Earlier this year, while at the Chicago Real Ale Festival, I started thinking about the first time I tasted cask-conditioned beer at Bert Grant’s Yakima, WA, brewery about 1983. But then it came to me that it might have been much, much earlier than that. I might actually have tasted my first cask-conditioned beer in Yokosuka, Japan, in the early days of our occupation of that country, say sometime early in 1946.
In those days, if one wore a military uniform, one was served, no questions asked.
During World War II, I had, at ages 17, 18, and 19, my first real experiences with alcohol beverages, mostly beer. In those days, if one wore a military uniform (and I think older Boy Scouts may have managed it, too), one was served, no questions asked, although the drinking age was 21 for the most part. In combat zones, no consideration whatever was given to one’s age. We all had the right to die, and no one questioned our other rights.
I have related some details of that era already (AAB 20:6). In 1945, American beer, both at home and overseas, was rather pitiful stuff, not even as good as the pre-war, post- Prohibition brews to which most folks had become accustomed. By 1940, beer had made some progress out of the Prohibition morass. That blight had lasted 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours, 32 and one-half minutes from 12:01, 16 January 1920 to 5 December 1933 at 5:32 p.m. EST. By then, most drinkers were accustomed to drinking sweet, mellow wines and mixed drinks (to hide the awful taste of homemade gin), so brewers had reduced the profiles of their beer by lowering the hop levels and mellowing the taste of their product with adjuncts to accommodate this new market.
As the war progressed more modifications were incorporated, and most beer was reduced to infamous “3.2″ alcohol level. This meant 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, which was 4 percent by volume (abv). Perfectly satisfactory if (like me) you didn’t know better. This was really ALL the beer available to the foot soldiers of that time, but even that pitiful level of brew was severely rationed to something like six cans a week. Most of my friends, who were my age, didn’t worry much about this. We weren’t hooked on beer all that much anyway.
Wartime Beer Degradation
Suffice it to say that American beer continued its wartime degradation even from the modest levels of post-Prohibition recovery. At home, there was rationing of many staples (sugar, meat, flour, gasoline, butter and many other items). We had become the suppliers of the free world, and the malt content of beer fell from slightly over a bushel (34 lbs) per 31-gallon barrel to about 3/4 of that (25.5 pounds per barrel), even though malt production rose from about 70 million bushels before the war to about 103 million in 1945.
The difference was made up by the addition of adjunct grains, which had been mostly corn and rice before the war. As the war progressed, brewers experimented with other possibilities, such as corn sugar, beet sugar, wheat, soybeans, whey, potatoes (both white and sweet), manioca (from cassava), and sorghum grains, such as kafir corn and milo maize. Even hops became scarce when many hop farmers (encouraged by the government) switched to growing other crops more important to the war effort.
The Prohibitionists would dearly have loved to reinstate their vile program, but Americans who had suffered through the last Prohibition would never have stood still for that and everyone knew it. Instead, they wanted to impose prohibition on the military. In those days, it was the southern Democrats who formed the Christian erroneous. The rest of the Democrats and most Republicans repudiated the idea entirely. They killed it in Congress.
General George C. Marshall, chief of staff during the war, said, “It would be harmful to the men in the service to direct a prohibition against them that did not apply to other citizens. To do so would inevitably lead to intemperance.” As a matter of fact, it was recognized early in the war that beer constituted an important morale factor for the troops.
But I digress.
British Brewery Ships
Our British allies were in even deeper trouble, beer-wise, than we. Their beer had deteriorated, too. And on the continent the poor Belgians were trying to brew beer at gravities of 1009 to 1019 (2.4 to 4.7 Plato) at something less than 2 percent abv, with only 50 percent malt and 50 percent beetroot. They had ceased production of lambics entirely. German beer was not much better either, and more than half of the Japanese sake breweries had been closed or converted to munitions factories.
Often the sake used to send young Japanese kamikaze pilots off as suicide bombs was completely synthetic, with no rice at all used in its production. Of course, by mid- 1945, our side had mostly won the war, but the Japanese army had not taken note of this phenomenon. They were preparing for the long haul⎯to defend Mt. Fuji every foot of the way.
It was our British friends who grabbed the bull by the nether parts. They were outfitting BREWERY SHIPS! What a noble gesture for their troops, and what a brilliant new weapons system this represented! Ten of these fine ships of war were planned (the Brits, like the Japanese, were preparing for the really lo-o-ong haul). Sadly, I suppose, the war was over before those grandiose plans materialized. They settled on just two: the HMS Menestheus and Agamemnon, ex-ocean liner mine layers.