That two-word tag line says it all, creating a link between love of beer and love of country. The words appeared on the original label for Samuel Adams Boston Lager, above the image of a young, soft-faced Sam Adams, who stares at the viewer, a foaming tankard in front of him.
Over the years, the portrait has evolved: Sam has become distinctly older, more masculine and square-jawed; his smile is broader, and he hoists the tankard in welcome, but the two word-biography remains—this, despite the fact that his family owned a malt house, not a brewery. Adams, the Massachusetts political leader and governor, would not be such a potent icon for brand and country if he’d been billed as “Maltster. Patriot.” Beer has unique appeal.
Boston Beer Co., creator of the Samuel Adams brand, followed a tradition at least a century old when it connected its new beer to American imagery and history. Brewers have turned to the symbols, people and events of our shared past to boost sales, manipulate their company’s image, denigrate national and commercial rivals, and inspire civic participation and pride. We’ve waved the flag over the brewhouse for decades—in ways that highlight our best and our worst traits.
The Colonial Era, more than two centuries behind us now, saw revolution plotted in taverns by players who risked charges of sedition for the cause of independence. Controversial in their time, the revolution’s heroes quickly became respectable…and marketable.
George Washington’s grueling winter with the Continental Army at Valley Forge inspired the name of a post-Prohibition beer brewed by the Adam Scheidt Brewing Co. of Norristown, PA—itself later renamed the Valley Forge Brewing Co. and sporting the logo of a Minute Man in a tricorn hat. General Washington’s headquarters appear on a beer tray from the brewery.
Breweries have been named for Washington, and brewers have produced George Washington’s Porter in tribute to the first president’s love of that beer style.
Although Washington’s own brewing experience is preserved in a beer recipe in his own hand, during the bicentennial, Gibbons Brewing Co. of Wilkes Barre, PA (part of The Lion Brewery) created beer cans to honor patriots with more direct brewing connections: men such as Matthew Vassar, a brewer and the founder of Vassar College for women; and Israel Putnam, a general in the revolution who owned a tavern.
Benjamin Franklin is an enduring figure in both history and in beer, his tercentenary celebrated in 2006 with Poor Richard’s Ale, a single recipe that was interpreted by craft breweries across the country. Franklin’s most famous connection with beer turns out to be a misattribution. He never penned well-loved quote “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but that fact hasn’t stood in the way of thousands of t-shirt sales to happy beer enthusiasts. Franklin can be all things to all brewers, it seems: Philadelphia’s Independence Brewery won awards with Franklinfest märzen, a beer style he never tasted. As depicted on its label, Ben seems to have been working out at the same gym that transformed Sam Adams: the founding father looks surprisingly buff for his age.
William Penn, honored with the same brewery’s William’s Winter Warmer, also received a modern make-over, and Betsy Ross was a coquettish seamstress on the label of a kristal weissbier.
A more demure Betsy Ross stitched the original flag in a famous lithograph produced in 1909 by the Horlacher Brewery of Allentown, PA. Loyal customers who saved coupons from the bottle labels could redeem them for the historic print. In the picture, named “Making the Emblem of Personal Liberty,” Ross sits by a window, with the half-finished flag draped across her lap and white fabric stars on the floor.
National symbols—most powerfully, the American flag—adorn promotional material for almost every product and occasion. When it comes to beer, however, there are limits.
The Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates all alcohol beverages, prohibits images on beer labels that relate “to the armed forces of the United States, or the American flag,” or that “mislead the consumer to believe that the product has been endorsed,” by a U.S. government or military entity. Breweries have mastered the art of referencing the flag or the armed forces without violating this rule—an approach akin to running right up to the fence but not quite touching the wet paint.
In the years before and after the Bicentennial, Falstaff flag-wrapped cans in a tribute to our 200th birthday. By the late seventies, they had turned this design into “Wake Up America!”, a campaign that urged their drinkers to “buy American.” This was not just intended to resist the growth of imported beers, but to support American-made products in general.
Among American microbrewery images, Stoudt’s American Pale Ale suggests the American flag with red and white stripes and a central blue patch.
Similar promotional sleight of hand implies without being explicit a connection between a New Jersey brewery and the U.S. Marine Corps. Tun Tavern Brewing Co. in Atlantic City is named for the tavern of the same name, a Philadelphia meeting place for Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and the Continental Congress. And, as every Marine knows, it was the birthplace in 1775 of the Continental Marines, later the Marine Corps. The original tavern burned in 1781.
A more metaphorical national symbol is Columbia, a separate and older icon than Liberty, the other robed lady with whom she is often confused. Created over 300 years ago as the literary personification of the United States, baptized with the feminized version of Christopher Columbus’ name, Columbia shaped the image of the new nation.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It confirmed Columbia as the image of western growth, and her name was adopted by breweries in the Midwest and the Northwest, and less so in the east. Seven years after the exposition, the Columbia Brewery opened in Tacoma, WA, and operated until 1979, when Carling purchased it.
The Statue of Liberty, or “Liberty Enlightening the World,” as been a national symbol, but primarily associated with the East Coast since it was unveiled in 1886. Milwaukee brewer Joseph Schlitz understood this connection when they expanded into eastern markets. A tin Schlitz sign from 1941, with the title “Loved by Millions,” shows Liberty in dramatic close-up. At the bottom are the words “Presented by Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company, Wis., 1941,” leaving the reader to make the connection that the beer is as beloved as liberty, itself.
Uncle Sam, the male personification of the country, gradually took over from Columbia, more often representing the U.S. government than its people or ideals. His origins are said to date back to the War of 1812, and a meat packer named Sam Wilson in Troy, NY. Barrels of meat destined for American troops were branded “U.S.” and soldiers purportedly joked that this stood for “Uncle Sam.”
Apocryphal or not, the story connects Troy with the Uncle Sam: naturally, when the Troy Brewpub opened, the company put the figure of Uncle Sam on their coasters, blowing the foam off his brimming pint.
Surely no one would mess with the Declaration of Independence for commercial reasons, would they? Well, not blatantly, but a 1998 Boston Beer ad showed the yellowed document with the signature of Samuel Adams seamlessly Photoshopped into a more prominent position.
Is nothing sacred?