyed large sales volumes during the pre-Prohibition era, yet they differ substantially from modern American lagers in their flavor profiles.

This article confines the discussion to lager beer. Space limitations do not permit inclusion of ales, and indeed a complete survey of pre-Prohibition brewing would require an entire book to do it justice. A strong case can be made that the Golden Age of American ale brewing started in the l980s with the growth of microbrewing. The major thrust of this article is that the Golden Age of lagers occurred near the turn of the 20th century. Omitted also from this article is what historical references such as Wahl-Henius (1) call steam or common beer. These beers were fermented with lager yeast but at ale temperatures. This special style, indigenous to the United States, also deserves a full book (Brewers Publications [Boulder, Colorado] is preparing one for its Classic Beer Series).


I came across the formulation shown in the accompanying box in the late l970s and have been brewing it on a regular basis ever since (2,3). Several variations of the basic recipe exist, but the one shown appears to be typical (see reference 4, page 38, for example).

This high-gravity lager may strike modern palates as a specialty beer. Nugey, however, notes that it was an everyday beer that " . . . had a very large sales volume . . ." (4). Before Prohibition, mainstream beer did not mean weak, flavorless beer.

Authenticity suggests that domestic six-row pale malt should be used, and I am constantly struck by how well six-row pale malt does in a formulation like this. According to Wahl-Henius, " . . . only six-row barleys of Manchusia type can be considered for the preparation of chill-proof beers . . ." (1). In my experience, however, I get the best results in this formulation using malt from a domestic two-row barley call Hannchen. This barley was once grown in the Columbia River and Blue Mountain counties of Oregon (6). Its genealogy can be traced back to Hanna, the classic Moravian barley. This barley variety was brought to the United States early in the 20th century (7), and it is reasonable to assume that it played an important role for quality-conscious turn-of-the-century brewers. Unfortunately, it is no longer cultivated. Brewers today wishing to work with a domestic two-row malt will have to settle for Klages or Harrington.

The primary feature that separates this beer from all-malt continental lagers is the use of flaked maize, an unmalted cereal grain. The flakes are hardly a cheap malt substitute. Indeed, they typically cost two to three times more than domestic malt, and they are even more expensive than premium imported malts. What one gets with this specialty grain is extra strength without the satiating effects of a high-gravity beer. Alcohol by itself is essentially tasteless. Nevertheless, it is a flavor carrier, enhancing the other active flavor components in a beer, as it does in this formulation. The maize also leaves a pleasant grain-like sweetness in the finished beer. The chief advantage that flakes have over corn grits or rice is that, unlike the latter, flakes do not require cooking at boiling temperatures to achieve gelatinization. Many feel that this is the key to the flakes' desirable flavoring (2).

The high hopping rate in this beer sharply distinguishes it from modern American lagers. Although neither Nugey nor Wahl-Henius were specific about the type of hop varieties used, it is likely that "imported hops" means continental noble varieties like Hallertauer Mittelfruh or Saaz. Turn-of-the-century Budweiser labels, for example, had the Saaz hop proudly displayed as one of its ingredients.

A good deal more uncertainty surrounds the domestic hops used. It is known that Clusters were popular among U.S. brewers. I find the flavoring of this hop to be quite crude, especially in formulations having a high hop profile like this one. In the past, I have used continental aroma hops exclusively. In recent years, however, I have obtained good results using domestic aroma hops like Crystal, Liberty, Mt. Hood, and Tettnanger (which are good but different from German Tettnangers).

Data reported in both Nugey and Wahl-Henius indicate that the turn-of-the-century lagers had higher residual extracts than the 5.5 °P shown for the formulation in the box. In fact, Nugey explicitly states that the real extract alcohol ratio should be no less than 1.3 and no more than 2.5 (4). In the above, it is 5.5/5 = 1.1. Those wishing to get to the historical values should omit the mash rest at 140 °F (60 °C) and go directly from 122 °F (50 °C) to 158 °F (70 °C), holding the latter for 45 min. This method gives a higher terminal gravity and slightly lower alcohol content. The net effect is to put the beer comfortably into the prescribed range, if that is what is desired. It will have a more pronounced sweetness, a characteristic common in pre-Prohibition beers. It is important to emphasize that the numbers cited here refer to actual percent extract (real extract), not apparent extract (as measured by a hydrometer).

I have entered beers based on this formulation in two competitions. The first was the Second Annual International Beer Competition in Phoenix, Arizona, in March l981, where it won the David Line Trophy (3). The second competition produced entirely different results, probably because of the judges' greater sensitivity to commonly defined beer styles. It was an AHA-sanctioned event held in the midwest in March l993. The score sheets indicated that the judges were exercised in the extreme that someone could enter a beer that was ". . . so far out of category . . ." They suggested that I purchase a copy of Charlie Papazian's book (8) to get a more appropriate recipe. Ironically, all the judges praised the beer's flavor, which was exactly the flavor that originally defined this beer style.


A milder version of American lager was very popular on the West Coast and historically was called Western lager. Possibly the most famous was that brewed by Henry Weinhard. The excellent book by Gary and Gloria Meier includes a survey of the history of this beer (9). From Wahl-Henius (4) and Zimmermann (10) we can surmise that the original extract of Western lager was in the 11.5-12 °P range. Rice (a grain indigenous to the West Coast) was used instead of maize, and the hop rate was about one-third less than that of the pre-Prohibition pale lager discussed above. This is a serious beer that can do well in modern competitions. On the other hand, it appears that before Prohibition, brewers and beer consumers from the East Coast (at that time the most populous part of the country) held Western lager in low esteem. Ironically, this version later evolved into American lager as we know it today.


Spiced lagers were widely brewed in the pre-Prohibition era, possibly to compete with the ales that were available then. Every lager brewer had a unique way of brewing such beers, and even they were likely moving targets. The following should therefore be seen only as one example. The recipe was given to me by Gilbert Straub, and it was regularly brewed by the Straub Brewing Co. of St. Mary's, Pennsylvania, in the period l895 to 1920.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that pre-Prohibition American lagers had high sulfur profiles and that this was a valued flavor constituent. Ale drinkers, then as now, generally found this flavor unappealing, creating a problem for the spiced lager formulations. The brewing log at the Straub Brewery indicates that they dealt with this problem by using an extended 31/2-4 h boil, which removes most of the dimethyl sulfide (DMS) precursor and hence leads to a reduced sulfur taste (5). I have found that in small-scale brewing such extended boils can lead to inferior beer foam, likely because of excessive precipitation of foam-positive proteins. As an alternative, I have found that a low-sulfur flavor can be obtained with a conventional boil using a low DMS-precursor malt. English pale ale malt can be recommended for this purpose.


All-malt Bock beers have long been brewed in North America. Historical references indicate that German brewing procedures and recipes were widely used for these beers in the pre-Prohibition period (7). (I highly recommend Darryl Richman's recent book on Bock beer [11].) Although this is my personal favorite way to brew Bock beers, it should be noted that in North America an indigenous variant also emerged. It was called a "malt tonic" or "spring tonic," the latter being suggestive of how it was used. Although this beer was usually brewed for the spring, some brewed it year-round for medicinal purposes. Wahl-Henius stated that such beers should be ". . . medicated to such an extent as to preclude their use as beverages . . ." (4). I am not exactly sure what this means, but in any case the recipe shown in the accompanying box is an "unmedicated" version that can be found in Zimmermann's book (10).

All-malt formulations were used for pale beers as well as Bock beers. These beers could be distinguished from continental lagers through their use of North American malt and hops. Such formulations were very popular in New York City and surrounding areas like Brooklyn. Ben Jankowski's excellent article documents one of the finest, namely Trommer's White Label Beer (12). The data given in that article describe the beer as it was brewed in the l940s and l950s. The original extract was 12 °P, with IBUs in the high 20s. The turn-of-the-century version was close but slightly bigger; the original extracts were in the 13-14 °P range, and the IBUs were in the mid-30s.


Volstead Pre-Prohibition Lager:

The creation of Classic American Pilsner is the result of an influx of German immigrants to this country at the turn of the 19th century who longed for the pale lagers of their homeland. The German brewers met this demand by adapting to domestic ingredients. By adding approximately 20% to 30% corn grits to their grain bill, they could smooth out some of the rougher edges from the American 6 row malt intended for Ales. This also lightened the body and imparted a distinct sweet grainy flavor. Cluster was by far the most common hop and was used for bittering. More expensive imported noble hops were used for finishing. Unlike the American light lagers of today the Pre-Prohibition lagers had a noticeable malt/hop profile, more body, and a higher alcohol content. (Starting Gravity: 1.050 – 1.056) (Finishing Gravity: 1.008 – 1.014) (30 IBU)


Pre-Pohibition Lager


Recipe type: All Grain

Batch Size: ~5gallons

Starting Gravity: 1.054

Finishing Gravity: 1.012

Time in Boil: 90 mins

Primary Fermentation: 52 till drop out

Secondary Fermentation: Optional

Additional Fermentation: N/A


* 6Lbs Domestic 2Row

* 1.5Lbs Domestic 6Row

* .5Lbs Flaked Maize or White Corn


* Cluster 1 oz. 90 mins

* Cluster .5 oz. 15 mins


Mash In :150-154 -Rest for 60 mins Recirculate for 15 mins Sparge to 7 gallons Boil Hop additions previously noted. Cool and pitch lager yeast.

American Pre-Prohibition Lager II


5.00 lb. Flaked Maize

17.00 lb. Pale Ale

1.25 oz. Chinook 13.9% 60 min

2.25 oz. N. Brewer 7.9% 30 min

1.00 oz. Tettnanger 6.2% 15 min

Bavarian lager yeast


Mash schedule = 95 for 15 min., 122 for 30 min., 138 for 15 min., 154 for 45 min., mash out for 15 min. at 164.


OG: 1065

FG: 1016

Aging time: 2 weeks