Synopses & Reviews
In the first-ever history of American beer, Maureen Ogle tells its epic story, from the immigrants who invented it to the upstart microbrewers who revived it.
Beer might seem as American as baseball, but that has not always been true: Rum and whiskey were the drinks of choice in the 1840s, with only a few breweries making heavy, yeasty English ale. When a wave of German immigrants arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century, they promptly set about re-creating the pleasures of the biergartens they had left behind.
Just fifty years later, the American-style lager beer they invented was the nation's most popular beverage and brewing was the nation's fifth-largest industry, ruled over by fabulously wealthy titans Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch. But when anti-German sentiments aroused by World War I fed the flames of the temperance movement (one activist even declared that "the worst of all our German enemies are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller"), Prohibition was the result. In the wake of its repeal, brewers replaced flavor with innovations like marketing and lite beer, setting the stage for a generation of microbrewers whose ambitions reshaped the drink.
Grab a glass and settle in for the surprising story behind your favorite pint.
"Conventional wisdom has it that giant breweries, driven by corporate greed, have flooded the U.S. with inferior-tasting swill, and the only beer worth drinking is from scattered boutique microbrewers. Nonsense, says Ogle: companies like Miller and Anheuser-Busch are actually near-perfect embodiments of the American dream (in which 'liberty nurtured ambition, and ambition fostered success') and if their beers became noticeably blander 50 years ago, it's because consumers wanted it that way. Ogle (All the Modern Conveniences) looks back at the early years of brewers like Phillip Best, Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch as they rose to success making European-style beers for fellow immigrants, converting plenty of native palates along the way. Such men, she claims, should be heralded as captains of industry like Gilded Age icon J.P. Morgan. This material is strong, as is Ogle's analysis of the slow but steady rise of the Prohibition movement, but her narrative loses momentum as she tries to encompass the post-WWII era and add the most successful microbrewers to her list of heroes. Her exuberant musings on the American spirit become distracting, but there's more than enough drama in the family sagas to keep even the soberest of readers turning the pages." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Ambitious Brew does a masterful job of placing American beer in the context of American history. Ogle...persuasively illustrates the many links between a humble alcoholic beverage and many of the social issues fermenting in the nation." San Diego Union-Tribune
"I won't be switching from Deschutes to Bud anytime soon, but Ogle has diminished my dislike of the big brewers no small task, that. Whatever type of beer you prefer, Ambitious Brew
makes for good reading while quaffing your favorite. Along with Ken Wells's entertaining romp Travels with Barley
, this is highly recommended for any beer fans on your gift list (including yourself)." Doug Brown, Powells.com
(read the entire Powells.com review
In the first-ever history of American beer, Maureen Ogle tells its epic story, from the immigrants who invented it to the upstart microbrewers who revived it.
Ambitious Brew, the first-ever history of American beer, tells an epic story of American ingenuity and the beverage that became a national standard. Not always Americas drink of choice, beer finally took its top spot in the nations glasses when a wave of German immigrants arrived in the mid-nineteenth century and settled in to re-create the beloved biergartens they had left behind. Fifty years later, the American-style lager beer they invented was the nations most popular beverageand brewing was the nations fifth-largest industry, ruled over by titans Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch. Anti-German sentiments aroused by World War I fed the flames of the temperance movement and brought on Prohibition. After its repeal, brewers replaced flavor with innovations such as flashy marketing and lite beer, setting the stage for the generation of microbrewers whose ambitions would reshape the brew once again.Grab a glass and a stool as Maureen Ogle pours out the surprising story behind your favorite pint.
About the Author
Maureen Ogle is a historian whose previous books include All the Modern Conveniences and Key West. She lives in Ames, Iowa.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONEand#160;German Beer, American Dreamsand#160;
CHAPTER TWOand#160;and#147;I Must Have Nothing But the Very Bestand#8221;and#160;
CHAPTER THREEand#160;and#147;Masters of the Situationand#8221;and#160;
CHAPTER FOURand#160;The Enemy at the Gatesand#160;
CHAPTER FIVEand#160;Happy Days?and#160;
CHAPTER SIXand#160;and#147;You Have to Think About Growthand#8221;and#160;
CHAPTER SEVENand#160;Make Mine Small, Pure, Real, and Liteand#160;
CHAPTER EIGHTand#160;Something Old, Something Newand#160;
Q: The American beer industry was shaped by German immigration. Men such as Adolphus Busch and Phillip Best settled in St. Louis and Milwaukee, creating a new, American-style lager beer and using the success of their breweries to build vast empires. Do you view their stories as unique to the American experience, perhaps as examples of the belief that hard work is often rewarded?
A: I definitely think that the American experience shaped the work and lives of men like Busch, Best, and Pabst. Its true that these were exceptional peopleambitious, intelligent, and charismatic. They would have been successful no matter where they lived. But had they stayed in the old country, I doubt they would have gone as far as they did. European societies in the nineteenth century were defined by fairly rigid class structures and relatively oppressive political systems. Had these men stayed in Europe, they likely would have succeeded only with some sort of boost from a wealthy patron or a well-connected sponsor.
The United States, in contrast, had (and still has) a remarkably fluid social structure and our political system was (and still is) far from oppressive. Once in the U.S., the only limit to these mens reach was their own ambition, and they had plenty of that. Mind you, they worked extraordinarily hardlong hours every day for years on endbut I dont think they would have been inclined to do so had they not believed that the sky was the limit.
Its easy now to scoff at the notion of the American dream, or the idea that everything in this country is possible and rewards come to those who work hard. But in the nineteenth century, millions of immigrants risked everything to come here because they believed those ideas. They believed that living in this country would allow them to improve their lot in life and that here, unlike in Europe, nothing and no one would hold them back.
Q: Large and small beer producers operate under a unique business model, one that is different from most other commercial industries. What makes the beer business different from other industries?
A: Beer is different from just about any other commercial industry or endeavor for two reasons. First, there are always people who want to put brewers (and distillers) out of business. Temperance is a powerful impulse in American culture. At any given moment, there are organized groups who would love to eliminate alcohol from our lives. That is as true now as it was a century ago when the Prohibition movement was in full force.
Second, because there is such fear of alcoholits manufacture, sale, and consumption are among the most heavily regulated activities in this country. Brewers operate under a burden of city, county, state, and federal laws. They pay enormous amounts of taxes besides.
So its not easy to make or sell beer. And I think that accounts for part of the brewers success: they have to want to do what they do. They bring passion and commitment to their work and are willing to endure constraints and criticisms that other manufacturers never have to face.
Q: One of the recurring themes in Ambitious Brew is how the brewing industry adapts rather quickly to changes in the marketplace. As preferences change, recipes are altered and new varieties of beer are created. The book addresses the commonly-held belief that the so-called bland, light beer that was popular prior to the recent microbrew revolution was a result of the big brewers use of inferior ingredients. Why do you think this myth was so widely accepted?
A: I think this myth was (and is!) so widely accepted in large part because no one had ever challenged it. When I started the book, I assumed it was true; it wasnt until I actually did some serious research that I discovered that the myth didnt have much to do with reality.
Also, the people most likely to hang on to the myth are the same people who are loyal supporters of micro brewing, which means they have a vested interest in big corporate brewers being the bad guys.
But that reveals something quite interesting about human nature. Humans have a strong need to be part of a group, and beer drinkers are no exception. Most beer drinkers have their beer. They identify with it and what it stands for, whether its a hometown brewYuengling or Anchor, or Anheuser-Buschor a type of beer, such as pure craft beer or a European import.
So I think the myth provides a way for people who embrace craft brewing and real beers to differentiate themselves from other beer drinkers, and to identify with their crowd. Of course, people who drink Budweiser are just as defiant in their attachment to it. Bud drinkers use that preference to distance themselves from snobs who drink pricey craft beers, or to take pride in being blue-collar workers who sweat while they workunlike the suits who toil in air-conditioned cubicles. Their myth is that Bud is a regular beer for regular folks.
And then there are people like me, who drink Bud and Anchor Steam. Which means that either I suffer from chronic confusion or that Im hopelessly insecure and want to be liked by everyone!
Q: As a culture, we have ambivalent feelings toward alcohol. We supported Prohibitionand its repeal. We make efforts to eradicate drunk driving, yet we like to have a few drinks at happy hour or while watching our favorite sporting event. Do you view this paradox as a typically American attitude?
A: I think much of our attitude toward alcohol stems from the fact that were a nation of workaholics, and I mean that literally: We dont know how to enjoy leisure. Indeed, leisure is almost a foreign idea to us.
So its easy for us to suffer angst over something as basic as a glass of beer. In our minds, we think of alcohol as part of pleasure or as something that can cause us to lose control. If we lose control, we wont be productive or efficient workers. Think what happens when someone orders a glass of beer at lunch: much winking and nudging ensues, along with jokes about how that person wont get any work done during the afternoonwhich is nonsense. A glass of beer doesnt contain much alcohol, certainly not enough to impair our senses.
But is this typically American? I think so. And it fuels a self-perpetuating cycle. We demonize alcohol, and we teach our kids to do the same. That in turn fuels alcohol abuse. When kids become teenagers, its their job to experiment with the forbidden, and one lesson every teenager has had ingrained in them since childhood is that booze is bad. Its evil. Its forbidden. And because theyve been taught to demonize rather than respect alcohol, they mismanage their drinking, which in turn causes adults to engage in much hand-wringing about alcohol abuse in high schools and on college campuses. Then those teenagers grow up and become adults who pass on the same lessons to their kids.
I think that in this country, weve got the drinking culture (and problem) that we deserve. Most other cultures enjoy different attitudes toward alcohol; kids are taught that its a normal part of life. Children sip watered-down wine or beer at the dinner table. They learn early that alcohol should be respected rather than feared.
Q: In recent years, dark hoppy beersonce a staple of American brewinghave made a resounding comeback. Do you have any sense of what is next for this industry?
A: I think interesting times are ahead for the industry. On one hand, time has shown that craft brewing is not a fad. I doubt well ever go back to that anomalous and mercifully short-lived period from 1945 to 1975 when there were very few breweriesfewer than fifty by the early 1970sand they all made the same kind of beer. American brewing right now is extraordinarily inventive and creative. People like Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery), Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River Brewing Company), and Jim Koch (The Boston Beer Company) are just a few examples of current world-class brewmasters who rank right up there with the best in history.
On the other hand, Koch, Grossman, Fritz Maytag (Anchor Brewing Company), and others of that first and second generation of craft brewing are now in their fifties or older. My guess is that some of them are starting to wonder what will happen to their breweries. Unlike the German families of yesteryear, most of these brewers dont have a passel of kids waiting in line to take over running the company. So its not clear where those breweries will be in another ten or fifteen years. Will they close? Will younger brewing idealists buy them and keep the tradition going? Its hard to say.
Q: You have held a few interesting positions prior to being a writerrestaurant server, cab driver, and hotel maid, to name a few. What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in the history of technology and science?
A: Oh, boy, now the whole worlds going to know just how accidental my life has been! I flunked out of college the first time aroundtoo young and dumb to know what I was doing. And thats how I ended up with all of those interesting jobs. By the time I hit thirty, I was bored with doing manual labor. Theres nothing wrong with it; but I wanted a different kind of life, so I decided to go back to college.
I managed to get a bachelors degree and that was enough to convince me that I wanted more. I loved the idea of being able to read and write for a living, so I knew I wanted to get a masters degree or a Ph.D. The person I was dating at the time pointed out that whenever I talked about what I wanted to study, it was always something about the past; he pointed out that maybe I should think about a Ph.D. in history.
He was rightI guess thats why I married him. But I didnt know much about graduate education. Almost no one in my family had gone to college, and I only knew a couple of people who had gone to graduate school. In fact, I wasnt real sure what graduate school was; I just knew that I wanted to go. So I applied to Iowa State University here in Ames. I applied late and had what are probably still the lowest GRE scores in the departments history. Frankly, I didnt expect to be accepted.
About a week before classes started, another student decided not to return that semester. The department chair was desperate for someone to teach that persons classesthats how I got in! Then the director of the program in science and technology, who was apparently equally desperate for students, persuaded me that I should take his classes.
That turned out to be a fortuitous string of events. Just about everything is a form of technology, so I was free to let my curiosity roam. My time in graduate school fostered an intellectual open-mindedness that has served me well over the years: from plumbing to Key West to beer, and now to meat, my latest project.
Q: In your previous book, All the Modern Conveniences, you document the development of our nations plumbing system. Ambitious Brew relates the story of American beer. As a historian and writer, what other subjects interest you?
A: All the Modern Conveniences, my first book, began life as a dissertation. I wrote it when I was still a history professor and its aimed at a scholarly readership. I wrote my second book, Key West: History of an Island of Dreams, for a general audience. Now Im working on my fourth book, a history of meat in America.
A common thread runs through these projects. Beer, cities, plumbing, and meat are part of our everyday lives. Im intrigued by what the commonplacethe stuff we dont notice because its so normalsays about us as Americans, by how our values and culture shape our material world.
The Key West and beer books are also about ambitious people of vision and drive, people who created something from nothing. Im fascinated by those kinds of people; in some ways, I think they exemplify who we are as Americansthat this nation is a place where people can make their dreams come true.
On a more personal level, Im also intrigued by people who are not afraid to think big, to envision grand schemes and plans, and act on them. Im not sure where that comes from, except that Ive had a fair amount of adversity in my own life and Ive worked hard to make something positive and productive out of a life that probably should have turned out otherwise. So maybe Im looking for stories about people I can relate to as role models.