Stories from the front…and WWII’s influence on beer trends

Joe Willis needed something to drink.

The paratrooper had taken shrapnel in both legs while fighting as a member of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to hold off a relentless German attack. Now, laying in a Belgian church that had been converted to care for the wounded, he was parched.

Willis’ friend – and fellow paratrooper – Vincent Speranza wanted to help. He just didn’t know how.

As he visited Willis at the makeshift military hospital in Bastogne, Belgium, on a bitter cold winter day late in 1944, Speranza saw few options. German forces surrounded the city, a strategic crossroad as World War II entered a pivotal moment. Supplies couldn’t reach the hospital or wounded.

Then Willis reminded his friend of a nearby tavern. Speranza quickly made his way to the partially destroyed and vacant watering hole. Miraculously, the Illinois native found a working beer tap and, with nothing else available, filled his soiled, Army-issue helmet with the Belgian ale.

Speranza made two trips to the tavern before being stopped by a major concerned the alcohol would harm the wounded. His high-danger beer runs, though, were not forgotten.

As the publication Stars And Stripes recounted, Dutch and Belgian military officials told Speranza when he visited Europe in 2009 that “the legend of the soldier filling his helmet with beer for the wounded is still told.”

Speranza’s story will come as no surprise to those familiar with beer’s connection to war. The two have a centuries-long history together. Weary soldiers have regularly quaffed ales and lagers to find temporary relief from the terrors of battle. With that in mind, countries and military leaders have found unique ways to deliver beer to the troops in an effort to boost morale. And in the case of World War II, the steps taken helped create a long-term trend in the beer style U.S. consumers sought most.

War strategy – Find the beer

George Washington, the first president of the United States, clearly understood the benefits of beer when he commanded the fledgling country’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. According to historian Gregg Smith, “among Washington’s least recognized but most valuable skills was locating his encampments within reach of a supply of beer.”

The need to keep the troops content was not lost on the Continental Congress, which stipulated that a soldier’s daily ration must include a quart of spruce beer or cider each day.

Beer in the Big One – olive drab cans and flying pubs

Fast forward to World War II. As Allied forces began to sweep through Europe after D-Day, U.S. and British troops were disappointed by the lack of beer available. Though they found some cider along the recently liberated French countryside, most were not impressed with the watery mixture.

Military and government leaders stepped up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated that American breweries set aside 15 percent of annual production for the troops. That included all of the big national players at the time, such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller. They shipped the beer in olive drab colored cans so soldiers would not have to worry about snipers spotting the reflection off the containers.

While the U.S. beer shipments came by sea, the British military took to the air to quench the thirst of its troops. Royal Air Force pilots used the drop tanks that typically held spare fuel for their small fighter jets to transport beer. Through this novel approach, which the RAF dubbed “flying pubs”, pilots could deliver about 90 gallons of suds on each available flight.

A 2016 Business Insider story recounting the effort noted that a few British breweries, such as Heneger and Constable, donated beer for the RAF to take to the front. Some units, though, pooled funds from troops to purchase the ale.

On the homefront – fewer men and less taste

With more than 12 million Americans – mostly men of drinking age – away fighting in the war by 1945, domestic demand for beer shrunk. As Beer for Dummies points out, with a war-related conservation effort underway, ingredients were in short supply anyway.

When the war ended and the troops returned, bland beer took hold. In a 2015 piece for “The Atlantic”, author Joe Pinsker pinned some of the reason on the government’s mandate to breweries during World War II. “The palates of a generation of American soldiers grew accustomed to the weak beer that was standard in military rations,” he wrote.

Maureen Ogle, in “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer,”  picked it up from there: Now a new generation asked for—and received—an even less demanding version of American lager: a sexy, vibrant beer that went down as easily as instant mashed potatoes or pudding and never asked much of its recipient. The president of the Master Brewers Association of America urged his membership to brew “streamlined,” “modernized” beers with a pale color, “an agreeable, mild hop flavor,” and no “bitter aftertaste.”

The war was not fully to blame for the shift toward light lagers. The trend toward bland food and drink in the U.S. had started in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Ogle. That’s when highly-processed and, as a result, less flavorful foods became kitchen table mainstays across the country.

It appears, though, the beer available during World War II made a mark. Maybe soldiers simply grew accustomed to the mild beers they downed while leading the Allied powers to victory. Or, possibly, they grew a fondness for the Budweisers, Millers and other mass-produced brands that helped get them through the Big One.

Either way, the decades after World War II saw the rise and dominance of light lagers in America. And Vincent Speranza’s dangerous dash to serve his friend a Belgian ale simply became another great war story.

Cold war, classic beers, and craft is born

While the Greatest Generation may have accepted bland beer, many Baby Boomers became more demanding. And in at least one historically important case, there is a military connection.

Jack McAuliffe, whose father was drafted into the FBI in 1943 to serve as a German linguist, joined the Navy as a 19-year-old in 1964. The Cold War was in full bloom, and McAuliffe soon found himself stationed in Glasgow, Scotland. There, he worked on the Polaris submarines patrolling the North Sea. While off duty, he discovered a taste for the classic English style ales served at local pubs.

Fearful he would not be able to find those flavorful beers when he headed back to the U.S., McAuliffe taught himself to homebrew. His fellow servicemen loved his concoctions, so he maintained the hobby through his enlistment and after, while working a series of jobs in Northern California.

Inspired by San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, McAuliffe made plans to launch his own venture. New Albion Brewing opened in Sonoma, California, in 1976. Many viewed it as a novelty, but in its relatively short existence – only a half dozen years – McAuliffe’s brewery made a mark.

New Albion is widely credited with sparking the craft beer movement. McAuliffe focused on brews that were complex, though balanced and flavorful – a style not found elsewhere. All made on a system fashioned out of old dairy equipment and other spare parts using knowledge he picked up as a technician in the Navy.

The venerable Washington Post wrote a feature story on the brewery in 1978, noting “the brewery has been unable to meet demand, selling every single bottle every single week…”

Around the same time Ken Grossman, a young homebrewer interested in opening his own brewery, toured New Albion. Though McAuliffe didn’t remember the bearded Californian coming through, the visit left a huge impression on Grossman. The next year he co-founded Sierra Nevada, which has grown to become the third-largest craft brewery in the U.S.

Note: Summarized from Tom Acitelli’s “The Audacity of Hops”

 

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