So much is written about the latest craft (that silly word again) brewed creations, from an upstart brewery. Understandably in their zeal to indent their brand presence in the very competitive market, they sometimes appear to have reinvented the wheel, at least to themselves and their devoted followers. But very little is written about that marketing tier that distributors call value beers, or to put it more bluntly, beers for people who do not have much money.
This is one of the blessings and curses of the beer world extending its reach through the Internet. A kind of consumerist tribalism has broken out that completely ignores the economic realities facing a significant portion of Americans who simply can not afford expensive artisan creations.
There is very little song for the common people in the beer world being created by the millennial generation. Even the expansion of market share for craft brewed creations, so highly touted, does not address the fact that those mainstream adjunct beers so demonized by their craft beer brethren have become quite expensive, in light of global consolidation. This becomes a challenge for the millions of low paid workers who are thirsty at the end of a day, and can not find comfort in quenching that thirst with those high fructose corn syrup creations known as soda pop. So in this guide to value beer, I have concentrated on the beers considered to be value beers and not such famous names as Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, or that famous American diet beer known as Miller Lite.
Genesee Cream Ale An inexpensive hybrid style that decades ago won a gold medal at the Great American Beer festival. Rochester, New York’s most famous brand.
Milwaukee’s Best Ice Affectionately referred to as “the beast” by construction workers. This is one of those boring recipes that will never go away.
Busch BeerThe budget beer from Budweiser that uses corn in the recipe. This beloved swill of millions has seen a price increase due to A-B InBev consolidation.
Miller High LifeBritish beer writer David Kenning described this as “soft, sweet, malty aromas on the nose” and “slightly creamy texture on the palate balanced with a moderate hop bitterness”. Other than the beloved television ads produced with the late Windell Middlebrooks. This once flagship brand has become almost an afterthought in SAB-Miller marketing plans.
Hudepohl Amber LagerProbably the best value at $1 a 16 ounce can. This is the only all malt recipe available in value beer. A throwback to an earlier time, producing the kind of lager that was made before adjunct grains
First to some good news on the macro beer front. Newcastle Brown Ale will no longer be brewed using caramel color. Removal of 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MEI, is Heineken Brewing’s way to address the health concerns over this chemical. So instead of a chemical enhancement, Newcastle will now be a brown ale whose color is achieved through careful roasting of malts. Fancy that.
Winter in the Midwest, like much of the United States, has been especially brutal this year. As someone who has found the comfort of malts to be most certainly in order for this time of year, I found myself in somewhat of a conflict with all the sessionable IPA making the rounds. The question is, why in the world would I want to drink bitter beer when it is already bitter cold? But that did not stop me from trying to understand.
To start things off, there is this beer that sounds like an invention of Lewis Carrol:
Smutttynose Bouncy House IPA A session IPA (at 4.4%) that is slated to be the all occasion American ale. Which I guess is true if you like hop-forward beer all the time. But at $10 for 6 bottles that session is going to be removed from the value beer category, which traditionally was what slamming a few beers was all about. Getting you to drink more beer is what all breweries have in common. Responsibly they say, but still more.
The corporate schizophrenia of global A-B InBev is a prime example. Now television sports viewers are told that Budweiser’s golden suds are “brewed the hard way”, not for fussy peach pumpkin ale drinkers, but for people who like to drink beer (the slammer, also known as, the pounder, etc.) And there is little need to detail their forays into the so-called craft arena. Of more interest to me was the introduction of Busch Signature Copper Lager to the value beer tier. Oddly, the hard core Busch drinkers, the kind who buy a suitcase (30 beers) at a time are rather indifferent to Copper Lager. The fact that it is 5.7% and actually has flavor from toasted malts does not seem to be of interest them. Oddly, Signature Copper Lager is not even mentioned on the main Busch beer website.Value beer drinkers have loyalty to their favorite brands, which brings up the point that hardly anyone discusses what value beer means in America. For the majority of Americans who work for very low wages, the idea of beer being an affordable luxury is becoming an anachronism. Just think of it: you will have to work over an hour at Walmart, just so you can buy a six pack of Bouncy House. Oh and by the way, as far as bang for the buck, Bouncy House has the same amount of alcohol as regular Busch.
On to other matters, the hop obsession continues unabated. Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA is said to be the first beer using hop oil steam distilled directly in the field. This is suppose to enable the wet hop taste of harvest ales throughout the year. What I find here is a pleasant contribution to the IPA style, with plenty of floral aromatics to keep the bitterness in check.
Locally, Christian Moerlein Handle Bar Double Stout is a proper winter prescription for the beer doctor.From their limited release can series, Handle Bar is a very tasty imperial stout, with deep roasted flavors and plenty of body. Perhaps not great but quite good.
Also locally, there is Rhinegeist Mosaic Pale Ale, a tribute to the flavor complexity of a single hop. Mosaic (HBC 369) is a 21st century creation, said to be a daughter of Simcoe hops. It is wonderfully aromatic with a very long finish, full of botanical complexity. I just wish this had more malt. But that is my own personal concern.
It was a pleasure to read Christopher Barnes recent post on I Think About Beer where he passionately complains about what writer Matt Taibbi would call the vampire squid aspects of AB-InBev sticking its tentacles into beloved beer brands and ruining them. This is most certainly the case with many of the breweries acquired, and it is also true that many of these famous brands have become simply more products to disguise the fact that AB-InBev would like to own all the beer in the world. But what I find rather ridiculous is the notion that the American beer drinking public really cares where their beer actually comes from (and hey, Carlos Brito and the boys have you covered there, get your Bud app for your I-Phone!).
It was essayist Lewis Lapham who pointed out that the genius of market capitalism is that it has no morality. This was most certainly the case when the last irresponsible heir of the Busch family was made an offer the stockholders could not refuse, and the historic American brewing giant passed over into InBev’s global hands. But what is also rather silly is this notion that the brewers ethos is actually important in a country that has now embraced market capitalism to the exclusion of everything else.
Consumer boycott of products considered unethical has been practiced many times before. But to base your shopping decisions on what the Brewers Association has decided is righteous brew, is to say the least, beyond laughable. This was the same organization that at one time excluded from their club Yuengling and August Schell, two of the oldest breweries in America. But enough on this lunacy, let me get to some recent beers.
Sierra-Nevada Nooner Pilsner is a very good take on pilsner but I find the term Nooner to a be a superfluous marketing ploy, but nevertheless essential to marketing to the beer drinking crowd that uses words like session beer. But on the label, the use of Adirondack chairs in front of a body of water, is a graphic rip-off of the Saranac line by F.X. Matt Brewing of Utica, New York. Nothing original there, but what is original is the fact that Nooner Pilsner is Sierra Nevada’s first year-round lager and a quite good one at that.
For the over-the-hop folks there is Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Hoppy Lager 2015 an India Pale Lager, and it most certainly is that. Citrus like bitterness made somewhat more mellow by the longer lagering time.
Locally, I came across Pure Fury from Rheingeist Brewery. A hoppy pale ale, it is called, which has become nearly generic amongst artisan creations. But for me, there simply was not enough malt support to make this a substantial experience.
Two recent samples from New Belgium Brewing: Shift Pale Lager is yet another hoppy pale lager that takes into account the lupulin concerns of the younger generation. While their 1554 Black Lager I found much more interesting, mainly because I do enjoy the schwarzbier style, from Krostritzer and beyond. 1554 has captured this style with delicious accuracy. The same can be said of New Belgium Porter, with its very good roasted malt profile.
It is the 106th anniversary of the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, which has lead to the release of Shiner 106 Birthday Beer. A chocolate stout that is an easy drinking desert beer. Like all Shiner beers, it is only made in one place: the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas.
One of the advantages of the beer expansion in the United States is you have plenty of brewers willing to try all kinds of experimental recipes, with no regard for tradition, and often, any kind of historical perspective. This of course lead to extreme beers, bourbon barrel age stouts, and sometimes beers that are brewed with nearly everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink. Unfortunately, there is also a down side to this because a drinker unfamiliar with what makes beer a beloved beverage for thousands of years may never know the advancements in culinary civilization that made truly great beer possible.
So it was with great pleasure to discover Newcastle (owned by Heineken) release their collaboration edition Scotch Ale, brewed by the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Scotland has a 5000 year history of brewing, going back to the Picts and beyond. But what Caledonian Brewery represents is the last of the 40 breweries that operated in the 19th century, when Edinburgh was one of the brewing capitols of the world. This was due to the local hard water, rich in minerals and as famous as the brewing water in Burton-on-Trent, England. Happily, unlike Bass, Caledonian Brewery still makes their ales using fire brewed open copper kettles. This historical tradition helps to explain the extraordinary taste of this ale. A wee heavy, or to put it in the shilling vernacular of those times, a 90/-, which refers to the amount of taxes.
What a delicious brew this is! Exquisitely balanced. It would be easy to go on about the rich malty toffee notes etc., but why bother? It is best to discover this on your own.
As another year winds to a close I am astounded by the variety of beer available in the United States. So without further ado, here are some interesting examples:
Guinness Blonde American Lager From the glass lined tanks of old Latrobe comes this Guinness take on American lager, No. 1 in their Discovery Series. An expertly produced recipe employing Mosaic and Willamette hops, in combination with their brewery yeast. This is quite different than their Canadian made Harp Lager (a beer doctor favorite) but equally refreshing.
With Two Brothers Peppermint Bark Porter 2014 Is a very nice Holiday beer offering. A substantial porter infused with a touch of peppermint, but not overpowering, with excellent malt support and enough hops to give it some distance from sweetness.
On the other hand their is Brown Sugga from Lagunitas Brewing Company A thanks to Will Gordon for giving me a heads up on this one. A strong ale that hides its boozy (9.9% abv) content completely. This is indeed a true original. Which reminded of my first encounter with sugar brewing, many years ago, and that was Thos. Cooper & Sons Big Barrel a cane sugar brewed lager that came in a 25 oz steel can. But with Brown Sugga I discovered a top fermented, over the top ale, where malts, brown sugar, yeast and hops combine into a sweet profile that reminds me of the mythical little brown jug. Others have described the nose of this brew to be similar to a bag of potent ganga buds. Unique.
It is also a source of pride to discover a local world class Imperial Stout simply called INK from Rhinegeist Brewing. This expensive beer is worth checking out. A very tasty malt showcase where chocolate and to a lesser extent coffee notes abound. A 10% presentation without any alcohol burn, this is a very rich and mellow brew, with an incredible flavor depth.
When it comes to beer, life is very good.
How long has it been? My god it was in the last century that I had a long conversation with Matthias Neidhart of B. United International, who told me about the first time experiencing 5 year old Aventinus, while visiting the Schneider& Sohn brewery in Germany. He explained to me that the magnificent dunkel weizenbock developed a port-like character after a half a decade of aging. Then he spoke of the Schneider & Sohn house yeast of which he said they are so proud of.
And rightfully so. As Professor Beer has pointed out: “the secret to Hefeweizen’s banana-like character is the yeast.”
Esterification is extremely important in German beers using only the four classic ingredients (water, barley malts, hops and yeast) and it reveals the reinheitsgebot genius of brewing where the yeast produces flavor profiles that are unique, ranging from floral to tropical, to chocolate and caramel, with many subtle variations in between.
For centuries yeast was a very mysterious agent in beer production. The English brewers referred to a strain of yeast that produced ale as God is good. Before science isolated yeast strains that not only would make ale but also bottom fermented lager, every time. In that sense, Louis Pasteur can be regarded as the father of modern brewing, along with Emil Hansen, who identified the cultured yeasts capable of producing beer. Pasteur concurred, while visiting the Carlsberg Laboratory in 1884. This is where pure yeast was created, using single cell cloning. A technical discovery that without would make modern beer production impossible.
Not so surprisingly I was reminded of all this while sampling my local Christian Moerlein Bay of Bengal Double IPA A cleverly packaged presentation that does not infringe upon any NFL trademark but does connect with local football fans, similar to the way Great Lakes Brewing Company came out with Cleveland Brown Ale when their beloved franchise returned. But what is truly remarkable about this Bengal beer is the flavor profile created, especially in the very long finish, which I can only describe as brown mustard like. So much so that I can imagine using this for a brat beer bath. Another testament to the power of Ester. Cheers!
Recent discussions about what to serve on Thanksgiving has revealed that the simple kindness of sharing beer can be fraught with socio-political implications. Part of this of course is due to the ever expanding portfolio of recipe styles, and unless you are at a beer tasting party, the unfamiliar can seem a bit frightening, if not threatening.
I recall many years ago attending a holiday party where I showed up with a couple of fifths (25.4oz) of Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig (yes that long ago) and was demonstrably denounced by a Budweiser enthusiast who said: “I only drink American Beer.”
Which was ironic, even in that time, because Sam Adams was brewed in my own hometown of Cincinnati. Even more ironic now when the faux-patriotic marketing of Anheuser-Busch InBev instructs me to go out and “find some Holiday Buds”. Which is also ironic in another way, since marijuana is now a legal commodity in some parts of the country, and this has lead to a slight tweaking of a Shakespeare line in Henry V:
I would give all my fame for some pot, some ale and safety
When it comes to serving beer at a party for a variety of guests there is (or should be) etiquette involved. Offering a variety of styles is certainly in order. Concern for the comfort of your guests means being conscious that your taste, no matter how evolved, is still a singular affair. The very wide universe of beer drinkers requires an acknowledgement of this fact. This is especially true in the 21st century. A time when people will stand in line in the Chicago cold to obtain a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, while 18% of the US market is still devoted to another A-B InBev product: Bud Light. Because this is about etiquette, a quote from Emily Post seems appropriate:
“The most advertised commodity is not always intrinsically the best: but sometimes merely the product of a company with plenty of money to spend on advertising.”
The late Justin Wilson was once asked what kind of wine should you drink. His reply: “The kind of wine you like.” The same could be said of beer, with the caveat that what you like may not be the same as others. And that is one of the true beauties of civilization. Variety, not branding conformity, promotes greater human understanding. I most certainly will drink to that.