CAPTURING THE PAST:
THE REBIRTH OF PRE-PROHIBITION LAGER



by Mark Lisheron
orginally published, ZYMURGY, Summer 1997


The customer finished his ale, complimented brewer Thomas Cizauskas on its wonderful flavor.. and then told him, he wouldn't be having another.

Cizauskas, brewmaster at Manayunk Brewing Company, in Philadelphia, PA, had just informed the customer that he and assistant brewer James Brennan had brewed this Sparkling Ale with about 20% corn.

Whereupon, the customer announced that he was a homebrewer "and that he wasn't going to have another one because of... the corn," Cizauskas said. "I had used a politically incorrect adjunct in my beer and no matter how much he liked the beer, it just wasn't proper. How silly!"

Silly... and ignorant of a historical legacy in American brewing that microbrewer Cizauskas and a tiny vanguard of homebrewers are trying to resurrect. During the first golden age of American brewing, prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US. Constitution, most American brewers made — and most Americans drank — lager beer made with malted barley and corn.

This was a beer as pale in color as a Budweiser, but every bit as robust as a Märzen; a beer with the hops of a Bohemian Pilsener; a beer whose edges were rounded by the grainy sweetness imparted by corn.

This was a beer brewed with pride by mostly German immigrant brewers making optimal use of the raw materials they were provided in the New World. This beer, within a generation, changed the taste of Americans from ales to lagers. In hindsight, this beer has come to be called Pre-Prohibition Lager.

Pre-Prohibition lager can contain as much as 25% corn in its grist. The corn flavor and sweetness are to be expected in a beer of medium malt flavor, aroma, and body. Original gravities range from 11.3 to 15 °P, with medium to high bitterness derived from US hops and aroma from Continental 'noble-type' hops.

Within these guidelines, Cizauskas and Brennan are brewing the first known commercial example of the style — Harry's Prohibition Pils — for patrons at Manayunk Brewing Company.

It's still a bit hush-hush, but I think we're seeing a clandestine return to corn," Cizauskas said. "Craft brewers across the country have been making 'training wheels' beer (milder beers to introduce mainstream drinkers to the fuller flavors of craft brews) using wheat as an adjunct. And why wheat? Because it lends a fairly neutral flavor just as corn does ... and because it is not corn, an ingredient overused by mainstream American breweries."

Corn, however, is an indigenous ingredient with historical legitimacy in American brewing. To scorn an ingredient simply because it has been abused by American mega-breweries is, and I hesitate to use the word, ignorant... It just doesn't make any sense."

George Fix, a University of Texas at Arlington professor and a longtime homebrewer and brewing consultant has done considerable research on the conditions that led to the predominant beer styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The study led him to conclude that more important than any of the conditions in the United States after the repeal of Prohibition — changing tastes, the marketing of beer to women — was the loss of a generation of brewmasters whose insights were European and whose adaptations were clearly American.

Beginning about 1840, German brewers emigrated to the United States in significant numbers. The brewers came with the techniques, and the yeast cultures, for making lager beer. But as much as a perfectionist brewer would prefer working with the familiar grains and hops of his native country, practicality and economy dictated that the Pre-Prohibition brewers use American raw materials.

The six-row American barley on-hand was much higher in protein than its two-row Bavarian cousin. When brewers attempted to lager their beer, they discovered the development of haze and harsher flavors. American hops, at that time, likewise were coarser in flavor.

Simultaneously, however, these new brewers discovered that native corn lent a distinct sweetness which could blunt the harshness of the American barley. The corn seemed to produce a clearer beer. Thus by combining imported German aroma hops with domestic bittering hops, and a measure of American maize with domestic barley, Pre-Prohibition brewers were able to produce a flavorful Pilsener- style beer. It may have been similar to the lagers of their homeland, yet it was uniquely American. By the 1870's, lager had relegated the ales and porters of the Yankee drinking public to specialty status.

Today there may again be a market for big, brawny Pre-Prohibition lagers. Cizauskas and Brennan are the first commercial brewers to bank on it. They have never shied away from telling customers that some of their beers contain a corn component.

They are fond of reminding purists that the Belgians, darlings of the critics, use sugar, fruit, and spices as adjuncts... and that British bitters, like Fuller's ESB, which helped launch the homebrewing era, have long contained additional sugars.

"What we're saying is that corn is a good thing," Cizauskas said. "People started to brew with corn for a reason, taste being the bottom line. Don't scorn the corn. Praise the maize!"



Soon after this article appeared, I left Manayunk Brewing Company to open a brewery in Cleveland, Ohio.
Harry's Prohibition Pils and its sister ale, Blue Mountain Sparkling Ale, were discontinued shortly thereafter.

- Thomas Cizauskas