If you strolled down the streets of Indianapolis in 1900, you would have needed a bale of cotton stuffed in your ears not to hear a conversation or two auf Deutsch.
Thanks to Germany’s turbulent 19th-century history, many Germans had to leave their homeland behind. In the wake of failed revolutions, some came to Lockerbie Square, a place known colloquially as Germantown. Both religious freethinkers and religious conservatives — Protestants, Catholics, atheists, and Jews — found Indiana an alluring destination, a place where the government would leave them alone.
A few great Indianapolis monuments, in fact, owe their origin to the intrusive iron fist of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Historian James Divita of Marian College actually dedicated his history of the Herz Jesu Kirche — Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the Old Southside — to Bismarck, since it was his law abolishing religious orders in 1875 that caused the German Franciscans to leave for America. They found a refuge in the Midwest, building what may still be the most beautiful church in our city.
If you love beer, raise a further toast to old “Blood and Iron.” The Hoosier brewing industry was another fortunate byproduct of Germany’s tumultuous unification, as was the Rathskeller. Danke schön.
Ads for local German beer producers came out in nearly every issue of the German-language Indiana Tribüne, the city’s third most popular newspaper until “security measures” silenced it during the First World War. One especially beloved drink was the Bockbier, a beverage that has only recently started to win back popularity, now that microbreweries have been brought back to their pre-Prohibition glory.
Bock beers originated in the Saxon town of Einbeck in the 14th century. Due to filtering, during the late Middle Ages it might really have been safer to drink beer than water. The story goes that when the great brewers of Munich, speaking in Bavarian dialect, began to replicate this dark, malty, lightly hopped ale in the 1600s, they pronounced Einbeck “Ein Bock” — literally “a billy goat.”
Passed down through generations of advertising, illustrators have had fun with this cross-cultural pun. What do you think: is this “old goat” lecherous or just thirsty?
Bock beers weren’t typically what you would drink on a daily basis. Historically, at least, these were most often quaffed on special religious occasions like Christmas, Easter and Lent, holidays that gave rise to the Weinachtsbock, Osterbock, and Lentenbock. Like the liturgy of the Church that first brewed them, seasonal varieties corresponded to the rhythms and changes of a dynamic, evolving year. In Catholic areas, Lentenbock was also known as Fastenbock, since it was drunk for its “nutritional value” during times of fasting. Bocks are also marked by a higher alcohol content and maltiness than most other beers.
Names that Americans might still be familiar with include the popular, seasonal Maibock (May), Eisbock (so-called after a freezing process that concentrates alcohol and flavor), and Doppelbock. This last one was a doubly-hopped version of Fastenbock first brewed by German Franciscan monks, the Paulaner Friars, who considered it “liquid bread” at times when solid food wasn’t permitted.
Some of the great Indianapolis families won their fame and fortune in the brewing industry. In the late 1800s, German-born Albert Lieber, grandfather of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, served as second president of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, an amalgam of three formerly independent breweries that joined forces in 1889. Prior to that year, these companies were run by German immigrants Peter Lieber, C.F. Schmidt, and Caspar Maus. Their rivals at the Home Brewing Company also turned out an “unsurpassable” (unübertrefflich) variety of the popular Bockbier — sold both on tap (an Zapf) and “durch unser Bottling Departement.”
“Bottling department?” Yes, many beer ads from that time are also interesting examples of bilingualism.
Switching over to American standards of measurement, brewers sold this beer in “Pints und Quarts.”
One strange ad — is this a picture of a Spanish bock fight? — announces that “a triumphal entry into the happy Spring-Arena of the noteworthy year 1905 is our BOCKBIER. . . on tap today, Saturday, April 22. Its entry will be greeted with heart-felt acclaim by thousands of appreciative friends, who welcome our bock as the most beloved and satisfactory drink that has ever tantalized the palate of a connoisseur.” Bist du auch ein Feinschmecker?
Some restaurants, like George Peter Hammerle’s on East South Street, served tasty accompaniments to liquid brews. Hammerle offered Turtelsuppe (turtle soup) and Bockwurst (beer sausage).
Just nine years before the outbreak of World War I led the damping of German cultural displays — a sad loss that lasted for at least a decade — downtown Indianapolis had an impressive list of Teutonic-inspired eating and drinking establishments. These included Hammerle’s at the corner of Süd Delaware und McCarthy Strassen, to Ottmar Keller’s at 217 Ost Washington Strasse, to Friedrich Rasemann’s Cafe on Virginia Avenue and Wilhelm Stoeffler’s saloon on Noble Strasse. Rasemann served “ein feiner Lunch.” Stoeffler outdid him with “ein extra feiner Lunch.”
“He who loves not wine, women and song, remains a fool his whole life long.” So goes the famous German saying, coined by the tippler Martin Luther. Bock ads often used poetical, sentimental lyrics — schmaltz to sell the malts, so to speak… At the turn of the last century, a plethora of these Bocklieder (bock songs) turned up in the pages of the Indiana Tribüne.
Another Bocklied touts the health benefits of beer, “today on tap.” Sadly, these songs don’t rhyme very well in translation.
In addition to the restorative benefits of bock, the Indianapolis Brewing Company also advertised Düsseldorfer beer, another of their health-inducing products. This ad featuring a nurse and a rather dapper doctor proclaims: Düsseldorfer für die kranken Leute — Düsseldorfer for sick people.
One major “Krankenhaus” for beer lovers was Germania Halle on South Delaware Street, which kept Home Brewing Company beer on tap, as well as imported and domestic wines. Ten years before the outbreak of World War I made life rocky for German-Americans, they were renting this building out to local workers’ unions and ethnic groups — everybody from the Musicians’ Protective Association and the Bookbinders’ Union to the city’s tiny Sicilian, Romanian, and Scandinavian communities.
Unfortunately, in the decade after 1914, the local German community suffered a triple whammy.
During the lead-up to World War I, German-Americans often had to deal with accusations of being “unpatriotic.” Contrary to popular belief, animosity against the militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm wasn’t the only thing fueling dislike, fear, and outright hatred of German immigrants. German-language education, sympathy for labor unions, and of course, their love for beer were huge factors.
When Prohibitionists tried to shut off free-flowing taps, their ire wasn’t only directed toward the real dangers of heavy drinking. Dislike of foreigners was nearly as strong a reason. Germans and Irish, after all, found little conflict between drinking and churchgoing. This, in turn, threw more kindling on the fire of anti-Catholicism, a major, overlooked factor behind the effort to ban booze. Many temperance advocates made no effort to hide their anti-Catholicism and xenophobia. A common accusation against priests and monks, for example, was that they were alcoholics.
In the wake of World War I, folks who shared these attitudes traveled right down the ideological superhighway into the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, a organization that in the 1920s took up the cause of Prohibition, hyper-Americanism, and anti-Catholicism. During the Roaring Twenties, the Klan virtually controlled Indiana.
With the war revving up, enemies of beer production saw breweries as a waste of grain and manpower. With the loyalty of German-American drinkers openly questioned, it’s no surprise that the governor signed Indiana up for early Prohibition in 1917 — the year of American entry into the war and three years before national Prohibition.
In the wake of jingoism and mass hysteria, the Indiana Tribüne was silenced in 1917 alongside countless other German-language papers all over America. Then, a year after the war ended, Indiana joined several other states by banning the teaching of German to elementary and high-school students. From 1919 into the early 1920s, teaching an elementary-school student how to speak the “Hun language” was a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail.
The culture of America’s central European immigrants, so closely tied to the life of breweries in small towns and big cities alike, suffered enormously from the blows of Prohibitionists and Klansmen. Though the 1930s saw the demise of Prohibition, most of these small businesses never recovered. After World War II, the rise of corporate mega-breweries helped keep microbreweries in virtual oblivion. Fortunately, their amazing resurrection over the last few decades, which has breathed life back into many hard-hit communities and neighborhoods — including a few here in Indy — is well underway.