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.