Tastings School - USA: American Beauties

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USA: American Beauties

During the last few decades the USA has experienced a beer revolution. Gary Monterosso reports

"You’ve come a long way, baby,” was the signature phrase for a popular advertisement a generation ago. It was meant to symbolise the peculiar relationship between smoking a certain brand of cigarette and the liberation of women. Perhaps that passage could be more relevant in describing the state of beer in the United States, especially during the last three decades.

The year 1976 is considered a landmark in American beer history. In October of that year when the first modern microbrewery, New Albion Brewing Co. of Sonoma, California, was opened.

Keep in mind that the working definition of a ‘microbrewery’ signifies a company producing up to 15,000 barrels (17,600 hectolitres) of beer annually. At the time, there were fewer than 50 breweries in the entire country. Contrast that with a hundred years prior when close to 3,000 breweries existed nationwide.

Although New Albion lasted only six years, the wheels were in motion for an increased interest in full-flavored beers, as opposed to the massmarketed, cookie-cutter beverages that had been the norm.

Also in the late 1970s, there were two other elements that provided direction for this burgeoning industry. Michael Jackson achieved acclaim for his 1977 book, The World Guide to Beer, legitimising the trade and alerting the masses to the fact that the American beer scene was about to change. In October 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a decree that legalised homebrewing at the federal level. It was that piece of legislation which was the driving force behind authorisation to sanction more areas to permit microbreweries.

Less than a decade later, a number of Western states had their own micros, including the stillthriving Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico, California. By the way, one would be remiss without mentioning the contribution of Fritz Maytag of appliance fame, who took ownership of a failing San Franciscan brewery, the Anchor Brewing Co., and transformed it into a classic example of an industry leader. Anchor remains one of the most respected companies in the business.

In the 1980s, a splinter to the micro, the ‘brewpub,’ came into being. What distinguished it from a brewery was the fact that food was served in the place where the beer was made.

Although the handcrafted beer remained the primary attraction to those who frequented the brewpub, as time progressed emphasis was given to food preparation.

Today, any good brewpub will feature an extensive array of beers and a bill of fare that complements the house brews. There are brewpubs that have received recognition for excellence from prestigious culinary publications.

The trend to more flavourful drinks, now known by a number of names, including ‘craft’ and ‘boutique’ beer, expanded geographically when the Manhattan Brewing Co. became the first brewpub to open in the East, in New York City. One of the brewers there was Garrett Oliver, who later achieved fame as the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery. No one furthered the developing relationship between beer and food more than Oliver; by way of numerous speaking appearances centered on books he authored, especially The Brewmaster’s Table, an authoritative expression of beer styles and fine cuisine.

Another pioneer in the business is Jim Koch (pronounced ‘Cook’) who, in the 1980s, decided to carry on his family’s tradition by starting the Boston Beer Company, makers of the popular Samuel Adams line of products. With its flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager, along with other styles emerging, the company expanded from a few thousand barrels a year to more than a million.

Make no mistake about it, despite the enormous surge in the popularity of handcrafted brews, sales of the beverages made by the giants of the trade continued to flourish. Well into the 1990s, the ‘Big Three’ (Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller Brewing) produced three out of every four domestic beers.

Clever advertising promotions perpetuated the image of the typical American beer drinker as a male, bluecollared worker and a sports devotee.

By the end of the century, however, the perception of that drinker had changed somewhat, consolidating men and women, cultural differences and the like. This shift in attitudes was fueled by an array of books and periodicals on the subject of beer. In short, the consumer had become more educated.

Currently there are close to 1,500 breweries and brewpubs operating in the United States.

Despite a brief period that saw sales level a bit, the overall domestic market realised a 2.2 per cent increase in 2006. The craft industry, however, is going through a golden era with sales by those brewers swelling by 11.7 per cent. As a definition, the Brewers Association defines a ‘small’ brewery as one that generates less than two million barrels a year.

Despite the sense that craft beers form the foundation of American brewing, in reality the best selling brews originate from the larger companies.

Furthermore, an examination of the top 10 retailing beverages suggests that the so-called ‘light’ or low-alcohol brands are the most popular.

In 2006, more than half of all beers sold were either Bud Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors Light or Natural Light. Obviously they are doing something very right.

What these breweries offer are consistently viable beverages, ones that are recognisable throughout the country. They also have massive advertising budgets and have created various advertising and packaging innovations that retained the interest of most consumers.

Despite the relative safety in numbers, one cannot ignore the evolution of the craft sector. As small as it may appear next to the giants of the business, there is no mistaking the buzz surrounding these young breweries, many of which brew but a few hundred barrels a year and do not distribute far beyond their back door.

What then has been recently developing in this David and Goliath relationship? During the last few years, there has been a unique relationship developing among certain breweries. Anheuser- Busch, for example, has moved far beyond its flagship Budweiser brand by adding new flavours such as Michelob Honey Lager and Michelob Amber Bock. Two specialty organic flavours, Stone Mill Pale Ale and Wild Hop Lager were released and a partnership developed with craft brewers Redhook Ale Brewery, Widmer Brothers, Goose Island Beer Co., and others.

The latter was an especially strong move, given Goose Island’s location (Chicago) and the fact that Miller’s presence there remains substantial.

For the microbrewery owner, the deal leads to the probability of an expansion in distribution and, of course, an influx of capital. What fans are most concerned about is flavour, an area that has been left unscathed.

Coors has a star in its Blue Moon Belgian White, a beer that saw a double-digit increase in sales from last year. The brand has been expanded with the release of the seasonal Winter and Spring Ales. As with many other flavours in the owners’ portfolio, you’ll be hard pressed to find the name of the parent company on the label and there are many people who remain unaware of the origin of certain ‘craft-like’ beverages.

Within the United States, regional flavour preferences exist. There is a good-natured battle between West Coast and East Coast brewers pertaining to India Pale Ales. Generally speaking, West Coast IPAs are extremely hoppy whereas East Coast examples tend to be a bit more subtle.

Lagers rule in the Northeast and Midwestern areas, especially where a significant German population resides. In parts of Pennsylvania, the intense popularity of Yuengling Lager has caused other area breweries and brewpubs to reexamine their assortments to include at least one beer of that type.

Some states still maintain a cap on the amount of alcohol that a beer may contain, meaning that there are people who never have tasted barleywines or certain Belgian and Belgian-style triples, for example.

Despite this, the new generation of American brewer has done their homework by looking at what has been done in regions like Germany, England, the Czech Republic and Belgium, among others, for inspiration.

Boston Beer’s Jim Koch addressed that point by saying: “At Sam Adams, we’ve made versions of most of the world’s prominent beer styles, such as Cream Stout, Hefeweizen, Vienna Lager, Oktoberfest, India Pale Ale and more. We’ve made what I think are great versions of these types of beer.

“In 1993, I came up with the term ‘extreme beer.’ I wanted to go beyond just recreating beer styles and maybe create a new classic beer style. We wanted to put our slant on these beers and then go beyond that and create styles that never existed before. What you have to remember is that the craft brewing movement got a lot if its energy from bringing back to the U.S.

these rich flavourful styles that had disappeared. To me that was the first stage. With the creation of Samuel Adams Triple Bock in 1994, it was the beginning of a second stage which is American brewers creating beers that were not variations of what came from Europe, but were entirely new.” Other breweries that have taken the torch and run with it include the previously mentioned Anchor Brewing and its trademarked Steam Beer, based on a 19th century tag that referred to West Coast beers brewed under primitive circumstances. Although the origins of the term ‘Steam’ are speculative, Anchor’s account suggests that the brewery was unable to chill the boiling wort so they simply forced it into open tubs that would then cool because of the air blowing off the Pacific Ocean. The brewery had a haze of steam surrounding it, leading to the name.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is considered the benchmark for this variety. The use of Cascade hops, grown in the Pacific Northwest, provides the identifying element of this brew and imparts a citrusy bouquet and spicy flavour that makes it unique.

Mention the term ‘fruit beer’ and the reaction you’ll get will be varied. Yet Magic Hat #9, seasoned with a touch of apricot, has carved a niche for itself as a delightfully refreshing golden ambercoloured brew from a progressive and growing brewery. The hop bitterness rounds out this drink nicely and shows a dedication to perfection, under the guidance of the firm’s top magician, Alan Newman.

Brewery Ommegang is situated in Cooperstown, New York, the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The company is arguably the foremost producer of Belgian-style beers including Hennepin (saison), Abbey Ale (Trappist ale), Witte (witbier), Rare Vos (amber ale) and Three Philosophers (quadrupel/kriek blend). In 2003, the brewery was sold to the Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat.

Rogue Ales has been in existence since 1988 and is known for what seems like a never-ending succession of new beers. The company has exhibited no reluctance to integrate the unusual, usually met with acceptance from its legions of fans. As an example, it has released Chamomellow, a herbal ale infused with chamomile, an aromatic plant thought to relieve anxiety and promote a sense of well-being.

Chipotle Ale has its roots in the company’s Amber Ale but is spiced with smoked jalapeno peppers. Jittery Frog includes organically grown coffee beans from Costa Rica, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Not long ago, Rogue completed an alliance with internationally acclaimed chef Masaharu Morimoto where two soba (buckwheat) flavours were created as well as pilsner, all under the Morimoto Signature Series banner. A sidebar to this relationship was a furthering of the connection between fine beer and gourmet cuisine.

When Jim Koch refers to ‘extreme beers,’ Dogfish Head Brewery must be mentioned. Company founder Sam Calagione has created such esoteric concoctions as Fort, a raspberry-laced brew that weighs in at 18% alcohol by volume (ABV). Then there is Chateau Jiahu, based on what was found by an area archeologist in northern China and replicated by Calagione using rice flakes, wildflower honey, Muscat grapes, barely malt, hawthorn fruit and chrysanthemum flowers.

It’s a beer, but you taste elements of other beverages.

Don’t get fooled into believing that all small breweries are adding such obscure ingredients into their brewkettles. Most are not. In fact, most breweries don’t deliver outside their immediate geographical region. Cost just doesn’t allow for it, especially without a relationship with a large distributor.

What they propose is an option, especially for the person looking for a locally produced handcrafted beer.

And, judging from sales, especially over the last several years, they’ve struck a nerve.

So where is the American beer scene headed?

Marty Jones, a public relations person with Oskar Blues Brewery feels packaging will evolve into what is labeled as ‘microcanning.’ His company started such packaging in 2002 and, despite an initial reluctance among beer aficionados to accept it, Oskar Blues has seen its production grow by 64 per cent last year.

He said: “The can is great for beer. It offers complete protection from light so our beer never gets skunked. It also holds exceptionally low levels of oxygen and prohibits the ingress of oxygen. So the beer stays fresh for an exceptionally long time.” John Marioni, Beerdrinker of the Year for 2004, offered this insight: “I was in California recently where I visited the Russian River Brewery as well as Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada and several others. In conversations I had with the brewmasters and owners of these places, there definitely seems to be a trend in the type of beer that predominates at the moment, that being bigger, more outrageous, pushing the limits, beer. I’m talking about the imperials, doubles and even triple beers. I’m not sure how long this will last as there are only a finite number of beer styles and realistic gravity that can be achieved.” Suzanne Woods founded ‘In Pursuit of Ale,’ a women’s beer club based in Philadelphia. She states: “American brewers are increasingly adventurous and are winning over drinkers of macro-produced beer in the process. This can be attributed to grassroots marketing such as having field reps like Sebbie Buhler of Rogue Ales out and about interacting with the drinkers.

“That personal experience will resonate a lot more than one of 3,000 ads they come across during the day.” Perhaps Jim Koch summed it up best by declaring: “We’ll continue to raise the American beer drinker’s understanding and appreciation of good beer and we’re going to continue to make great beers for people like me who drink beer everyday.”

(based on 2006 sales as tabulated by the Brewers Association)

1 Boston Beer Co.

2 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

3 New Belgium Brewing Co

4 Pyramid Breweries

5 Matt Brewing Co.
New York

6 Deschutes Brewery

7 Boulevard Brewing Co.

8 Alaskan Brewing Co.

9 The Harpoon Brewery
Massachusetts & Vermont

10 Full Sail Brewing Co.

(based on 2006 sales as tabulated by the Brewers Association)

1 Anheuser-Busch

2 Miller Brewing Co.

3 Coors Brewing Co.

4 Pabst Brewing Co.

5 Boston Beer Co.

6 D.G. Yuengling and Son

7 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

8 Gambrinus

9 New Belgium Brewing Co.

10 High Falls Brewing Co.
New York