From Beer to Cookies: Malt Syrup Through the Years

Courtesy the Homestead MuseumIt is January 17, 1920. The Volstead Act has just gone into effect and Prohibition is the law of the land. You own a Los Angeles brewing company, the Los Angeles Brewing Company (the fifth largest brewery in the U.S.), and your main product, beer, is now illegal. So, what do you do?

Why, develop cookie recipes, of course.

Prohibition was the death knell for thousands of local and regional breweries across the U.S. Those companies that managed to survive the decade generally had to have some pretty clever management. George Zobelein, a German immigrant and veteran Los Angeles brewer who had purchased the Los Angeles Brewing Co. in 1907, was just such a manager.

Like many other breweries, the Los Angeles Brewing Co., which sold beer under the "Eastside" brand, (so named because the brewery was located on the Eastside of the L.A. River) switched to production of other beverages. During the 1920s you could get Eastside near beer (less than 0.5% abv), a variety of soft drinks, pineapple juice, apple cider, and products like "Zest," a non-intoxicating, "pure and healthful" cereal beverage. Whatever that was. But, let's face it. Near beer would never have enough sales to keep the brewery and beer making equipment running.

So the Los Angeles Brewing Co. did something else a bit more subversive, something that would also have benefits in the long run. They began producing liquid malt extract for sale in cans.

For those who aren't homebrewers, liquid malt extract is a syrup, similar in consistency and color to molasses or honey, that contains the concentrated sugars (i.e., maltose) from malted barley. Malted barley is, of course, the primary ingredient in the making of beer, along with water, hops, and yeast. So instead of making beer with their malted barley, the LA Brewing Co. switched to producing and selling the concentrated syrup instead. For cooking and baking, natch.

It is true that malt syrup can be used in cooking and baking as a substitute for other sweeteners. Indeed, it was somewhat popular in early 20th century England as a nutritionally superior sugar (lots of vitamins as compared to simple sucrose). But when was the last time you saw liquid malt extract on the syrup shelves of your local grocery? Or came across a recipe on a food blog that called for malt syrup as an ingredient? Today, if you want liquid malt extract you have to go to your local homebrew supply store. And the malt extract sold there is for one purpose: to make beer at home.

This might be one reason why a recipe pamphlet from the LA Brewing Co. published in 1928 had to insist on the back cover that "Malt Syrup is a food product" [emphasis in original]. How many foods do you know have to emphasize that they are food? It also explains the exhortations in the pamphlet on the benefits of malt syrup: "Malt syrup is a health food. When the housewife realizes that fact, the sale of malt syrup for food purposes will rapidly increase." [emphasis in original]

I like how the author specifies "the sale of malt syrup for food purposes" [emphasis added]. Was malt syrup being sold for non-food purposes?

After all, since the only ingredients in most beers are malted barley, water, hops, and yeast, it would seem a simple thing to make actual beer from malt syrup. Indeed, this is how many homebrewers make some prize-winning suds. They purchase liquid malt extract at the local homebrew supply, add the other ingredients, and in a couple of weeks they have beer. Notwithstanding the technical details of how to make good beer, it is really relatively easy to make beer, given that you have some malt syrup available. It might not be great beer, but during Prohibition, who is going to hold that against you?

Certainly, however, the LA Brewing Co. was not in the business of assisting and encouraging the citizenry of the Southland in circumventing Prohibition, were they? They did publish an entire recipe pamphlet with all sorts of enticing dishes utilizing malt syrup as an ingredient with no mention of beer at all. How can you doubt the sincerity of such recommendations as these:

"Malt Syrup added to hamburg and sausage meat develops a meat dish which is not only delightfully inexpensive, but also delightfully different ... The same zest and blending of flavor makes its combination with ham, fresh tongue and pot roast or sauer kraut delightfully different."

They may not have had a thesaurus in the 1920s, but they did not lack in sincerity.

Except.

Except that they also sold a malt syrup that included hop flavoring already -- "Bohemian" hop flavoring, to be precise.

Without hops, beer becomes malt liquor. Done right, malt liquor can be good, but without the bitterness that balances the sweetness of the malt, it is seldom great. Today, homebrewers can easily buy their hops at the local beer supply. In the 1920s, while available, hops might have been a little more difficult to acquire. How convenient then that Prohibition scofflaws could buy malt syrup with the hop flavoring already added courtesy of the LA Brewing Co. Why, in order to illegally brew beer, you would only need to add water and yeast, something that every grocery kept in stock.

One can make the case that hops are technically an herb, and as such, it makes sense to use hops in cooking and baking. But "Bohemian" hops? I was unaware that Bohemian hops had such a reputation for their diverse culinary applications.

Nevertheless, regardless of why the LA Brewing Co. was actually selling hop-flavored malt syrup, they did publish a number of recipes using it that had been "tried and thoroughly tested ... [and found to be] each one perfect."

Photos by Mia Wasilevich

Out of curiosity, I decided to give one a try, one that utilized the hop-flavored version of malt syrup. Below is the verbatim recipe, which is written rather well for the time.

HERMIT COOKIES
2 tablespoons plain or hop-flavored malt syrup - light
5 tablespoons shortening
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
¼ cup sour milk [substitute buttermilk]
½ cup raisins steamed and chopped
¼ cup nuts, chopped
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 cup white flour
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon soda
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt

Cream malt syrup, shortening and sugar together. Add unbeaten eggs one at a time and beat until well creamed. Add milk with raisins and nuts and stir well. Fold in sifted dry ingredients. Drop from spoon on cookie sheet and bake in a moderate oven, (350 degrees) for about 20 minutes.

These are "delightfully different" cookies; cake-like in texture, spicy and somewhat savory. The hops actually give the cookie a floral aroma and a slightly bitter finish. This is not a cookie you would find on an ordinary dessert platter. Indeed, I would not think that cookies and beer make a good pairing, but these do. The subtle sweetness matches that of beer, and the hops in the cookie harmonize with the hops in the beer.
You can use any hop-infused liquid malt extract to make the cookies. Your local homebrew supply should have a small selection, or you can purchase them via the Internet. The cookies made should pair exceedingly well with the beer the extract is intended to brew. Pale Ale beer with Pale Ale cookies, for example, or, if you want something very bitter, India Pale Ale (IPA) beer with IPA cookies.

I was unable to determine when the LA Brewing Co. stopped making malt syrup. It is likely that it occurred shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. But that was a good thing. Because the LA Brewing Co. had continued many of the steps necessary to make beer during Prohibition, thanks to production of near beer and malt syrup, they were ready to resume brewing as soon as it became legal once again. This is why, at midnight on April 7, 1933, the LA Brewing Co. had trucks fully loaded with legal beer ready to ship. Actress Jean Harlow shattered a bottle of beer on the first delivery truck to commission the newly legal beverage.

Unfortunately, while the LA Brewing Co. survived Prohibition, it was unable to survive the consolidation of the beer industry. Eastside Beer was acquired by Pabst in 1948 and the brewery was shut down in 1979, the same year that homebrewing became legal once again.

I would like to thank the Homestead Museum for permitting me access to their collection of Los Angeles-focused Prohibition-era artifacts. I encourage everyone to visit; they are truly a hidden historic treasure in the City of Industry.

About the Author

Chef, Educator, Historian. I seek to feed both body and soul with food and classes that reflect the rich history of California.
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