Aug 10, 2021
What’s in beer today? Unless you’re a brewer, do you know? I mean, do you really know?
Usually, Western beer is made up of water, hops, a malted grain like barley, and yeast. That’s the standard answer you’ll get from books, articles, even podcasts. There’s even a famous law in German history, called the Reinheitsgebot, which decreed that proper beer could only contain those four ingredients. But few brewers outside Germany stick to that rule 100% of the time.
When we want to get a little technical, we’ll talk about extra ingredients that are added for flavor or some other reason—everything from rice and corn; to herbs and spices; to chocolate, coffee, and the occasional jelly doughnut…hmm, maybe some rules are there for a reason.
But if something else was in there…some other ingredient whose purpose you didn’t immediately recognize, maybe with a name that’s hard to pronounce…could you tell?
Would you care?
Do you have a right to know?
Today’s episode is all about Americans whose food was changing so fast they struggled to keep up. Then beer changed too, so people wanted answers. And they got them. From brewers both reassuring and duplicitous. From temperance reformers and consumer activists with axes to grind, from newspapers acting as little more than gossip brokers, and from state and federal governments mulling over a Reinheitsgebot of their very own.
The name of the game was adulteration, and it went on for more than half a century.
This is “Name Your Poison,” the third and final episode of our debut series, “Lager Beer, Governing Bodies,” which looks at strange ways public health debates waded into a sea of American lager during the 1800s.
If you haven’t already, check out Parts 1 and 2 of this series, where we explore 1850s arguments about whether lager beer could intoxicate a person, and simultaneous paranoia about whether deadly diseases like cholera could be caused by beer.
As we’re about to see, debates over adulteration were fueled by the same mix of legitimate fear and paranoia, fact and propaganda, and political jockeying that bore out those other issues. But adulteration dialed everything up to eleven.