One Keg of Lager Beer: An Underdog Story

April 17, 2020

By Julia Clancy, April 17, 2020

Doc Ponds is wedged in the junction of two byways carving through the Green Mountain range. Welcome to Stowe, Vermont. In one direction sits looming Mount Mansfield, and in the other, the arced back of Camel’s Hump, the first and third tallest peaks in the state. The lodge-style restaurant is a tucked away gem of a craft beer hub, with an all-embracing menu spanning from obscure imports to wild ales and hard-to-find Vermont brews that rarely make it beyond state borders. Doc Ponds is named for a 19th-century doctor, Erasmus A. Ponds, who provided testimony for a single keg of lager beer in an 1876 court case against the state. The keg of lager won. But it wasn’t the defendant—yet—that made Vermont a beer state. 

Before Doc Ponds opened doors in 2015, The State of Vermont vs. One Keg of Lager Beer was a mostly forgotten emblem of a divided state. On one side: disparagers of public drunkenness that steadily morphed into an anti-alcohol movement. On the other: the brewers and drinkers who depended on access to local beer more than a century before the Green Mountain State became the lodestar for it. The seam that threaded both parties together was the keg in question: in 1876, neither group was quite sure what a lager beer was. 

The trial—one of a handful in 19th-century Vermont—sought to decide if lager was intoxicating or nutritious or both. “The story of Dr. Erasmus Ponds’ court case is true,” says Denise Fitzgibbon, Doc Ponds’ general manager. “The question of the case was whether or not people would get intoxicated by beer, which was considered low-alcohol compared to other drinks.” Beer was a different brew in the 19th century, with English-style ales registering around 3 to 5% in alcohol by volume—a decidedly lower proof than spirits like gin and whiskey. “We just had a Holy Moley keg from The Alchemist,” Fitzgibbon continues, referencing the cult craft brewery in Stowe. “That beer has a 9.3% ABV. Dr. Ponds said a grown man could have 15 lagers and feel sleepy or stupid, but not intoxicated. I could be drinking the lowest-alcohol beer and I would never drink close to that—let alone serve someone else that amount, either.”

Vermont's powerful presence in American craft beer has less to do with the court’s 1876 defendant, a keg of lager, than it does the plaintiff: the burgeoning presence of Vermont prohibition.”

Prohibition was popular in Vermont long before the national law in 1920. The Vermont Temperance society formed in 1828, infusing a state of geographically isolated cities and hamlets with the seedling ideas to outlaw alcohol consumption and production. Per Newton’s third law of motion, this meant bootlegging and teetotaling also gained ample presence. Despite these historical roadblocks, a century later the state would be as recognized for craft beer and brewing as it is for skiing, cheese, and Bernie Sanders. 

As of 2019, Vermont leads the nation with 11.5 breweries per 100,000 people over age 21. That works out to 23 gallons of beer for each adult that is able to legally purchase a four-pack. It means $107 million in labor income—an impressive turnaround for a state that existed without legal brewpubs until the Vermont Pub and Brewery opened its doors in 1988. (The state’s first legal brewery, Catamount, opened the year before.) In the 1990s, craft beer exploded in Vermont with the arrival of local breweries like Magic Hat, Long Trail, Harpoon, and Otter Creek Brewing, which have all since gained a national foothold. For the next two decades, Vermont would have more breweries per capita than any state in the nation. Then, in 2010, a new wave of craft breweries—namely The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, and Lawson’s Finest Liquids—would help transform the craft beer model from one of scale to one of hyper-local, small-batch beers purchased on-site at the brewery or, maybe, the town’s general store. 

It’s clear that Vermont, a state where testimony was provided for a keg of lager 44 years before prohibition, has a longstanding history of championing the local brewer. Ironically, explains beer writer and food historian Adam Krakowski, the reason for the state’s powerful presence in American craft beer has less to do with the court’s 1876 defendant, a keg of lager, than it does the plaintiff: the burgeoning presence of Vermont prohibition. 

Krakowsi transcribed the entirety of the court case in his book Vermont Prohibition: Teetotalers, Bootleggers & Corruption. “This is an honest-to-God true event in Vermont history,” Krakowski explains over the phone, “and it’s a red herring. What happens, eventually, is that Vermont goes full-prohibition all the way up to the federal repeal [in 1933]. In some parts [of Vermont], prohibition lasted 80 years. You’ve essentially wiped any brewing heritage or tradition out of the culture.” This—counterintuitively—enabled Vermont’s contemporary beer scene. 

The beer was seized by the police from a German café in Rutland. It was tried for intoxication. Lager was, then, a foreign and potentially dangerous substance.”

When the last Vermont brewery closes in the 1880s, it’s about 100 years before Greg Noonan, owner of the Vermont Pub and Brewery, opens the state’s next legal brewery, hiring a metal worker to melt dairy equipment into tools for making beer. “By then, Vermont had carte blanche,” Krakowski continues. “There were no rules or trends to follow. You were not bound to one traditional brewing culture. What prohibition did was wipe the slate clean—Vermont beer from the start was based on the total creativity of the brewers.”

Back in the 19th-century courtroom, Ponds told the jury that the 4.6% lager on trial “was a powerful diuretic,” one that “was cathartic, nutritious, and non-intoxicating.” It was the 1870s, and there was an influx of German immigrants coming to the United States post-Civil War. They brought their brewing traditions with them, lager beer in particular: a crystal clear, lower-alcohol, bottom-fermenting beer with an entirely different flavor profile than the ales of English heritage. “Nobody had seen German lager before,” says Krakowski. “And because of the lower alcohol levels, the state government had no clue what the hell it was.” The beer was seized by the police from a German café in Rutland. It was tried for intoxication. Lager was, then, a foreign and potentially dangerous substance. The state brought in a panel of doctors, including Ponds, to provide testimony for the defendant. 

“The Jury, after two hours’ deliberation,” cites Krakowski’s court case transcription, “brought in a verdict that the case was not made and that the lager beer was non-intoxicating.” The defendant was found not guilty.  

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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