American Styles of the 1930s

History by the Glass by | Feb 2015 | Issue #97

Robert Wahl had a distinguished career as a brewing science educator. But one of his greatest legacies is a book that shines a light on American brewing in the immediate aftermath of Prohibition. Beer from the Expert’s Viewpoint was intended to educate the generation that had come of age during Prohibition. It discusses such basics as how to taste and evaluate beer, but also describes in some detail the types of beer brewed immediately following repeal.

Much as today, these fall into two groups: bottom-fermenting beers based on Central European styles and top-fermenting beers based on British types. Though pale lager was already the nation’s firm favorite, several other bottom-fermenting styles survived Prohibition. Münchner, Wurzburger and Nurnberger were all dark, and relatively strong at 14º–16º Balling, 5–6 percent ABV. Vienna was paler and lighter, coming in at just under 5 percent. It was often made by mixing Pilsener and Münchner after lagering.

There were three main types of Pale Lager: the heavier, slightly darker Dortmunder, 14.5º Balling, 5.6 percent ABV, and two types of Pilsener. What Wahl called Mild Pilsener was a very light beer of 12º Balling, 4.4 percent ABV brewed from 70 percent malt and 30 percent adjuncts—either rice or corn—and lightly hopped at 0.6 pound per barrel. This is the ancestor of the adjunct lagers that still dominate the American market. Strong Pilsener was beefier, with a gravity over 13º Balling, 5.25 percent ABV, but still light on the hops at just 0.7 pound per barrel.

97FermCultureSparkling and Cream Ales descended from the Present Use Ales of the late 19th century. Stronger than most lagers at 14º Balling, 5–6 percent ABV, they were more heavily hopped with over one pound per barrel. Stock Ales were dry-hopped during maturation and stronger still, 16–18º Balling, 7.5 percent ABV. Ales also had grists including around 30 percent adjuncts.

Porter was 14.5º Balling, 5 percent ABV and Stout 18–21º, 6.5–8 percent ABV. Not so different from today. But where’s IPA? It falls in the Stock Ale category. Ballantine’s, which you can see in the table, was the classic example and surely the granddaddy of all modern American IPAs.

Just two indigenous styles appear: California Steam and Kentucky Common. Their production shared many features.

“Kentucky Common Beer. This type of beer is brewed with a top fermenting yeast and is handled thereafter similar to California Steam Beer. The beer is run directly from the fermenter into the trade package (barrels) and krausened, finings added and the barrels bunged and then delivered in this condition to the dispensing place where it is permitted to clarify before serving. The Kentucky Common Beer yeast is developed from lager beer yeast by high fermenting temperatures. This yeast then develops a percentage of lactic acid organisms which cause the final brew to be somewhat tart to the taste, the whole having a particularly peculiar flavor which became quite popular in the Southern States.”
Beer from the Expert’s Viewpoint by Arnold Spencer Wahl and Robert Wahl, 1937, page 153.

Surprisingly, Kentucky Common wasn’t the only sour beer being made. The Weiss beer isn’t, as you might guess, the Bavarian type, but rather an American version of Berliner Weisse. American beer in the 1930s was more diverse than you may have imagined.