Beer in the Old West
Updated: May 4
Bellying up to the bar for a brew was the main attraction in frontier towns.
Classic westerns and series like Deadwood and Hell on Wheels would have us believe that the only liquid served at saloons was whiskey, or, rather, a rough approximation of it. But after the Civil War, beer started showing up in Western saloons and became very popular, as well. It had as many colorful monikers as whiskey: John Barleycorn, purge, hop juice, calobogus, wobbly pop, mancation, let’s mosey, laughing water, mad dog, Jesus juice, pig’s ear, strike-me-dead, even heavy wet. (Bar tenders in the Old West had to have a big vocabulary!)
What was beer like in the 1800s Old West? Lager or ale, dark or pale, hopped or sweet? It depended on where you were. In some outer reaches and there were plenty of those in the early West, most beer was home-brewed and devoid of hops since they didn’t grow well in many hot places. Most brews would have come from grains but lower quality grains not used for bread making. And it would have tasted sweet like a whiskey mash before distillation. But beer in the Old West suffered the same bastardizations as whiskey; saloon keepers and bartenders would often dilute beer with “enhancers” or water to maximize their profits. In 1870, a glass of beer cost about 10¢, about $1.77 today.
As more German immigrants who knew the art of brewing moved West or to places like Wisconsin and Missouri from which beer could be easily transported West, kegged beer started to pick up in popularity. (See America’s Top Ten Oldest Beers.) German brewers introduced better grains, better water sources, better yeasts, and hops. They brewed mostly lagers in the beginning. As keg beer began to show up in saloons, patrons noted the marked improvement of the professionally brewed beer over previous home brews they had been accustomed to, which had been mostly home-brewed, rancid and weak, with no hops
The earliest brewery in the U.S. was Yuengling founded in 1829 in Pottsville, PA. Of the top ten oldest breweries in the U.S., five of them were in Wisconsin, which had a very heavy German population. (Consequently, Wisconsin would grow to have more bars per capita, by far, than any other state in the Union.)
Saloons in the U.S. began to have a close association with breweries in the early 1880s. The brewing industry was growing so rapidly that competition became very keen. Breweries began to adopt the British "tied-house" system of control where they owned saloons outright. Schlitz Brewing Companyand a few others built elaborate saloons to attract customers and advertise their beers.
Beer was not bottled widely until 1873. Up to that point it was mostly kept in kegs, sometimes stored in barrels the patrons would sit upon. Up until the 1870s, beer was served at room temperature in the European tradition. Though the beer had a head, it wasn’t sudsy as it is today. Patrons had to knock back the beer in a hurry before it got too warm or flat.
The first commercial, or "industrial", refrigeration of beer began in the United States in 1870 at the Liebmann's Sons Brewing Company in Brooklyn, NY. It would have been fermented cold, shipped cold, and eventually stored and served cold. Anheuser-Busch soon followed suit, as well as other major breweries.
Refrigeration took decades to make it to many places in the West. But ice houses began to crop even in the most isolated places. And some towns and cities harvested ice in winter from their rivers and stored in caves or deep stone cellars. The West was a hot place in summer and cowboys would pay a pretty penny for a cold beer after sweating in leather chaps and eating dust all day in the saddle!
Other posts you might like:
-Firewater, Coffin Varnish & Tarantula Juice
-Whiskey in the Old West
"Beer in the Old West" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on April 20, 2020.
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