Green beer celebrates a century

PHOTOS: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tammy Zakreshi
PHOTOS: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tammy Zakreshi (pours a nice green one for you at McGillin's Olde Ale House.)
Posted: March 14, 2014

IT SHOULD not pass without acclaim that Monday marks the 100th anniversary of one of the great achievements in the history of beer.

On St. Patrick's Day 1914, a New York City coroner named Dr. Thomas Hayes Curtin stood before his associates and others at a Bronx social club and unveiled his wondrous invention:

Green beer.

Never before had anyone laid eyes on such a spectacle. Beer, the color of shamrocks, filling the mugs of hundreds.

"Everything possible was green or decorated with that color," an eyewitness reported. "and all through the banquet, Irish songs were sung and green beer was served.

"No, it wasn't a green glass, but real beer in a regular colorless glass. But the amber hue was gone from the brew and a deep green was there instead."

It's possible that someone else deserves the credit for green beer. Until a more exhaustive search is conducted, the following account - pieced together from news reports, books and more - will have to do.

The story of this legendary liquid begins with a short report from Charles Henry Adams, in his syndicated "New York Day By Day" column, filed a week or so after that grand day. It contains few details of the actual invention.

"All the doctor would tell inquisitive people," Adams wrote, "was that the effect is brought about by one drop of wash blue in a certain quantity of beer."

Never mind that "wash blue" is actually an iron powder solution that housewives once used to whiten dirty clothes.

Instead, consider that with a single drop, Curtin made the world a better place.

Green beer, after all, is a testament to mankind's spirit of fun. It is a tweak, an inside joke, a harmless "kick me" sign in a plastic cup.

War, disease, climate change - forget about it for a few sips. Green beer knocks the legs out from under the weight of the world, it tickles the gray monotony of the Serious Man. In an age when even a simple glass of ale can take on an inflated sense of importance, green beer lowers the stakes and reminds you that it's time to chug.

The boy from County Carlow

Yes, I know the Irish don't drink green beer. Who cares?

Curtin obviously didn't. His family emigrated from County Carlow when he was barely 5. Educated in New York's public school system, he earned a medical degree and was already practicing surgery by the age of 22.

As coroner's physician for the Bronx, Curtin saw his share of calamity: tenement fires, horse-and-buggy casualties, accidental falls. In 1904, he directed the medical activities surrounding the infamous Slocum steamboat fire, on the East River, the worst disaster in New York City history till the 9/11 attacks. More than 1,000 corpses - drowned or burned - passed through his office.

How that might have changed his outlook on life, who knows?

When St. Patrick's Day rolled around 10 years later, Curtin joyously joined fellow city workers, physicians, businessmen and politicians at a sprawling building on East 163rd Street near 3rd: the German-American Schnorrer Club of Morrisania (the original name for this section of the Bronx).

Schnorrer (sometimes spelled schnorer) is a mild Yiddish epithet for a beggar - the kind who bums cigarettes, or who just scrapes for everything. For the club's members, the term was merely self-effacing.

Just four years after its founding in 1881, the club had already established a reputation as a party palace. Its members, the New York Times reported, "are all convivial and nearly all fat, and the club is said to be able to hold more beer than any other society of its size in the United States or Canadas . . . "

So you can imagine how the place must've rocked when Curtin - the toastmaster that evening - unveiled his green invention.

Still, it would be just a blip in the landscape of time and history. Three months later, the world was sucked into war with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

And on the day after Christmas that year, tragedy struck at home. A fire broke out in Curtin's apartment, trapping his screaming wife, Lillian. The doctor's 9-year-old son rushed into her room and smothered the fire with a blanket, but it was too late. Lillian fell unconscious and died a few hours later.

The war overseas raged on. In 1918, Curtin suddenly quit his job in the coroner's office and joined the American Expeditionary Forces, the first U.S. troops to join the war in France.

When he died, 35 years later, Curtin's obituary mentioned his work as a highly regarded eye surgeon, his establishment of the Bronx Eye and Ear Infirmary, his award as Bronx Citizen of the Year in 1945.

His sudsy invention didn't merit a line.

So, maybe it's time to raise a belated glass in memory of that night 100 years ago, when Irish songs were sung and a room full of happy schnorrers, led by Dr. Thomas H. Curtin, toasted the night with glasses of beer that was green.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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