Every so often, bizarre stories about man and nature come across my desk, and they usually have some strange connection to beer. Stories referring to Clay Henry, the beer-drinking goat in Lajitas, Texas who attracted curious tourists to the town; or the 2004 story from Baker Lake Resort, 80 miles northeast of Seattle, about the black bear who preferred Ranier Beer over Budweiser; and the New Zealand racehorse, ”Bonecrusher,” who achieved his incredible win of the WS Cox Plate in 1986 through intense training, paired with a steady diet of Guinness Stout and a special racing mix.
Columns published in the New York Times in the late 1800s and early 1900s are even more bizarre. Common sense and reason make it difficult to believe these wily tales. Verification with medical authorities would be sketchy, at best. Most analyses were based on observation and conclusion, rather than any actual medical research or accurate testing. The stories are fascinating, however, and allow us to peer into a past era when hostilities by prohibitionists were building against the growing beer culture in America.
In August, 1901, a report came out of Ashland, Kentucky about a camping trip, turned sour. Ralph Dunbar accompanied six other men on a fifteen mile journey across mountainous territory into an outing camp in Welch. The seven men transported numerous kegs of beer with them over rocky terrain. Along the way, the kegs were considerably agitated, but the happy-campers remained unaware of the increased gas pressure building within these kegs as a result of such jostling motion. Upon arriving at the outpost, the kegs were moved into a spring-fed creek to keep them chilled. When the cold water hit them, one of the kegs blew a bung hole, but the men paid little attention to it. The open hole created an inviting environment for a copperhead snake which crawled into the beer keg, but died a short time afterward. All of the men, with the exception of Dunbar, consumed the beer, oblivious to the presence of the snake. Four of the drinkers died soon afterward, while the other two endured severe illness before also expiring. Authorities concluded that the presence of the poisonous snake in the keg caused these deaths, either due to the venom leeching out into the beer, or from the decay of the snake’s body in the liquid.
Another column from the August 5, 1879 edition of the New York Times reported incredible tales of beer-drinkers who could consume extraordinary amounts of beer without any ill effects. None of the stories gave accurate details about the beer drinking feats – details such as the ABV of the beer consumed, or the weight and height of the men involved. Words such as “of quite spare build, quite obese,” and “glasses of ordinary size,” were used, although one reference concluded that the glasses were “one tenth of a gallon,” and that the kegs hold 8 gallons each. The story concluded that it was possible for some experienced beer drinkers to consume a keg of beer in two hours, a gallon-and-a-half in thirty seconds, or 200 glasses of beer a day, and that breweries such as Gambrinus Stock Company’s Brewery and J. G. Sohn & Co. allowed each of their employees to consume between a gallon to a gallon-and-a-half of beer every day during work hours. These men worked from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m., and required less sleep than the average person. The stories noted that, although the men were well paid, they suffered financially because of making customary rounds at the local saloons, where they regularly treated the locals and drank with them to ensure their loyalty as customers.
More recent tales report a Wisconsin University study seeking to determine whether it is impossible to be too drunk to fish. Conclusions are forthcoming.