Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Garrett Peck's "Capital Beer"

Garrett Peck is a literary journalist and independent historian.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his fifth and latest book, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C., and reported the following:
From page 99:
Beer Gardens

The German immigrants brought not only their love of lager, but also the sense of drinking conviviality, Gemütlichkeit, which manifested in summer and winter beer gardens. The beer garden was a distinctly German import that Americans embraced, one that was noticeably different from male-only saloon. Entire families – fathers, mothers, children – would go together to the beer garden. It was normal for children to drink a little beer from their parents’ glass. American discovered how pleasant it was to sit outdoors with friends and sip suds fresh from the tap.

The beer garden wasn’t always garden-like, but it did have big communal tables for people to gather and often featured live music. Germans have never been given to boisterous drinking. The beer garden was a family place, a place for pleasant conversation, not a dive for drunken college students.”
This was the start of a section from my book Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. that dealt with the beer garden culture that began in DC in the 1850s as an antidote to our sultry summers. A local history may seem esoteric and pertaining only to a particular market, but the fact is the drinking culture of Washington was largely repeated everywhere, especially once the Germans came to the United States and fundamentally altered our drinking habits - largely through lager beer. Before the Germans arrived, Americans drank whiskey and English-style ales, which are heavy and not the most pleasant to drink in summer. But lager? Oh lager. It’s an aged and mild and utterly quenchable beer. Imagine how tasty it seemed on the tongue in an era long before air conditioning. Lager was relief.

And to the broader point about what beer gardens meant for American society. They were refuges for families to gather together socially and to drink together. Although the Germans introduced beer gardens as an alternative to the saloon, Americans very quickly adopted the beer garden as their own: they are places of relaxation and wonder. Given that this was a familial social setting, the intention wasn’t to get drunk, but to use beer as a social lubricant. The temperance movement of course hated the beer gardens as much as they disliked the saloons. They eventually won with Prohibition, which drove drinking underground. Even though Prohibition ended in 1933 after its disastrous failure, I would argue that we’ve never fully gotten over it: alcohol still has some taboos, such as the question of underage drinking. Can you imagine today seeing a parent allowing their kid to take a sip of beer from their bottle? It happens all the time, but usually under the table, lest scornful eyes pass judgment.

American culture is a giant sponge. What the immigrant brings to our shores, we try on ourselves, and soon call it our own. You see this everyday in big and small ways, in our vocabulary (“I’m gonna pick up the kids from kindergarten, then take a siesta.”), to our drinking habits, to our food. How many times have you had pizza this month, or dropped in to your favorite Mexican restaurant, and washed it all down with a glass of beer or a margarita? We take the immigrant’s gift for granted.
Learn more about the book and author at Garrett Peck's website.

Garrett Peck's best books about Prohibition.

Writers Read: Garrett Peck (January 2010).

The Page 99 Test: The Prohibition Hangover.

--Marshal Zeringue