The Return of the Prodigal Beer11/7/2012
The story of Schlitz is a hubris-laden Greek tragedy taught in the finest business schools. It was the most popular beer in America from the end of the prohibition until the mid 1960s, when Robert Uihlein Jr. became president and chairman. That polo-playing Harvard graduate decided to let Anheuser-Busch sell more beer while he made Schlitz more profitable. To that end, he shortened the fermentation process and advertised that — as if customers would think it was good thing. He also replaced malted barley and fresh hops with cheaper corn syrup and hop pellets. They made the beer go flat, so his brewers added a seaweed extract to add foam and fizz. After sitting on shelves, that extract turned into a solid. Schlitz also had to add a new stabilizer to prevent the new recipe beer from becoming cloudy when chilled. Inside bottles and cans, that stabilizer interacted with the new ingredients and turned into a flaky mucus, infamously dubbed “snot.” When Schlitz was sold in the 1980s, it had lost 90 percent of its value in less than a decade.
In 2008, new owner Pabst began making original recipe Schlitz and slowly brought it back to market. Always keen to hitch a ride with nostalgia, the Full Court Press gang (High Life Lounge, Fong’s Pizza, el Bait Shop, etc.) recently redesigned Shorty’s and renamed it Shorty’s Somewhat Fancy Bar. It’s now filled with old Schlitz stuff and is the first bar in Des Moines since the 1980s to have Schlitz on tap. They also added a full menu of food priced to remind folks of a time long ago. The most expensive entrée costs $6, sandwiches with side dishes go for $4 – $6 and desserts for $2. One can buy a Schlitz for as little as 75 cents with lunch, and Thursdays bring free sausages. If you wear a mustache and shake hands with the bartender on sausage night, you also get a free shot of Irish whiskey.
Because they share a kitchen with Sbrocco, the menu has been mobile. In less than a week, four dishes disappeared. I tried a sausage-and-cheese plate that included four kinds of cold cuts with two kinds of cheese and three kinds of crackers. A soft pretzel was homemade and served warm with Rarebit sauce. When I posted a photo of my pastrami sandwich on social media, a friend remarked that it looked like one from Carnegie Deli in New York, probably the most famous pastrami sandwich in the world. The last one I tried at Carnegie cost more than three times Shorty’s price. A cheeseburger seemed larger than most quarter-pounders and came on a buttered, toasted bun.
Chicken-fried turkey was the best dish I found at Shorty’s, superbly crisp and tender. It was served with mashed potatoes and good poultry gravy. The gravy that accompanied those same potatoes with Italian meat loaf was not as interesting. The meat loaf appeared to have been a refrigerated product that had been grilled. Chicken-and-dumplings included cubes of breast meat in a gravy much saltier than the one on the turkey’s potatoes. Beer-battered fish also impressed me, with excellent fries. At press time, all these items were still being served. And no one at Pabst had tampered with the Schlitz recipe.
Dom Iannarelli (Splash, Jethro’s) won the Best Buddies Top Chef Challenge. That fundraiser matched chefs with staffs of folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities… One.org (a rather unique non-profit that never asks for money) chose Des Moines, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver and San Francisco for World Food Day 2013 events designed to save 25 million children through agricultural awareness. Proof, Host, Centro, Django, Gateway Market, Sbrocco, Luna, Mars, Gusto and Wellman’s Pub all pledged to promote sweet potatoes, a food crop that organizers say can reduce poverty and learning disabilities worldwide. CV