Why do Bloody Marys come with a tiny beer? We investigate the Midwest phenomenon

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Saint Dinette Lucy Hawthorne

The Bloody Mary beer chaser is nothing more than a hangover cure. Born in Wisconsin, the shooter-sized sample caught on because it eased all-day drinkers back into brews.

Actually, the “original” Bloody Mary was made with beer, not vodka. When bartenders across the Midwest made the switch to stronger spirits, the beer back stayed.

Well, not quite. What really happened is that a 1950s vodka shortage led bartenders—chiefly those in Minnesota—to ever so briefly sub in Grain Belt or Hamm’s. People liked it, so it stuck around after the shortage ended.

Or perhaps it’s just that when the spicy breakfast beverage came into vogue, our delicate Midwestern palates needed a soothing brew to temper the heat?

Here in Minnesota, no brunch spread is complete without a small glass of beer nestled next to your Bloody Mary. Also called a snit, on some mornings it’s the scrappy little sidekick aiding your hulking, tomato-based hero in fighting off last night’s hangover. Others, it’s the cheeky first mate, steering you with a wink toward a day-drinking afternoon while the captain’s back is turned. It is, objectively, a very good idea.

Which is why it’s kind of weird that no one really understands why or where the practice began. What is certain is this: If you order a breakfast cocktail outside of the Upper Midwest, you won’t get a beer back.

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Alma Lucy Hawthorne

“I grew up in Illinois, but I learned how to drink up here in Minneapolis,” says longtime Marvel Bar bartender and manager Tyler Kleinow. “I remember tending my first brunch shift at Cafe Maude and an old-school server asking me for a snit, and I was just like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’”

It’s not Kleinow’s fault. “I travel all over the country for drinks, and it is a phenomenon here,” adds Bittercube co-founder and proprietor Nick Kosevich. “Every time we do a program in another market, we’ll always add these beer snits to the Bloodies, and people are like, ‘What is that? Why are you doing that?’”

Kosevich doesn’t really have an answer for them.

“I really wish I could tell you, ‘Ah, yes, it was John P. Thomason from the Wind Down Bar in Kenosha, Wisconsin who first put a beer with it,” he says, chuckling. “That’s not a real thing. No one knows.”

Well, hold on. Someone somewhere has to know, right? But a quick sift through our most reliable news-gathering site—Google—turns up little information. A handful of random people have posted to Chowhound’s food forums asking if anyone outside of the Midwest is familiar with with the concept. (They aren’t.) There’s a smattering of articles attempting to trace the origins, mostly from Wisconsin news organizations. Dave Sobelman of Sobelmans Pub N Grill in Milwaukee has been asked where he thinks the chaser comes from more than once, not that he’s sure. “Best I can come up with, it’s just a part of our culture,” he once told Milwaukee Public Radio.

Experts don’t have the faintest idea, either. We reached out to Theresa McCulla, the historian and beer scholar who has the enviable task of overseeing the Smithsonian’s American Brewing History Initiative. McCulla was unsure, but recommended checking in with Christine Sismondo, who literally wrote the book on cocktails and sites related to their consumption: America Walks into a Bar. “Sorry, I have no idea!” came her swift reply. From the good folks at the Brewers Association to the bartenders and restaurant owners we contacted right here in the Twin Cities, most got back to us with some variation of the same: “Never thought about it—no clue. Let us know what you find out!”

Here’s the thing about cocktail history: A lot of it is really murky.

Before Prohibition, no one was really writing this stuff down. Kosevich explains this is the reason so many of the oldest drinks that we have historical data for appear to have been born at hotels—they at least kept recipes behind the bar so every bartender could make them precisely the same.

After Prohibition, things only got worse. Any forward momentum in cocktail culture came crashing to a halt; recipes were lost, formulas forgotten. “So when you go back and try to find things like the beer chaser—when did that happen?—there really isn’t an answer,” Kosevich says. “Any time we can’t get a clear answer on something, we always just blame Prohibition.”

We’ll say, then, it’s Prohibition’s fault that Wikipedia’s no help either. “It is a tradition in the upper Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin, to serve a Bloody Mary with a small beer chaser,” says the site—the only sentence in its 1,300-word entry on Bloody Marys that makes mention of the phenomenon. The Wiki for “snit” doesn’t clarify anything, proffering little more than its specifications: It’s a “U.S. unit of volume for liquor equal to 2 jiggers, 3 U.S. fluid ounces, or 88.7 milliliters” that can also refer to “a beer chaser commonly served in three-ounce servings in highball or juice glasses with a Bloody Mary cocktail in the Upper Midwest states of United States.” And that already sparse entry lacks etymological information. So where the heck does that term come from?

Minnesota beer expert Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters, offers some assistance. “The ‘snit’ is almost certainly a corruption of the German word ‘schnitt’ (meaning cut),” he tells us. “The schnitt was a small glass... which would have been about a five-ounce glass.” That checks out—in fact, there are German biergartens that’ll serve you ein schnitt, for which the bartender tugs at the tap handle for just a second, filling your glass with a reduced-price half-pour.

But asked to weigh in on some of the theories surrounding how the snit-slash-beer-chaser got here, and alongside a breakfast cocktail, of all things, Hoverson is less confident.

“One reason—and this is on a highly speculative level—could be that saloons, taverns, bars... they needed to move product,” he says. “A lot of the pre-Prohibition saloons, of course, are doing the free meal with your five-cent beer... I suspect it may have been a way to keep beer moving and keep it fresh.”

He personally thinks the snit probably got its start after Prohibition ended—which makes sense, given that that’s when beer chasers started regularly accompanying spirits. So what about the vodka shortage theory?

Hoverson concedes that it’s possible. If we’re talking about the ’50s, the Cold War is heating up—“You have the Cincinnati Reds being changed to the Cincinnati Red Legs because of anti-Soviet fever”—and it’s possible some people would have decided that meant 86-ing vodka. “But then,” Hoverson adds, “you’d think they would have swapped in some other spirit. That sounds kind of like, ‘This is the story I heard when my grandpa and great uncle were talking.’”

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Saint Dinette

Over at Marvel Bar, Kleinow has a different, more practical—and, we think, more plausible—take. The tiny beer isn’t actually a “chaser” at all. That’s a misnomer.

“You use the beer back not as a chaser, but as an additional ingredient to your Bloody,” Kleinow explains. “Basically, in my mind, the perfect Bloody should start out too spicy and too boozy. That way, you slowly add the light beer for dilution. Suddenly, after your second or third round, you’ve had enough booze to knock the shakes, and you’re ready to ease into the rest of the day with more beer on its own.”

Of course, even if he’s right, there’s so much we don’t know. Who was the maverick who started serving it? Which state gets to claim the credit? And why doesn’t this perfect pair exist on brunch tables outside of the Upper Midwest?

Maybe someone out there can say for sure. (Maybe they’re already penning us a furious email!) But it seems pretty likely that we’ll never find out. And maybe that’s okay.

“When it comes to cocktail history, there’s often more folklore and myth attached to it than fact,” Kosevich says. “And I think rightly so. We always say to never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and I think that is very true for the bar world.”

 

 

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A MARY FOR EVERY MOOD

Does all this Bloody talk have you parched? Quench your thirst with one of these.

When you want to go Worcestershire to the wall

Hell’s Kitchen’s Jacked Up Bloody Mary Bar (Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is no joke. The 35-foot-long build-your-own Bloody buffet is stocked with roughly 250 hot sauces, gourmet rim salts, and dozens of cheeses, meats, veggies, specialty olives, and other assorted garnishes. All yours for a cool $14.95. Hell’s Kitchen, 80 S. Ninth. St., Minneapolis; 612-332-4700

When you’re craving carbs

We never thought we’d describe a bagel as “cute,” but here comes Saint Dinette chef Adam Eaton, whipping up adorable mini everything bagels that perch atop your cocktail. (You won’t get one if you’re a late riser, though—they’re available on a first-come, first-served basis.) Saint Dinette, 261 E. Fifth St., St. Paul; 651-800-1415

When you’re bored with the basics

Mix it up with the Bloody at Lyn-Lake’s sleek gastropub and sake brewery Moto-i, where they sub in house-made rice wine for vodka. Moto-i, 2940 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-821-6262

When you want a Mary that’s a meal

Finnish Bistro rocks a sake Bloody too, and theirs can be gussied up with a $5 grilled cheese skewer or “Hunter Stick” (salami, Swiss cheese, kielbasa sausage, and olives) or a $6 “Finn Stick” (lox, swiss, salami, kielbasa, cucumber, pickled herring, and olives). Feeling particularly wild? Why not order all three! The Finnish Bistro, 2264 Como Ave., St. Paul; 651-645-9181


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