How the Army Made Lager America’s Beer

December 17, 2018
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America is a nation of beer drinkers, and that beer is lager. The fact that we call this “domestic” beer, even though it’s traditionally German and brewed worldwide, reinforces the idea that there is a typical American beer, and that beer is something that ends with the word “lite.” You can say that you’re not a fan of it but if you’ve ever worn a uniform, you’re part of the problem. Through beer rationing and buying power, the U.S. military had a major influence in making light lager America’s default beer.

This story starts with a failed revolution halfway around the world, but we’ll get to that in a minute. America was a country of immigrants who brought their beer traditions with them. In colonial America, those immigrants were mostly English, and they brewed ale. Today, ale is trendy, but for a colonist it was terrible beer. It’s thick and heavy, with high alcohol content. On the upside, it brewed in a couple of days, but it goes bad just as quickly. The warmer climate in much of America is poorly suited to ale, which explains the old saying: If you turn your back on ale, it will go bad. Anyone who could afford to buy imported ales and stouts from England did so, making it a luxury product. No wonder most Americans preferred ciders and whiskeys.

Immigration was a small trickle into the 19th century. During the 1830s, only 600,000 new immigrants arrived. But in the 1840s, that number shot up to 1.7 million, then to 2.6 million in the 1850s. A hefty majority of those immigrants were either Irish or German. The Irish were escaping a severe famine that would sadly kill more than one million people. Those who escaped the famine tended to be poor, uneducated, unskilled, and they arrived with little — which is probably why Americans aren’t all drinking Guinness right now.

The Germans were political refugees. Warfare, political unrest, and high taxes had left German-speaking Europeans from multiple principalities angry, exhausted, and yearning for a united Germany. Several revolutions were put down, most notably in 1848. A class of intellectuals called 48ers fled to the United States. They had a bit of money and education. The guild system that many felt entrapped by also provided many with training and experience in useful skills that. When partnered with the lack of taxes and regulations and the plentiful resources in the United States, Germans who immigrated were poised to thrive. Further, in the 1830s, tea and coffee prices plummeted in Europe, and customers abandoned beer for the newly available novelty of getting hopped up on cheap caffeine. The old world was simply a less welcoming place for brewers.

Beer was ingrained in German society, so wherever enough Germans migrated, a trained brewer could find a market. German beer culture was based on lager: a light, effervescent beer, low in alcohol with a mild taste. The name lager comes from the German word for “store,” as the beer had to be carefully stored in a cool place for about six months. Lager, unlike ale, was served cold, making it even more refreshing in the comparatively warm American climate. Brewing lager took a trained brewer, good climate control, shipping, and a significant amount of risk. These are hardly factors that would point to lager becoming a military staple, but it was the culture that surrounded lager that set it apart.

In America, people drank ales and whiskeys in gritty taverns, where they were associated with gambling and prostitution. Meanwhile, the Germans had made day-drinking a national pastime. There, beer drinking was a family-friendly activity, where public beer halls and beer gardens seated hundreds. The cultural difference between lager and ale was therefore stark. On weekends and evenings, families gathered for free music, gardens, and lager. In the mornings, men met for cards and political discussions, all accompanied by lager. Part of the reason for this was that the low alcohol content better supported it, but keeping lager cold meant it had to be consumed close to the brewery, making it harder to save for midnight. Yet beer remained a predominately German custom, and though their puritan neighbors looked askance at the tradition of Sunday drinking, the wealth and hardworking reputation of German communities led them to leave the lager and beer gardens alone and even to spread across cultural boundaries. In fact, in recognition of the great economic value of breweries and leadership of the brewers, large brewery owners in both St. Louis and Milwaukee were given commissions in the state militia, one as a brigadier general.

The Turnverein, or Turner movement invented modern gymnastics. They were influential in military physical fitness and loved lager beer. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Turners movement was among the most important of beer garden patrons. They were a part of the 48ers, the group of German intellectuals who staged a failed democratic revolution in 1848. The Turnverein or Turner clubs started in Germany and focused on physical and intellectual wellbeing. This was practiced through gymnastics, sport shooting, debate, and singing — all washed down with lager. The Turners are credited with inventing gymnastics, but they had to leave Germany when their clubs created a network of fit, uniformed young men and women with strong political opinions. Many Turners were combatants in the failed 1848 revolution and fled to the United States. The Turner movement flourished across the country, especially in midwestern towns with large German populations, where they built their own gymnasia and advocated for youth physical fitness in schools. By 1880, the Turners had 13,000 members in 148 societies. Some Turner groups even started holding athletic and sport shooting competitions at German beer gardens.

Even as beer gardens spread across the United States, the temperance movement was gaining momentum. An economic meltdown in the 1820s caused a national time of reflection, religious awakening, and burgeoning temperance movements. Though lager beer and sunny beer gardens were attracting respectable clients from all walks of life, grimy taverns were also thriving. Americans of English descant had a puritanical disdain for the casual enthusiasm the new German and Irish immigrants showed for alcohol. In the 1840s and 1850s, just as companies like Miller, Anheiser-Busch, and Pabst were flourishing, so too was an anti-immigration backlash fueled in part by a pervasive sentiment that alcohol caused laziness.

A nativist political party known as the “know-nothings” created a climate of oppression and even violence towards immigrants. Groups like the Turners formed their own police and protection networks. The causes of temperance and nativism became intertwined, but one was easier to legislate. Maine passed the nation’s first temperance law in 1850, followed by 11 states and two territories in the next five years. The laws, enforced by nativist police departments, tended to ignore the Anglo taverns and crack down on the Irish and German beer gardens. In Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Milwaukee, beer riots left hundreds imprisoned, dozens dead and countless injured, not even to mention the brewers who were put out of business.

This 1871 print portrays whiskey as a path to poverty and lager as a drink for prosperity. (Credit: Library of Congress)

This is all a lot of background to explain how the Army made lager America’s beer. But it brings us to where beer is sitting at the outbreak of the Civil War: an empty factory because it’s illegal. But what was happening in the Army at the same time? Soldiers serving on the frontiers or distant posts had largely missed the first great prohibition movement and continued with a longstanding tradition of whiskey consumption, which made frontier life more bearable. The new regiments of volunteers being raised all over the country, however, were not well supported in this tradition by the dry communities that surrounded them.

Let’s go back to the Turners. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the regular Army had what we would now call a readiness problem. Physical training was limited to drill and ceremony and aimed towards developing characteristics like posture and bearing. It’s hard to imagine parade marching as the next CrossFit, but such was the antebellum Army. Due to the Turner’s passion for youth and school physical education, the dominant physical fitness culture by the outbreak of the Civil War was the Turner style of gymnastics. The Turners are credited with inventing or popularizing the parallel bars, rings, and bowling. They also enjoyed mass outdoor calisthenics and call-and-response singing. Though the Turners weren’t the only group, or even the only group of Germans, to enlist in large numbers, they had an outsized influence on Army culture. Perhaps the longest enduring legacy of the Turners was introducing the Army to mandatory outdoor calisthenics.

The Turner influence began before the official start of the war. Of the new Union volunteers, a force of about 6,000 Turners joined the Army. The Turners, who had fought for democracy and a unified Germany, were strongly pro-Union in the North. They had acted as protective forces during the know-nothing era, and many had fought in the 1848 revolution, making them experienced veterans compared to most. Even before the war was official, Turners acted as bodyguards for the Lincoln inauguration and stopped the arsenal at St. Louis from being overtaken by Confederate troops in 1861. Thus, the lager drinkers kept Missouri in the union and preserved freedom of movement on the Mississippi, the loss of which could have significantly altered the conduct of the war. Companies of Turners from Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore were the first Union volunteer companies set up. Turners made up about 3 percent of the Union Army, but that accounted for about two-thirds of the Turner population in the United States. With their fitness, shooting ability, combat experience, and demonstrated loyalty to the Union, they made appealing choices for leadership.

They also drank copious amounts of lager. If beer was so bad, how were the Army’s fittest soldiers beer drinkers. The Turners, as well as other immigrant populations , advocated that lager be excluded from the liquor ban. The Civil War camps were officially dry, but taverns and sutlers selling illegal whiskey thrived. At best, soldiers spent all their wages on the inflated prices, and, at worst, “dog robber” sutlers sold them dangerous moonshine in peach tins. Soldiers were going broke and blind, stumbling out into town to get a beer but finding the whiskey and painted ladies instead. It made the camps unpopular with the surrounding communities. The army found salvation in an 1858 court case in Brooklyn, in which a man being tried for violating the city’s public intoxication law was found innocent based on the testimony of a doctor who explained that lager beer was not intoxicating. Similar cases began springing up all over the country, where communities were determining that lager, at 3 percent alcohol, didn’t violate prohibition laws.

While this compromise might sound odd in today’s military, the idea that if you gave soldiers beer they wouldn’t want whiskey was an effective one. Especially around Washington, D.C., where Union troops were predominately German, the influential Turners had advocated hard for lager beer. Ale, though not specifically outlawed like whiskey, didn’t travel well and left lager as the beer of choice. Around Washington, beer became an issue item, purchased with “sutler’s tokens” that were good for a cup. With a huge shortage of U.S. currency during this time, beer tokens had a trading value of their own.

A beer token from the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. The front depicts a stein of lager, the reverse states “Army and Navy.”

Men from all units flocked to fill their tins with lager beer, expanding the taste for the beverage outside of traditionally German communities. By the end of the war, thousands of soldiers came home with a taste for lager, which was now accepted as a health beverage. In fact, The Sanitary Commission declared that lager reduced instances of camp diarrhea and prescribed it for convalescing soldiers.

As an example of how Civil War soldiers expanded to the market for lager, let’s look at Washington, DC. In 1860, there were seven breweries in the nation’s capital, but by the end of the war there were 13. With the advent of rail travel, beer was now being sent to soldiers on campaign as well. Victims of their own success, the thriving breweries were an attractive target for a new luxury tax. President Abraham Lincoln levied a dollar-a-barrel tax in 1862. Anxious to affirm their loyalty on the heels of the know-nothing era, the breweries complied with the tax. However, they realized that once the new tax took hold, it would never go away. A few of the brewers met in New York City that winter, where they were able to persuade congress to lower the tax to 60 cents a barrel. This grouping, which called itself the United States Brewer’s Association, was the first of an enduring American institution: the political trade lobby.

One Flag–One Country–Two Lagers: This 1861 lithograph shows a German and French soldier shaking hands over lager. (Credit: Library of Congress)

The taste for lager beer had greatly expanded after the Civil War, leading the new brewer’s association to have great influence. The breweries that survived the war brewed the “non-intoxicating lager,” effectively pushing out other forms of beer. Though breweries were still largely family-owned, they developed corporate scale. Thanks to the influence of the Turners and other Germans, lager beer had a wholesome reputation.

The taste for temperance hadn’t gone away and after the Civil War many states and counties were still dry across the country. With the memory of the “dog robber” sutlers in mind, the army created a system of government-run shops, where enlisted men might buy beer, smoke, play cards, and get a simple meal under the supervision of an non-commissioned officer. Though local taverns and brothels fought these new at-cost institutions, the “Post Exchange” was now a fact of life, and one that soldiers expected coming into Word War I.

However, when the draft exponentially increased the size of the Army, leaders gave in to prohibitionist pressure and kept the training camps dry, leaving soldiers to find their own intoxication off post. Camp life had evolved in other ways, as groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association offered more wholesome refreshment. Athletics, once banned, were now endorsed. World War I was not the era of beer. Soldiers came home to widespread prohibition laws, enacted into national law by the 1920 Volstead Act. Lager beer was again considered intoxicating, and bootleg whiskey was back.

 This 1900 cartoon shows the stark contrast between allowing canteens or forbidding them. The right-hand side shows soldiers drunk on whisky, starting fights. The left-hand side shows the canteen as a wholesome place for comradery–and of course lager.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and, as mobilization started for World War II, many lobbied to keep the camps dry, as they had been the prior world war. At these camps, the Army met its old foes: bootleg liquor and prostitution. Remembering the lessons learned in the Civil War and frontier days, the post exchange system was ushered back in, and with it, beer.

As a compromise, the newly expanded exchange system opened service clubs that sold hamburgers, soft drinks, and cold beer. As a nod to the prohibition crowd and the Civil War compromise, the government standard for beer contracting was 3.2 percent ABV. The need for a million-man scale of 3.2 percent beer revived the breweries that survived prohibition. By then, the taste for lager had grown beyond a means of military behavior control and into a genuine preference. Lager traveled with Americans wherever they went during the war. Soldiers stationed in England preferred to stay on post and drink 3.2 percent beer than to head into town and drink bitter British ales. Commanders learned that serving lager would keep their men on base and away from the local girls, easing relationship problems with the surrounding communities. Breweries all over the United States used a new method — canning beer instead of bottling it — to ship it into combat theaters, sometimes even painting the cans olive drab.

Pacific Theater Beer paraphernelia from World War II: Ration cards, beer bottles, and a bottle opener made from shrapnel. (Credit: National World War II museum). 

The old bottles and growlers were designed to get beer into a pint glass. Getting pint glasses to into combat theaters was a luxury, so the post exchanges started the abhorrent trend of telling soldiers to drink it straight out of the can, a habit that they took home with them. By the 1950s, drinking beer from the can was cool, edgy, and worldly, and the beer can was redesigned.

The fact that it takes six months to ferment lager, and that it must be stored and transported cold, all point to it being the wrong choice to serve to soldiers in the field. Yet, through a few skilled immigrant brewers, the martial tradition of groups like the Turners, and its light alcohol level, this beer became Americans’ “domestic.” Before carbonation and refrigeration, this mellow, frothy beverage must have been incredibly refreshing. The thought of a cool tin cup full of lager at a Civil War encampment, a frontier outpost, or a post exchange in the Pacific theater is an enduring American tradition, perhaps one that’s been forgotten as the Army has moved back toward dry training camps and combat theaters. If you don’t like lager, you can blame your military forefathers for expanding the market for it. But we can, perhaps, appreciate the military leaders who saw lager beer as a compromise between the militant political types of the day — the prohibitionists, nativists, and profiteering communities — and keeping soldier morale high. While lager beer as a compromise might not resonate with the General Order Number 1 crowd, the leaders of the day repeatedly pointed to the lager rations and post exchange as a place of comradery. The next time you crack open a mass domestic, remember that this was the chosen beverage of the people who kept Missouri in the Union, added physical training to army life, and invented the trade lobby. There’s something very American about that.

Post script: If the military heavily influenced the American taste for lager beer, it also had a role in bringing ales back around. In 1964, a sailor named Jack McAuliffe was stationed in Scotland, working on Polaris submarines. Afraid that he wouldn’t get the ales he’d grown to love in Scotland once he got back home, he learned to homebrew. In 1976, he launched New Albion brewing in Sonoma, California.

It’s widely credited as being the first craft brewery in America.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Turnven gymnastics movement. The proper term for the movement is Turnverein or Turnen. In addition, a previous photo caption translated a lithograph caption as “One Flag-One Country-One Lager.” The correct translation is “One Flag-One Country-Two Lagers.”

Miranda Summers Lowe is a modern military history curator at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, and an officer in the Army National Guard with deployments to Iraq and the Horn of Africa. She previously served on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Operation Enduring Freedom Study Group. She has a BA from the College of William and Mary and an MA from Brown University.

Image: Library of Congress