Midnight in the Garden of Good Beer

Brewing in ancient Germania was done by the women who germinated wheat grains and flavored their beer with myrtle, ash leaves and oak bark. Tacitus reports that the Germans drank beer out of auroch horns while lying comfortably on bearskin coats. After the 7th century, monks began to brew beer as a kind of “liquid bread” allowed during fasting days of Lent. This beer was especially strong and nourishing. Soon, they began to sell their beer in their monastery taverns, and many monasteries in Germania, Gallia and Britain become rich and famous. Monks soon had competition. Private northern German breweries were taking their own beer to Flanders and Sweden by 1200 AD. There were over 600 such breweries in Hamburg alone in the 1500’s. Monarchs liked the private brewers, as unlike monks, they had to pay taxes. Soon, royalty got into the act of promoting suds.

Beer was still made by the women in their household until the middle ages. A common breakfast treat was warm beer enriched with eggs, ginger and nutmeg. The monks soon discovered hops as an appropriate spice for their beer. Although hops add a sour, bitter taste, they helped to keep it fresh longer and were thought to have a calming effect to reduce the danger of caving in to the devil’s sexual temptations. Hildegard von Bingen recommended in her 12th century book that “One should drink beer!” and she prescribed it for depression and sleeplessness.

At the end of the 15th century, there were numerous breweries in cities such as Salzburg, usually in combination with an inn. This is thanks in part to the famous physician ‘Paracelsus’ (Theophrast von Hohenheim, 1493 – 1541) who spent much of his life in Salzburg and discovered that beer was good medicine. Paracelsus replaced speculative doctrines with observations of nature, including the beneficial effects of beer. People were happily in agreement with his theory. A brewer of the day not only brewed beer, he butchered his own meat and hosted guests to enjoy the hospitality. Townsfolk passing by would have a drink of beer and carry some home in jugs. Soon, twelve major breweries dominated Salzburg, and there were more than a hundred individual brewers. “Beer gardens” grew up when brewers planted trees atop their cellars to keep the beer below cold as it fermented.

Brewing was risky business in the middle ages, and those eager for greater profit often used cheap filler ingredients to pad the beverage, from fruit, herbs and eggs to tree bark and fish bladders. As a result, beer was sometimes putrid tasting and even poisonous.

This gave urgency for some sort of uniformity law. The first regulation appeared in Augsburg, Bavaria in the 1480’s. Bavaria’s reigning Duke Wilhelm IV expanded the Augsburg regulation to cover all of Bavaria and it became official at Ingolstadt in 1516. The Reinheitsgebot, or the German (or Bavarian) Beer Purity Law was a regulation governing beer production in Germany which in its original text decreed that the only ingredients which could be used in beer production were beer were water, barley, and hops (it was later revised to allow yeast). It also set the price of beer. The penalty for making impure beer was also set: a brewer using other ingredients for his beer could have the barrels confiscated without compensation. 16th century Brewers in Bavaria have generally received the credit for having originated or at least modified beer to its modern form. German brewers in the United States took their profession just as seriously as those in the homeland.

As the German population in America grew in more cities, small taverns gave way to the German style beer hall or beer garden and they soon became very popular for family entertainment which usually lasted from sunup to sundown, and they were absolutely shocking to people not accustomed to such frolic. The whole idea of leisure time was in fact a German import. Many beer gardens and halls not only offered fun, they served free lunches to entice customers, and lavish buffets depending on local food sources, usually with rye breads, sausages, herring, cheeses, spicy brown mustard and garnishes. By 1860, US commercial brewers reached a national production record of a million barrels and German style Lager beer was king.

The beer was from local breweries. Beer halls were an integral part of German American life, and helped keep the culture intact while providing hours of entertainment and fun, with music, dancing, sports, family activities and good food at a bargain price. There were beer rooms, taverns, halls and gardens in German settled rural areas and cities, and they were everywhere by the turn of the 20th century. Some cities had scores of them. German restaurants often functioned as indoor beer gardens where women and children were not only welcomed, they were part of the fun, just as they had been in the homeland. The prospect of a dark, cramped tavern frequented only by men drinking very strong of beer was an entirely alien concept to most Germans.

In 1870, Detroit had 105,000 residents and 29 breweries. In 1908, 25 local breweries in the city of Buffalo provided 31 million gallons of beer to thirsty folks. “Brewing Hill” was home to many of Buffalo’s early breweries. The German-American Beer Company, 1896, was one of the largest, and featured a beer garden on its roof, below left. The number of breweries in Cincinnati increased from eight in 1840 to 36 in 1860. Many brewers became wealthy and influential figures in the German community, and in the financial panic of 1857, many Cincinnati Germans entrusted their savings to the brewers rather than with banks. One elegant saloon was Cincinnati’s Theodore Foucar’s “cafe” which featured a wrought iron and plate glass doorway flanked by marble columns; carved mahogany, onyx, marble, glass and bronze statues and wrought iron grillwork. Serious collections of paintings adorned the walls of the saloon. Between 1875 and 1900, seventeen breweries were located in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and West End districts.

At Ohio’s Mecklenburg’s Garden in Corryville, interior architecture and decorations were copied from a German castle and included hand-carved panels and woodwork in the grill room.

Most famous of all US beer halls was New York’s Atlantic Garden, capable of seating more than a thousand at a time. There were over 800 beer gardens in New York City at one point. Pabst in Harlem, New York was the largest of them all, with a seating capacity of more than 1,400. It was at the time the largest restaurant in existence and according to accounts it’s interior was “resplendent with frescoes, paintings, marble columns, colored lights, and exquisite table appointments...”

Summer beer gardens were popular in Chicago long before refrigeration replaced ice blocks in the 1870s for keeping beer storage cellars cool. Festive, family oriented places, they offered respite from summer’s heat and a chance to relax and have fun. Accompanied by lively waltz and polka music, the aroma of good grilled food and an endless supply of locally brewed lagers (most from breweries owned and operated by German-American families) sated thirsty revilers. There were 1,700 German taverns in Chicago by the turn of the century.

The majority of the city’s largest beer gardens were located on the largely German north side. There was Bismarck Gardens (renamed Marigold Gardens in 1915 in response to anti-Germanism), Belmont Grove, Brands Park which included a merry-go-round, bowling alley, shooting gallery, photo booth and several game booths, Elm Tree, Garden, Rainbo Gardens, Sans Souci, Scheiner’s Grove and ones at breweries like Sieben’s.

But wait! There was also Kolze’s Electric Park, Millers Garden and Nagl’s Grove, Paradise Garden, Pilsen Summer Garden, The Pilsener Summer. Then there was Riverview. William and George Schmidt, wealthy Chicago real estate tycoons, created Riverview in 1900 when they purchased 74 acre “Sharpshooter’s Park,” home to German gun club that practised shooting and hunted game in nearby woods. The wives of the shooters complained that there was little in the way of entertainment for them while their husbands were busy. George Schmidt had visited and enjoyed Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, and inspired by its beauty and variety of amusements, he returned to Chicago and decided to turn Sharpshooter’s Park into a similar leisure spot.

Soon, there was a variety of amusements, such as a 70-horse carousel, and good food and even daily performances by German bands, especially popular among the city’s large German-American population. Riverview’s popularity grew with a ballroom and a roller rink. During Prohibition, the many beer-drinking German patrons of Riverview’s beer garden ensured that beer still flowed freely at the park’s picnic grounds, despite occasional visits from federal agents. It lasted for 64 years. Chicago definitely liked its beer.

As St. Louis grew from a smallish town to an industrial metropolis, the brewing industry grew with it. Dozens of breweries sprouted up, most with names such as Griesedieck, Winkelmeyer and Stifel.

Adam Lemp had to smuggle yeast strains from Germany to produce the kind of lager he desired when he opened a brewery in 1838. J. Adam Lemp’s brewhaus had storage for over 50,000 barrels of beer and Lemp was the biggest brewer in Saint Louis by 1870 with Anheuser-Busch a close second. When the U.S. Brewers Association met in St. Louis in the summer of 1879, more than 25 St. Louis breweries were prospering, Schnaider’s Brewery had a wonderful Beer Garden.

Milwaukee, of course, was the undisputed leader in the number (and extravagance) of beer gardens. The vast quantities of beer consumed in the brew city during the 19th century gave rise to the term “Milwaukee goiter” used to refer to a beer belly. There was one bar per every 30 households.

One of the generation’s beer barons, Joseph Schlitz, came to America from Mainz, Germany in 1850 at the age of 20, and became a beer king in pre-Civil War Milwaukee. Schlitz himself died during a shipwreck in the Atlantic in 1875 on a visit home to Mainz. In 1879, Schlitz brewery bought one of 500 or so local Milwaukee beer gardens and turned it into a luxurious resort.

Embellished with the best decor, above center, it was topped off with a concert pavilion, dance hall, bowling alley, refreshment parlors and live performers such as tightrope walkers. He named it Schlitz Park and it was the Disney World of the beer kingdom, a place where the movers and shakers of the era all met, spoke and gathered. Among those who made speeches at Schlitz Park over the years were Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

His rival, Pabst Brewery, operated Pabst Park in Milwaukee among other beer gardens. It was an 8 acre resort with wild west shows, a 15,000-foot-long roller coaster, a fun house and “the smallest real railroad in the world.” It boasted live orchestras that performed seven days a week all through summer while one quaffed a 5¢ schooner of cold Pabst.

Beer gardens were certainly not all showy and extravagant. In fact most were simple affairs with more emphasis on family fun and good food, polka music and games. They sprang up wherever there was a German population. In 1866, German immigrant August Scholtz built a structure in Austin, Texas as a social meeting place.

Besides Scholz’s, Austin had Jacoby’s, Pressler’s, Turner Hall, and Bulian’s Beer Gardens. There was a time one could find a beer garden in the dust bowl states, such as the one at the left in Oklahoma, or way out west. As numerous as they were, very few beer gardens survived the anti-Germanism of the First World War followed by prohibition. Those that did quickly shed their German names and ethnic flavor. But they left behind the suds....

The Chicago’s Lager Beer Riots

Mayor Levi Boone of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party had won election despite claims that the votes of German and Irish immigrants had not been counted. He also claimed that the Bible provided the basis for slavery, and he was not popular among the Germans and Irish. He infuriated German saloon keepers when he began enforcing Sunday closing laws and increasing the liquor license fees by 600 per cent while at the same time shortening the time for which the license was valid. Hundreds of Germans were arrested for violating these laws while non-Germans guilty of similar offenses were ignored.

A trial for some of the violators was scheduled for April 21, 1855 and a contingent of Germans showed up to support their jailed compatriots. They were met by a squad of angry police and dispersed. Regrouping in the afternoon, the protesters returned and as they approached the police were prepared. After about half the crowd had crossed the river they opened the draw bridge and split their forces. This further ignited the crowd and the police feared the mob had armed themselves. Firing broke out and a policeman was wounded and a German shoemaker was killed. Approximately sixty rioters were arrested. The militia, under General R.K. Swift, was called out to deal with further disturbances, but there were none. The riot did serve to mobilize Chicago’s immigrant voters, and in March of 1856, a heavy German and Irish turnout defeated the nativists, causing the $50 liquor license to be restored.