Beer Wrapped in the Flag

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 31, Issue 3
July 1, 2010 By &

Brewer. Patriot.

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.

Colonial Heroes

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 Icons

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?

Wrapping Themselves in the Flag

The history of nineteenth century American brewing is indelibly German, a heritage that became a liability by the twentieth century when Germany emerged as this country’s hated enemy in two world wars.

During WWI, many breweries were as concerned with battling the growing clouds of Prohibition than the war in Europe. The heavy influence of German Americans in the brewing industry—the minutes of brewers association meetings were kept in German for many years—only added fuel to the Prohibition movement. Family companies with identifiably German surnames like Schlitz, Pabst, Busch, or Schmidt wanted to identify themselves as solidly American.

Many breweries changed their names, giving us brewing companies called American, Consumers, Independent, Columbia, or Eagle. They named themselves after their city or region. Franklin, Washington and other patriots’ names were appropriated.

European beer styles—Vienna, Munich or Dortmunder beers—vanished, only in part because grain rationing made it difficult to brew the beers authentically. Just has hamburgers gave way to Salisbury Steak, and frankfurters became hot dogs, beer styles named for Austrian and German cities were scrubbed of their national references, substituting the generic word “lager” for a host of styles.

Some companies kept their names, but made extra efforts to align themselves with all-American messages and symbols. The Budweiser label dropped the double-headed heraldic German eagle during World War I in favor of the American national symbol.

Critically, the swastika, a Hindu symbol that had been associated with the brewer’s arts for centuries, was dropped from all brewing iconography once it had been appropriated—and permanently tainted—by the Nazis. A plaster backbar at the Kingsbury Brewery of Manitowoc, WI, decorated with swastikas, was outfitted with cloth covers to hide the now despised symbols.

Breweries with German backgrounds were among the most vocal in rallying the public to support the war effort. Pfeiffer Brewery in Detroit introduced a 48-ounce, “grand imperial” quart, in the interest of using less metal in bottle caps.

Another Detroit brewery, Koppitz-Melcher, launched a patriotic campaign urging the purchase of war bonds. Their Victory Beer bore a variety of labels depicting military vehicles and weapon systems. After the war, Koppitz-Melcher was sold to the Goebel Brewing Co., another name that probably could have benefited from a little strategic PR

Upholding American Values

At the end of World War II, the United States Brewers Foundation launched an 11-year program that would brand beer as quintessentially American. The series of ads, “Beer Belongs,” sought to broaden the acceptance of beer by showing prosperous middle class settings where the consumption of beer was a natural part of family life. A similar approach more recently was the branding of beer by the nation’s wholesalers as “America’s Beverage.”

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt devoted a speech to “The Four Freedoms,”the four principles that would guide U.S. action internationally. Artist Norman Rockwell, looking for ways to support the war effort, memorably interpreted the Four Freedoms in a series of drawings for The Saturday Evening Post

In the past few years, Anheuser-Busch has re-interpreted Rockwell’s illustrations on beer steins, with the American flag depicted on the stein’s pewter lid and the Anheuser-Busch eagle featured on the handle. The four steins present the American values of Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Want (the stein made, ironically, in Brazil), Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear

Dubious Distinctions

Even before the turn of the last century, beer marketing occasionally went negative, crossing the line from patriotism to jingoism and ugly depictions of race. In the 1880s, the Kato Brewery of Mankato, MN issued a tray that commemorated the hanging of 33 Sioux Indians.

A few years later, in 1896, Anheuser-Busch marked the 20th anniversary of Budweiser, the first national beer brand, by memorializing the 20th anniversary of a different nation-changing event, the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The brewery issued a lithograph titled “Custer’s Last Fight,” delivering thousands of copies to taverns and restaurants. The rendering of the battle was deemed to be too gruesome on first release, and Adophus Busch asked for  the scene to be reworked: nevertheless, the images of fighting, injury and death on both sides must have made an impression on the print’s pre-television audience.

Two years later, when the U.S. Battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor, the rallying cry “Remember the Maine” emblazoned some American brewery ads in the period that led up to the Spanish-American war.

Ads that stirred strong sentiments—and sold beer—by focusing on the nation’s enemies persisted through World War II. In a rather extreme effort, perhaps, to distance itself from its German-sounding name, the Rhinelander Brewery of Wisconsin promoted its beer with a sign that showed Hitler hanging from a noose. The tagline read “Where’s Shorty?”—a reference to the Japanese premier, and a play on words alluding to Rhinelander seven-ounce bottles known as “shorties.” No matter how reviled the enemy, it seems unlikely that anyone today would try to peddle beer with images of executed or disgraced foes. Saddam Hussein’s hanging corpse hasn’t featured in any catchy beer promotions.

It’s intriguing that the most provocative material is reserved for print campaigns, signs, or point-of-sale pieces, but never makes it onto the beer bottle itself. No doubt, this is due in part to the stringent restrictions on what can and cannot appear on a label. But, in the past as now, your beer label is the universal image of your beer, whereas other advertising messages can be targeted to specific regions or demographic groups, and can afford to be edgier. “Remember the Alamo!” may still appear in advertisements, but for distribution in Texas only.

The Americanization of Modern Beer

In today’s more cynical climate, a frankly patriotic approach to beer sales has given way to more ironic or tongue-in-cheek references to country. In the lead up to the 2004 election, Miller Brewing Co. used humor to disguise the serious attack in a series of television ads that insisted that America needed a president—and not a king—of beers, a jab at Budweiser’s well-known handle.

A-B hit back hard, noting that Miller was by then South-African owned, and implied there was something slightly unsavory about Miller’s international arrangement—until, of course, A-B itself fell to foreign ownership.

These days, beers named for national figures are satirical or arch in their intent: Billy Beer, named for President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy; Slick Willy and Billary Beer, aimed at the Clintons, and Dolelightful, brewed for Clinton’s opponent.

The recent election saw Avery Brewing’s Ale to the Chief and Wynkoop’s Obamanator, both brewed in time for the Democratic National Convention in Denver; and a spate of celebratory beers with names like Barack Bock from Rock Bottom, and Baracktoberfest from Shlafly in St. Louis.

But it seems we are no longer a people who will wrap ourselves in Old Glory without tossing off a wink that says “Just kidding.” We are global, politically correct, and detached—and we can expect our beer to be presented to us in the same manner.

Dave Gausepohl
“Beer Dave” Gausepohl has collected breweriana since 1974 and has a personal collection of half a million items. He has visited over 1,500 breweries.