(Beer) Book Review: Maureen Ogle’s “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer”

Featured Contributor Matt  @SportsNCraftBeer

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In Ambitious Brew, Maureen Ogle explores the history of brewing in America from the middle of the nineteenth century through 2005. Ogle demonstrates that brewing beer demanded both an extensive knowledge of brewing and deft business sense, noting that names such as Busch and Pabst rose to prominence congruently with names like Rockefeller and Ford. Additionally, she examines the brewing process and beer culture within the context of broader historical themes, such as immigration, the Great Depression, Prohibition, wars, and mass-consumerism.

Ogle begins her book by detailing the arrival of a German immigrant, Phillip Best, to Milwaukee in 1844.  He promptly opened a tiny brewery that, within 50 years, became one of the largest in the nation – Pabst Brewing. In a time when Germans came into places like Milwaukee and Chicago in great abundance, German brewers often enjoyed success (p. 13).

Prior to the railroad age, brewers sold exclusively to nearby saloons. For others, such as brewers like Pabst and Schlitz, they operated their own German-style beer gardens (p. 21). In Milwaukee, Lake Michigan provided access to hops grown near Buffalo and cool waters which enabled brewers to brew a beer familiar to German-Americans. More importantly, Ogle argues that Americans gravitated towards the lighter, yellow, German lager, rather than the traditional English-style ales because it stayed fresh longer and showed to be less intoxicating.

When American barley proved problematic to German-American brewers, they experimented with corn and rice – ingredients commonly denounced by modern craft brewers. However, Busch beer in St. Louis began operations in the 1850s and, as Ogle notes, Busch discovered that Americans preferred the Czech (or Bohemian) pilsner style of beer, rather than the Bavarian style he originally produced. In order to emulate the Bohemian style, Ogle argues, Busch used rice, even though it proved to be more expensive than barley. Busch entered his brew in Paris in 1878 and received accolades for its quality. More importantly, Americans enjoyed this particular recipe – Budweiser – and bought it in droves at the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893 (p. 83).

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The success of Budweiser drove Busch to bottle his beer rather than sell it in the traditional barrels. In doing so, he prevented saloon owners from passing off cheap beer as Busch beer, thus hurting the Busch product’s reputation and marketability (p 75). Meanwhile, the emergence of railroads and shrewd business tactics allowed big brewers to expand. Ogle claims big brewers lowered the price of their beers significantly once they entered a new market which forced local brewers to sell their product at a loss. As a result, local brewers eventually went out of business, which allowed the big brewers to dominate the market.

Ogle argues that the temperance movements of the early twentieth century grew substantially during World War I, partly because of perceived connection between Germany and German-American brewers. Prohibition began shortly after the war, in 1919, and lasted until 1933, during the Great Depression — Franklin Roosevelt decided it was better for beer profits to go to the treasury instead of the mob. Ogle explains that with the end of Prohibition, brewers like Milwaukee’s Fredrick Miller quickly invested in new equipment, and a strategy to nationalize his product. However, I would argue Ogle gives too much weight to Miller’s ingenuity. He enjoyed immense wealth – he invested over a million dollars into his brewery’s equipment during the heart of the Depression.

The end of Prohibition and a growing economy after World War II did not mean instant success for brewers, Ogle argues. An entire generation of people gravitated towards sweeter drinks, such as Coca-Cola. Furthermore, more Americans chose the comforts of home after World War II, notably when the baby boom emerged. However, the lessons learned during the Depression and Prohibition taught brewers, like Busch, how to diversify and market their beer, such as canning beer (p. 208, 214). More importantly, Ogle mentions that large brewers pressured local distributors to carry their beers exclusively, or find their contracts canceled; only a little over a hundred brewers existed by the 1960s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ogle notes that attitudes towards beer consumption reflected the well-known cultural change associated with that era. In the end, a trend towards consumption of products that embraced quality, were natural, and appeared less corporate emerged. An example of a move away from the old standard beer lies with Coors beer. Although a macro-brew, their image of a beer from the mountains of Colorado allowed Coors to grow considerably.

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Ogle notes that by the 1970s, craft brewing emerged, and then grew exponentially through the twenty-first century. Craft brewers produced ales, appealed to the anti-corporate crowd, and pounced on macro breweries’ use of additives. Ogle defends the big brewers’ use of additives, noting that additives help maintain freshness and low prices demanded by consumers. She further argues that the additives were not harmful – although she has no sources to validate her argument. However, Ogle adeptly points out that craft breweries are still businesses and require capital, must turn a profit, and have an economic plan. While one might find Ogle’s writing to be a defense of macro-brews, it has more to do with Ogle’s desire to remind her readers that beer, no matter the size of the brewery, is a commodity.

Ogle is a professional historian with a Ph.D. in history from Iowa State and her research is well noted. However, she left academia in order to research and write with more freedom. Although the book does not read as an academic monograph, the research is impeccable. Furthermore, she offers a list of source material in the back, so that one can still use this for research, much in the way noted beer historian, Gregg Smith, has done with many of his books. Although her method of sourcing is unorthodox, she explains her methodology well, including her time spent at Anheuser-Busch’s library.

Her time spent at the Anheuser-Busch library might be the cause for the only aspect of her book with which I take issue — Ogle’s propensity to inflate the American’s desire macro-brews, notably Anheuser-Busch, based on their economic success. That is akin to saying people prefer McDonalds to a quality burger, simply because of McDonalds’ amazing sales record. Ogle’s research likely ended sometime in the early 2000s, thus it would be interesting if she continues to feel that way, given the exponential rise in popularity of both craft brews, and macro brews brewing “alternative beers,” in order to compete with the craft community.

Overall, if you enjoy reading books that provide hard evidence mixed with great stories that avoid folklore, or read like a promotional piece on the greatness of beer, this is the book for you. It is likely that a few of her assessments might find disagreement among her readership, but this does not take away from the immense quality of research and history found in Ogle’s writing.

I disagree with a few of her arguments, but I would love to sit down and have a beer with her and debate them – she clearly did her homework.
I give this book a solid 4 out of 5.

Matt’s Bio:

Writer, beer lover, and sports aficionado.

Chicago

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Mathew Powers

Mathew Powers

Forever part of the Sommbeer family, Matt's journey from beer geek to beer writer has included regular contributions to Chilled Magazine, Thrillist.com, and his blog, "A Pint of Chicago," for the Chicago Tribune Media Group. He's also published non-beer-related items on various magazines, "webzines," and Ebooks. But, Sommbeer was, is, and always will be his home.
Mathew Powers

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