The Constancy Of Change

Now don’t be afraid children if I tell you what it was like in the before. The before meaning that time before anyone used the term craft beer. A time when a bud never meets a stranger and imported Heineken was considered exotic. A time when, as Fritz Maytag pointed out, when beer was reduced to a lowly commodity where all of a brewery’s personality was expunged. Even being faithful to recipe formulas became suspect. Such was the case when marketing geniuses at Schlitz decided that cutting back on ingredients meant they could sell more beer. Not exactly. A fiasco that knocked the beer that made Milwaukee famous from its perch of Number 1 beer in America, which they abdicated to Anheuser-Busch Budweiser, never to be regained.
This has happened on many occasions. Many struggling regional breweries attempted the same thing. Offering new and improved versions of their brands, only to have their loyal drinking customers ask: what in the world is this?
 Not a happy time to be sure, when beer became just an alcohol delivery platform where you had to watch out! for the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull.  All culinary connections nearly evaporated. Yes, this was the way it was in most of the beerscape: watery, pale golden and bland. Beer seekers had to go to great lengths to find something more tasty.
It is hard to describe what it was like, to a generation accustomed to seeing Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, nearly everywhere. There were a few brilliant exceptions. The long gone Joseph Huber Brewing Company made a delicious brew called Augsburger Bock. The six packs came with a bock marker that supplied some information:

“How did the name ‘bock’ originate? During the 1600’s, breweries in Germany had a fierce pride in the beers they brewed, particularly in Munich. Around 1614, news reached Munich that the beer in a northern German town–Einpoeck, today Einbeck–was clearly better. The Munich brewery quickly lured the Einpoeck brewmaster over, and to everyone’s delight, a heavy beer just like the one in Einpoeck was brewed. It became known as “Einpoeckisch” beer. Over the years, the word metamorphosed into “Bock”, but it always meant this very special, full-bodied beer.”

In the early 1980’s this was very rare, also stating: “To this day Augsburger Bock follows an original recipe laid down over 400 years ago. Aged a full 60 days before bottling. And made with only the finest of natural grains–a blend of of four roasted barley malts and imported German hops. Similarly, Augsburger’s rich Bock color is never darkened by caramelized syrups or food colorings. It comes from the sensitive heat treatment of the barley during the malting process. The result? A dark rich, flavorful Bock beer.”
Ending the bock marker with “Please let us know what you think”. Which in those pre-Internet days meant writing to Fred Huber, in Monroe, Wisconsin.

In fact, USP or snail mail was quite important 30 years ago. When Charles Finkel started the import company Merchant Du Vin, you were asked to write them in Seattle, Washington, and find out why that Samuel Smith Taddy Porter was so tasty. A pioneer in the beer revolution, Charles Finkel made a substantial contribution by marketing authentic beer styles, that at that time in the United States, were totally unknown. A good friend of the late Beer Hunter Michael Jackson, they partnered an advocacy for authentic beer that is very much with us today.
As someone who lived through and experienced those changes, I never take for granted all the brewing goodness available now. When I walk a block and a half to my local store I have incredible options when it comes to beer purchase, from Breckenridge to Hudepohl Amber to the Lion Stout from Sri Lanka.

The long haul it has always been on the road to great beer. Insane laws about alcohol strength prevented, and still does in some states, from many beers being sampled. Also equally insane, were laws that stated you couldn’t put a graphic depiction of Santa Claus on a Holiday beer because “it might appeal to children”.
I do say Thank You for the fact that much of this has changed. Beer is regaining the cultural and culinary respect it so richly deserves.


Autumn Preparations

Having recently opened a Twitter account (TheBeerDoctor2), I sent a tweet to Beer Advocate, jokingly asking if all the Oktoberfest beers could be listed on a single thread. “All is not possible” was their earnest reply, and indeed this is true.
Then there is always the perennial question: Which is the best Oktoberfest? Which is, when I come to think of it, a very silly question indeed. Each brewer has their own take on the Marzen style, Samuel Adams uses five kinds of malt. Leinenkugel four specialty hops. The Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin uses Vienna, Crystal, and two-row Munich malts, combined with Tettnanger, Hallertau, and Perle hops. Variations on a theme for sure.
Marzen being a bottom fermented beer takes time to produce. The Saint Arnold Brewery in Texas has their own take on this, replacing lager yeast with a top fermenting ale yeast. While their state brethren over at the Spoetzl Brewery produce Shiner Oktoberfest, using a more traditional approach, which is surprisingly moderate in alcohol. In other words, there is no such thing as the best Oktoberfest. The only criteria is freshness, and which flavor profile you like.
The authentic Oktoberfest beers, which are the six breweries located within the city of Munich, Germany, have a floral note in the finish, which I suspect is due to their proprietary house yeast, of which each brewery is so proud. A fresh five liter can of Hofbrau anyone?

Of course, Marzen style beer is not for everyone. The emphasis on malt, puts off some of the hop obsessed crowd, and quite remarkably, I have read people who say they quickly grow tired of the style, which seems odd, since this style of beer is consumed in the millions of liters.
It is also one of the most food friendly styles, complimenting many hearty dishes. Good beer and good food: what’s there not to love?

When Cold Beer Counts

There is a famous scene in the John Cassavettes movie Gloria where Gena Rowlands, walks into a bar in the morning hours and asks for a beer. “What kind?” the bartender asks. Which Gloria (Ms. Rowlands) replies: “Cold.”
I didn’t fully appreciate this until after 16 days of plus 90 degree temperatures. In such a climate, “cold” is the most important attribute.  In the hot summer sun, beer in a can seems quite suitable, so I have to laugh when the so-called craft brewing world announces the craft can revolution. Which I gather provides an excuse to sell their crafted creations in aluminum, dispensing with the notion that beer is always better in glass bottles.
There is of course resistance to that notion among those taught that glass was the last word in beer packaging. Brown glass bottles has always been a selling point with Samuel Adams, who so far have resisted the craft can revolution. A movement that now includes Avery, Brooklyn, Abita, and many others.
This is also where the marketing distinctions become a bit of a blur. In fact the term craft beer seems a useless designation, unless it simply means more expensive beer ($18 for a six-pack of cans?).  And now the game is afoot, to convince all those glass bottle drinkers, that beer in a can can be just as good, after all those years of complaining about ‘metallic taste’.
It would be interesting to have a blind taste test to determine if you can actually taste the difference. Much packaging depends on psychology. How else can it be explained why so much time and resources is devoted to finding the right button to push? There is a dirt into gold aspect to this. Back in the 1980’s, the Mexican migrant worker cooler known as Corona became the sought after yuppie drink of choice, knocking off Heineken from its throne as the Number 1, U.S. imported beer.
This marketing coup was upstaged by another when Stella Artois, makers of a Belgian working class lager convinced the world, or at least the part that had money to spend, that Stella is a fine representative of “cinema, cuisine and culture”.
It should also be noted that Heineken, Stella Artois, and Corona are all available in bottles and cans. International branding doesn’t want to miss an opportunity. The redesign of AB Inbev’s Budweiser logo is a good case in point. Heineken pull tabs on their cans are green, Budweiser’s are red.  Obviously, package design is enormously important, although the vast majority of consumers hardly even consider it. Marketing beer at this scale very often means promoting an imaginary lifestyle. Its not just beer, you might say, but a way of life.