How Bohemian Lager Swept the Country

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 27, Issue 2
May 1, 2006 By

We all know the history of American beer: back in the good old days, before Prohibition, honest brewers made honest beer using only malt, hops, water, and yeast. Then came repeal and the era of Corporate Beer: corn- and rice-based swill with no flavor and even less body.

The truth is more complex. As the late George Fix noted in 1994, pre-Prohibition brewers created full-bodied lagers using both corn and rice. I kept Fix’s words in mind as I researched my book Ambitious Brew: The Story of the Immigrants and Entrepreneurs Who Invented American Beer (forthcoming, October 2006). I discovered that German-American brewers began using “adjuncts” in the early 1870s and for reasons that were both surprising and unexpected.

German émigrés introduced lager to the United States in the 1840s, and during that decade and the next, it was drunk primarily by German-speaking immigrants. But in the 1860s, lager’s popularity spread throughout the general population. Brewers’ demand for grain outpaced farmers’ ability to provide barley. The situation worsened in the early seventies, when several years of bad weather and blight ruined crops.

The combination of high prices and limited resources forced brewers to face an uncomfortable fact: all-malt Bavarian lager was ill-suited to new world brewing, and not just because of barley shortages. American six-row barley contained far more protein than could be processed by the grain’s starches during the mashing process. Lagering—weeks of cold storage—precipitated much of the excess protein, but dregs remained as unsightly globs that formed haze, soured the beer, and shortened the lager’s life. If brewers could eliminate excess proteins, the beer would be more stable and durable; they could ship it longer distances and so expand their markets. And if they could brew with some grain other than barley, they would ease the stranglehold of high prices caused by crop shortages.

In the late 1860s, many brewers began adding corn to their mashing tuns. Like barley, corn is rich in starch that can be converted to sugar. Unlike barley, it contains little protein. Mixing corn into the brewing mash added an extra helping of starch that absorbed excess proteins and, as a bonus, “stretched” the grain, much the way a cook might add pasta to a pound of hamburger to make it go further.

But every brewer who experimented with corn soon learned that what sounded good on paper turned sour in practice. Corn’s abundant oil infused the lager with a rancid flavor. Brewery employees could eliminate the oil by grinding the corn to remove the husk and kernel, but doing so added another layer of expense to the process. And that was just one of the many puzzles of adjunct brewing. What was the best ratio of corn to barley? Should it be cooked first and then added to the barley mash? Or added at the outset and cooked with the barley? How long should it be boiled and at what temperature? Only time and trial taught brewers how to use corn, but every move cost money—and when something went wrong, the entire mess had to be flushed into the gutter.

The Lure of Bohemian Lager

Given the difficulties, adjunct-based brewing might have limped along for years before it became an integral part of American brewing. Only some irresistible lure could have induced brewers to expend the time and money necessary to overcome its liabilities. But in the early 1870s, the nation’s brewers encountered the irresistible: Bohemian lager, a light-bodied, low-alcohol, translucent, lemon-colored brew. On the tongue, it tasted and felt as different from Bavarian lager as lager did from English ale.

The beer originated in the 1840s in Pilsn (Plzen in Czech), a city in the Bohemia region of the Austrian Empire. In the late forties and early fifties, its popularity spread across Europe. The new beer took longer to arrive in the United States, because most German-American brewers hailed from and trained in the brewing traditions of Bavaria and Prussia.

Pilsener’s stars aligned in 1873 at the Vienna International Exposition. The Exposition was one of many held around the world during the second half of the nineteenth century. Part sideshow, part trade show, one hundred percent entertainment, the expositions spotlighted participating nations’ progress with displays of food, crops, machinery, engineering, art, and architecture.

The expositions also featured brewing exhibits and contests where brewers competed for medals and trophies. At the 1873 Vienna Exposition, Bohemian beers stole the show and captured top prizes. It’s not clear how many American brewers visited the event, but there is limited evidence that Adolphus Busch, secretary of E. Anheuser & Co. (later Anheuser-Busch), was there. If he missed the event, however, he heard about the show-stopper from another St. Louis beermaker, Otto Lademan, who owned Joseph Uhrig Brewing Company and who traveled to Vienna as the state of Missouri’s official representative. There he tasted Pilsener and another Bohemian lager, this one from Budweis.

In the early 1870s, Lademan, Busch, and other brewing entrepreneurs fiddled with recipes and tinkered with malts and mashes in an effort to replicate Bohemian lager. Eventually, they collided with an incontrovertible truth: it was impossible. Or, more accurately, it was impossible to do so using protein-rich American six-row barley. Amber-colored Bavarian lager’s heavy body hid six-row’s deficiencies. A glass of sparkling, translucent Bohemian lager, however, functioned as a klieg light that illuminated every blob of unprecipitated protein, every tendril of undissolved yeast. Every flaw, every jot of unidentifiable stuff hung there for all the world to see.

Fashioning an American Pilsener

Anton Schwarz to the rescue. As a student at Prague Polytechnic, he studied under Karl Balling, a pioneer in brewing science who specialized in adjunct-based brewing. In 1868, twenty-nine-year-old Schwarz emigrated from Bohemia to the United States and took a post with American Brewer, the nation’s first brewing trade journal, where he contributed technical papers on Bohemian lagers and brewing adjuncts.

From Schwarz, American brewers learned that the only way to fashion an American version of Pilsener or Budweis using six-row barley was by mixing either rice or white corn (less oily than yellow varieties) into the barley mash. The additional grains absorbed excess proteins and imbued the lager with sparkling brilliance, light color and body, fine flavor, and a foamy head.

Getting to the new beer was not easy. Frederick Pabst and Emil Schandein, owners of Best Brewing Company in Milwaukee, enjoyed the services of a superb brewmaster, Philipp Jung, who launched the company’s experiments with rice and corn. But Jung’s skill and ambition outweighed his loyalty to the company and in late 1879, he left to open his own brewery, leaving brewhouse and beer adrift.

Jung’s first replacement lasted less than a year. The next man knew how to make old-style, dark Bavarian, but floundered when it came to light lager. “Can’t you give us a paler, purer beer,” pleaded the branch manager in Chicago, where customers were deserting Pabst’s too-dark beer for competitors’ Bohemian-style pale lager. “Our customer Shaughnessy out on Graceland Road, sent us word he could not use our beer any longer, it being so dark,” the manager told Pabst. “Our reputation in Chicago will certainly suffer if we don’t get a different beer.”

Pabst penned a note of his own to the brewmaster. “There is no doubt in my mind if that kind of beer keeps on, we will lose a great deal of trade which had cost us a great deal of trouble and money to get.” “We surely furnish everything necessary to make good beer,” he pointed out, “and I can only look at this as either carelessness or not the necessary knowledge of the business.” “I want to be understood,” he added, in case his employee had missed the point, “that we cannot afford to have anything of this kind repeated . . .”

The King is Born

Adolphus Busch fared better. In the early seventies, he and brewmaster Irwin Sproule developed St. Louis Lager, a rice-based brew that they modeled after the “highly esteemed” Bohemian beer that won top honors at Vienna in 1873. Busch took his new product to the next major exposition, at Paris in 1878, where it won the grand prize for bottled beer.

But in 1874 or 1875 (the precise date is not known), Busch and Sproule developed a second rice beer, this one for Busch’s friend Carl Conrad, a St. Louis importer of wine and liquor. Conrad was no brewer but he knew a profitable market trend when he saw one and he contracted with Busch to create and brew a “very pale, fine beer” that Conrad would bottle and sell under his own label.

Conrad wanted the beer to stand out in an increasingly crowded field of Pilseners, so he asked his friend to model the lager after the pilsener brewed in Budweis (Ceské Budejovice), an ancient Bohemian city where an “official” court brewery produced the “Beer of Kings,” a slogan Busch would later invert. Budweis brewers used Saaz hops and Moravian barley, but they employed a slightly different mashing method than did makers of Pilsener, and the resulting beer was a shade lighter in color and slightly more effervescent than its Pils counterpart. Neither Busch nor Conrad had been to Budweis, but they had visited Bohemia and tasted Budweis beer in other European cities. Conrad claimed that Budweis-style lager “was always the finest Beer [he] could get in Europe,” and that the “Budweiser process [made] the finest Beer.”

Busch tackled the problem with his usual thorough enthusiasm, studying the matter in books and the trade press and consulting with men who had worked in Budweis breweries. After some months of experimentation, he and Sproule settled on a combination of technique and ingredients, beginning with a mixture of high grade North American barley. The mash contained about eight pounds of rice to five bushels of barley, but it’s not clear when they added the rice or how long it cooked. Nor were Busch or Conrad inclined to reveal the details of what they regarded as a priceless trade secret.

Saaz hops imbued the beer with an “exquisite aroma” and “special . . . bouquet.” Sproule added 20 to 24 ounces per barrel, slightly less than the 30 or so ounces used in the company’s other beers. He pitched the lager with an imported Bohemian yeast that provided “a peculiar, fine flavor.” Beechwood strips lined the bottoms of the aging vats, creating rough-textured traps for impurities and bits of flock or yeast that drifted their way. Then workers transferred the beer to kegs coated with an “aromatic” pitch made from fitchen pine; this, claimed Busch, gave the beer “a special characteristic.”

The final result, which Conrad named after its place of origin, was a masterpiece of brewing prowess. Budweiser is “fine and elegant,” Conrad boasted. It “sparkles” and “has a very pretty flavor.” It’s not clear what his original label looked like, but the man who designed Conrad’s second label claimed that it included the word “champagne.” That would not be surprising because effervescent Budweiser looked more like Champagne than it looked like other beers, a comparison that Conrad fostered by corking the lager in Champagne bottles.

Conrad and Busch launched the lager by hitting the road. The two friends traveled around Missouri and to Arkansas and Texas talking up the beer and hunting for reliable sales representatives. Conrad also invested three thousand dollars outfitting a “fine place” in San Francisco “where people could find [his] beer.” He sold most of it to California but also shipped it to Chicago, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Louisville, and cities in Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and Alabama.

From the moment of its first public appearance in March 1876, Budweiser was a hit. Herman Kramer, Conrad’s California agent, pronounced the lager “an easy thing to sell.” “I never found a business so easy as this Budweiser,” he raved, and that despite it being “sold at a higher price than any other Beer in the country,” two dollars more per barrel than conventional lager. Even other brewers conceded Budweiser’s special character. “[I]t is the best bottled beer in this market,” said one. “I have drank Anheusers [sic] Bottled Beer, & the Budweiser beer is much the best.” Conrad sold a quarter of a million bottles of Budweiser in twelve months, and by late 1878, had sold six thousand barrels of the beer.

Easy to Sell, Easy to Steal

In April, 1878, Carl Conrad received disturbing news from a brother who lived in New Orleans: another version of Budweiser had arrived in town and bearing a label virtually identical to the one Conrad used on his beers: blue and white rather than red, but consisting of the same design as Conrad’s: a rectangular main label and a bow tie with a diamond-shaped knot and crowns printed on the neckbands. An oblong laid over the bow read “The World Renowned Budweiser Lager Beer.” Diamond and rectangle both sported the otherwise unnamed manufacturer’s trademark: “B. B. B.” Several days later a friend contacted Conrad and told him the same thing. By that time Conrad had identified the perpetrator of the insult: Otto Lademan.

Lademan had discovered the power of the new style beer in general and Budweiser in particular a year or so earlier during a trip to Denison, TX. A bartender there tried to pass off Conrad’s brew as a “fine imported Budweiser” to the tune of a dollar a bottle, a shockingly high price at a time when customers paid a nickel for a schooner (and more shocking still when translated into today’s money: seventeen dollars). Lademan handed over his dollar, examined the label, took a sip, and informed the “gentleman” that the stuff was an “imitation” of the foreign brew. Imitation or not, Otto Lademan recognized a good idea when he saw one.

Matters came to a head in early May as Conrad and Adolphus Busch enjoyed a buggy ride through downtown St. Louis. Not far from the Union Depot (then located at about Eleventh St. and Chouteau), they spotted Lademan in his buggy. Conrad hailed the man. “We stopped,” Conrad reported later, “and commenced talking about his imitation Budweiser Lager Beer. I told him that he was doing very wrong in making his imitation . . .” Lademan “indignantly repelled the accusation,” pointing out that his triple-B trademark was “entirely different” from his rival’s triple-C and that Conrad was not entitled to “claim the whole alphabet.” Whereupon Conrad warned that Lademan “would have to stand the consequences” of a lawsuit. “Go ahead and crack the whip,” Lademan replied. He “had as good right to manufacture Budweiser Beer as anybody in America.” Conrad’s was nothing more than a “counterfeit,” he added, and his own Uhrig brand “was not any better.”

Lager and Lawsuits

On May 15, 1878, Carl Conrad filed suit, charging Joseph Uhrig Brewing Company with “pirating” the Budweiser label and name in order to defraud the public. Joseph Uhrig Brewing, in the person of Otto Lademan, denied the charge, saying that the word “Budweiser” could not be trade-marked. If anyone was defrauding the public, he argued, it was Carl Conrad: his beer contained not one ounce of Saaz hops or Bohemian barley; it was not brewed “according to the Budweiser process”; and the beer’s label perpetrated those falsehoods for the sole and “fraudulent purpose of deceiving the public.”

The parties met in court in late October. Today, such a case would drag on for months and require the services of a horde of lawyers and expert witnesses, but Conrad and Lademan were in and out of the courtroom in two days. Conrad marched to the witness stand first and bumbled his way through an explanation of why he chose the name “Budweiser”—“the Budweiser process makes the finest beer”—and why his beer differed from all others—its unique qualities rested on his “own process” of bottling, known only to himself and his foreman. Adolphus Busch and Irwin Sproule followed him, both insisting that the Budweiser brewing process—based on double vats and mixed mash—was unique. Over a dozen of Conrad’s dealers and salesman testified, too, each claiming that Lademan’s inferior imitation damaged Conrad’s business and reputation.

Lademan’s lawyer called Lademan, William Lemp, and three other St. Louis brewers to the stand. The brewmaster for Wainwright and Co. summarized their collective testimony: “I don’t know anything about any process called the Budweiser process of brewing—never heard of such a process until I heard of this case.” Lademan was even more dismissive: “I know the process that was described by Mr. Busch this morning called the Budweiser process. It is a process used by everyone who uses rice in brewing. We make a water mash first, then a thick mash, & afterwards a water mash. It is no particular process at all.”

Lademan should have tried harder. On October 23, 1878, the jury ruled against him and ordered him to pay Conrad $4,175.00 in damages (approximately $73,000 today). Lademan appealed, but the new judge concurred: Lademan, he said, intended to deceive, and did deceive.

The Reigning American Brew

That Lademan was willing to risk so much speaks well not just of Budweiser, but of the new lager. Beer aficionados today scorn the quality of adjunct-based lagers, but nineteenth-century Americans embraced them with open hearts—and mouths—because, a reporter for the New York Times explained in 1877, they disliked the “‘sour’ and ‘bitter’” taste of all-malt beer, preferring instead the “sweeter” taste of light-bodied Bohemian brews. The nation’s brewers, “recognizing the fact that one American beer-drinker consumes more, on an average, than three Germans look out to please the greatest number—particularly when it pays them the best.” And as long as the “greater part” of the nation’s beer “flow[ed] down American gullets” the mostly German born and bred brewers had no choice but to “modify the flavor of their beer to suit American palates rather than those of their” fellow émigrés.

John E. Siebel, the science editor for Western Brewer and founder of the first American brewing school, agreed. The old-world crowd would always prefer the “nourishing qualities” of full-bodied Bavarian lager, he wrote in 1878, but its heyday had passed. Most Americans drank in order “to pass time pleasantly in jovial society.” They disdained old-world lager as too heavy, too filling, and entirely too brown, and demanded instead a “light” sipping beer, one that fell somewhere between “light wine and the heavy Bavarian lager.” Brewers who planned to stay in business had to adjust to the times and the place.

It was true. When it came to beer, an enormous divide separated Europeans and Americans. Germans, deck of cards or chess set in one hand and pipe in another, plunked themselves in front of a frothy mug and nursed it for hours. Americans wanted to drink—and they didn’t want to imbibe a brown broth that hit the stomach like a seven-course meal. Perhaps the difference stemmed from nothing more than scarcity and abundance: For centuries, Europeans prized beer as food—liquid bread. The American experience relegated that idea to antiquity’s dustbin. The United States was the land of liberty, high crop yields, and protein-rich diets. No one need drink beer for food. No surprise, then, that Americans preferred a beer that sat light on the stomach; a beer more suited to the American way of life.

The new brew changed the face of American beer for all time and did so almost overnight. In 1875, the Schaefer brothers of New York “tried the experiment of sending out to their customers genuine old lager” made with only hops and barley. Disaster. Their effort to turn back the clock produced “a general growl over the hard, bitter, hoppy taste, and the absence of the rich, creamy broth” found in pale beers. One hundred years later, another group of innovators would succeed in turning back time, but the late nineteenth century belonged to adjunct-based “American” lager.


Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association v Fred Miller Brewing Company, Final Record Books in Chancery, 1862-1911, vol. Q; United States Circuit Court, Eastern District Wisconsin; National Archives and Records Administration, Great Lakes Region, (Chicago)

Charles Conrad v Joseph Uhrig Brewing Company; St. Louis Court of Appeals, Case No. 1377; Missouri State Archives.

Cochran, Thomas C., The Pabst Brewing Company (New York: New York University Press, 1948)

Fix, George, “Explorations in Pre-Prohibition American Lagers,” Brewing Techniques 2 (May-June 1994): 28-31

Lisheron, Mark, “Capturing the Past: The Rebirth of Pre-Prohibition Lager,” Zymurgy 20 (1997): 20-23, 82-86

“The Million’s Beverage,” New York Times, May 20, 1877, p. 10.

Renner, Jeff, “Reviving the Classic American Pilsner—A Shamefully Neglected Style,” Brewing Techniques 3 (September/October 1995): 70-71.

Siebel, J. E., “The Use of Unmalted Grain,” Western Brewer 3 (October 1878): 671