Pre-Prohibition Lager: More Nostalgic Than Authentic

Style Profile by | Dec 2009 | Issue #35

If we’re living in the best of beer times—an unprecedented era of expansive choice, inventive styles and technological superiority—how do you explain the aberration that’s come to be called “pre-Pro” beer?

Now, you can count me among the corps of traditionalists who hold it as an article of faith that old is better than new. I prefer worn jeans, experienced women and baseball played on grass. But there’s no way you’ll convince me that beer brewed before the invention of the twist-off cap was any better, or even more “authentic,” than what we’re drinking today.

Nonetheless, nostalgia-minded brewers have jumped in the Way-back Machine to dig up old recipes from those heady days of yore. Session Lager from Full Sail calls itself “a classic all-malt pre-Prohibition style lager.” Nebraska’s Lucky Bucket says its pre-Prohibition style “salutes a time when lagers had greater character and more distinct flavor, when beer wasn’t full of the additives found in many of today’s mainstream lagers.” Brooklyn Lager describes itself as “a revival of Brooklyn’s pre-Prohibition all-malt beers.”

All of these are fine beers—pure, smooth, malty, refreshing and satisfying, exactly what you might imagine filled those kegs that Carrie Nation smashed with her axe. Only, none of them are what our great-grandfathers were actually drinking before Prohibition. By the time the 18th Amendment rolled around, America was already hooked on corn and rice.

Scroll through the authoritative 1902 American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades by Wahl & Henius (go ahead, it’s on Google Books), and you’ll find that by the early 20th century, US brewers had adopted and praised corn and rice as suitable adjuncts to traditional barley malt.

Really, they had little choice. By then, beer drinkers around the world were favoring clear, golden and light over murky, brown and heavy. Bohemia had its Pilsner, Germany had its Helles… and America?

Well, neither Busch nor Best nor Schlitz could match the Europeans. Their malt was produced from domestic six-row barley, a variety that contains more protein than the two-row barley favored in Europe. More protein means unsightly haze and a harsher flavor.

The solution was adjuncts. Corn and rice could smooth out the flavor and reduce the haze without adding body. Brewers found that the cereals “not only gave a paler color, greater stability and other valuable properties to the beer,” the Wahl & Henius guide reports, “but also enabled beers to be produced more cheaply, and its adoption speedily became general.”

The point of this history lesson is: “All-malt Pre-Pro Lager” is a contradiction of terms. Actually, that’s not the point at all, for if you look around, you’ll find a few made with corn. Victory Brewing Co. in Pennsylvania, for example, brews an outstanding Throwback Lager made with flaked maize and the famous Christian Schmidt yeast strain. Those lucky enough to make it to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver might’ve snagged a sample of Coors Pre-Pro Lager, a beefy Amber Lager based on a corn-fed 1913 recipe.

No, the point here is that Pre-Pro Lager is a glossy dream, a wistful look back to a style that largely never existed. The truth is that, by the time Prohibition was enacted, American brewers were already on the road to ruin. Their beers were the first step toward the bland, lifeless, factory-made lagers that we loathe today.

We wouldn’t flush the awful taste from our mouths till we got the first taste of all-malt beer. To hell with nostalgia.

Aroma: Corn or sweet maltiness, with moderately high hops
Flavor: Light malt sweetness with grainy, corn-like sweetness, noticeable hop bitterness, long, clean finish
IBU: 25–40
ABV: 4.5–6 percent
Examples: Coors Pre-Pro, Reading Beer, Victory Throwback Lager, Craftsman 1903, Motor City Motown Lager

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