Explorations in Pre-Prohibition American Lagers


By George J. Fix (Brewing Techniques)
Tapping the barrel
This article is a sampling of recipes from the Pre-Prohibition era. It's relevant today as the Pre-Prohibition Style is now officially recognized as a BJCP Historical Beer style. Much of the discourse that surrounds American lagers today regard them as being low in alcohol and complexity, but this look back on the roots of the style shows us that some of the earliest iterations were flavorful showcases of American grains, hops, and adjuncts, which boast higher flavor profiles and greater variety than we expect from this style today.

If any 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 1980s 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 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.

Pre-Prohibtion Pale Lager

I came across the formulation shown in the accompanying box in the late 1970s and have been brewing it on a regular basis ever since. Several variations of the basic recipe exist, but the one shown appears to be typical. 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 …”. 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 sixrow 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 …”. 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. 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, 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 grainlike 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. 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 Mittelfrüh or Saaz. Turn-of-the-century Budweiser labels, for example, had the Saaz hop proudly displayed as one of its ingredients. 


Pre-Prohibition Pale Lager (Recipe)

Ingredients For 1 BBL of Finished Wort

48 lb pale malt

Mashing Procedure

Hold pale malt and ½ bbl water at 122 °F (50 °C) for 30 min. Add 1/6 bbl boiling water and increase temperature to 140 °F (60 °C). Stir in maize and hold for 15 min. Increase temperature to 158 °F (70 °C) and hold for 30 min. Mash off.

Sparging Procedure

Recirculate until wort runs clear. Sparge with 2/3 bbl water at 176 °F (80 °C). Collect 10/9 bbl in brew kettle.

Boiling Procedure

Boil for 1½-2 h to get a 10% volume reduction. Add domestic hops after 45 min. Add imported hops after 60 min.

Fermentation and Aging

Ferment at 50 °F (10 °C) with lager yeast until the gravity end point is achieved (10-12 days). Sterilize 4 oz of imported hops/bbl of beer with dry steam; add to storage tank. Transfer fermented beer to storage and hold at 32 °F (0 °C) for six weeks.
Note: Any of the “American Lager” yeast strains can be used on this formulation. It is usually unadvisable to use the Weihenstephan Lager strains with adjunct beers because of their low free amino nitrogen (FAN) levels (5). The malt concentration of this formulation, however, is similar to that of a standard all-malt lager, and hence the wort FAN level will be adequate for the German yeast. I have had good results using German yeast strains in this formulation.

Finishing Operations

Filter at the 3-5 µm. Increase dissolved carbon dioxide to 2.5 vol.


• Original extract = 15 °P (assumes 64% yield with malt and 78% yield with maize).
• Real extract = 5.5 °P (assumes wort is 65% fermentable)
• Apparent extract = 3.4 °P
• Alcohol = 5% (w/w), 6.25% (v/v) 


Spiced Lager


Ingredients for 50 BBL of Finished Wort

2000 lb pale malt
800 lb flaked maize
100 lb dextrose
47.5 lb domestic hops
1 lb juniper berries (boil)
2 oranges and peelings (fermentor) Original extract = 14.5 °P


Spices do not scale well with respect to volume. For small batches, I recommend 1 tsp-1 tbsp of juniper berries/5 gal, added in the last 15 min of the boil.
Similarly, for small-scale batches, I recommend ¼ orange/5 gal. Gibby Straub told me they cleaned the oranges with water, but did not sterilize them. I have found this to be satisfactory if the oranges are added at the start of fermentation.
Use the same mashing and boiling procedures as described for pre-Prohibition pale lagers. 


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 1981, where it won the David Line Trophy. 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 1993. 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 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. 

Western Lager

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. From Wahl-Henius and Zimmermann 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

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 1895 to 1920. 


Spring Tonic


Ingredients for 1 BBL of Finished Wort

54 lb pale malt
2.5 lb black malt
Original extract = 18 °P 
The brewing procedures used in the pre-Prohibition Pale Lager can be used for this one as well. I have found that it works best to add the black malt during the last 15 min of the mash. 

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 3½-4 h boil, which removes most of the dimethyl sulfide (DMS) precursor and hence leads to a reduced sulfur taste. 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. 


American Bock 

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. 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 yearround for medicinal purposes. Wahl-Henius stated that such beers should be “… medicated to such an extent as to preclude their use as beverages …”. 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.
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. The data given in that article describe the beer as it was brewed in the 1940s and 1950s. 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. 

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