Beer! This miraculous beverage is actually more American than apple pie, and its history is linked inextricably with our country’s. Tonight’s guest, director Roger Sherman, a founder of Florentine Films with Ken Burns, brings us The American Brew a fine crafted, bubbly film with depth and flavor that explores our nation’s relationship with beer.
Back in ye olden days, at the time of the Pilgrims water wasn’t safe to drink (btw the Pilgrims were aiming for Virginia, not Plymouth Rock where they landed, since there were already established colonies further south, colonies with breweries). Animal poop, bacteria, and a lingering fear of unclean water from Europe (where H2O was also pretty yucky) made water an anathema. But beer–with its anti-bad bacterial hops and yeasts was a refreshing (and nutritious) beverage. Pretty much everyone drank beer–from women, children and clergy to our Founding Fathers. And even without barley, American ingenuity prevailed, and beer was made from just about any type of vegetable matter. There’s even George Washington’s handwritten recipe for beer which sounds fairly foul, but worth a try.
Ale houses on the east coast became the saloons of the Wild West, and then came the Industrial Age with mass brewing. Breweries would open saloons and beer halls that would only serve their brand of beer. But with the rise of mass-produced beer came a backlash: Women–who could not yet vote–raised a hue and cry over the “degenerate” saloons (and the legitimate public health crisis that arose from venereal diseases spread by way of prostitutes at some saloons, which were not only brothels but also gambling houses–basically hellmouths destroying the family by Christian standards).
The temperance movement was born, and Prohibition was aided by World War I–many brewers were of German descent, and it was seen as a patriotic move to drive them out of business. Christian women campaigned vigorously for “dry” candidates. It didn’t matter what else the candidate stood for; if he was pro-Prohibition, he was a good man. It’s no coincidence that women’s right to vote and Prohibition both happened in 1920….
Despite Prohibition, beer continued to be brewed (Al Capone had breweries in Chicago), but spirits, which were less bulky, were easier to transport. Home brewing continued, but by the time FDR repealed Prohibition, a generation had lost its taste for beer–something that nearly killed beer in the US, as did the ban on saloons selling only beer they brewed. But World War II exposed GIs to European beer. And by the 1950s beer was back in a big way, with major brewing and distribution across the US.
Enter the home brewers and craft brewers–now thirty-seven states have revoked the post-Prohibition law which prevents brewers from selling their wares. In Los Angeles we have numerous craft breweries like Eagle Rock Breweries and Angel City Brewery which grows their own hops on their roof for an organic brew, as well as aging their beer in bourbon casks. Sherman takes us to one brewery in Sonoma, California, which ages beer in chardonnay casks. Nowadays, beer is more than just that nasty canned stuff dad would let you sip behind granny’s back at a family gathering. It has depth, resonance, history, just like tonight’s film.
So let’s raise a glass to the beer and its place in American history as we welcome Roger Sherman and The American Brew.