It’s Got Foam

One of the joys of my life has been having a friend who participated and survived the D-Day invasion. As a friend of his sons, I had the chance to talk to someone who lived through the turbulent events of the 20th century. A  wise man with a wonderful sense of humor, Glen liked to drink a beer now and then, with Miller High Life being his preferred choice.
This was quite awhile ago. I was just starting to build my Beer Doctor street credentials at the time, and he didn’t quite know what to make of it, as he watched me pour glasses of the darkest stouts, the hazy golden bubbly of hefe-weizen, and the exotic burgundy coloured brew called Rodenbach Grand Cru.  But I asked him once, why did he like Miller High Life? His answer: It’s Got Foam.

I bring this all up because recently I had a chance to sample Schlitz Beer in the “Tall Boy” 16 oz can, introduced in 1960, now revived, using the original formula that made the beer number one in America in the 1950’s. I don’t need to go into what happened, except to say that Jason Allstrom has an excellent article on the subject over at Beer Advocate, where now, the retro-revival attempts to “Go For The Gusto” it once was acknowledged for.

For those accustomed to hyper flavorful beer, any macro brewery beer is treated with disdain. I think that is a mistake. To understand beer, especially American beer, the historic context is necessary to appreciate why a particular beer became a beloved staple in millions of households. With Schlitz, I think part of the answer is in the mouth-feel. A refreshing carbonation combined with a not overly sweet malt palate, and with “just a kiss of  the hops”, a never bitter finish.
In polite craft beer circles. a drinkable beer is called “session beer”. In old fashioned American parlance, it can be called a slammer or pounder. Which I think going for the gusto is all about.

A NEW GENERATION

“Let the word go forth that the brewery stein has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”

One of the benefits of growing older is to observe the follies of this world, including your own. Which also explains the great pleasure at observing a new generation who look at things from a different angle, and where, if I am being honest, I must admit, I would have never thought of.
Take for example this whole business about whether or not beer should be brewed in aluminum cans. For many of the so-called craft brewers of the late 20th century, this would be heresy. It was glass, or you did not pass. Not any longer. Brewers at 21st Amendment and Oskar Blues among a growing number of others, decided that the recipe of a brew is far more important than the aesthetic desire of a glass container, and besides that, it is deemed more ecologically responsible, since aluminum is 100% recyclable.

But that is only part of the story. A new generation of brewers have developed their own unique takes on recipes, producing bold assertive beers of great character. Take a look at what Patrick Rue is doing in California at The Bruery. An operation dedicated to producing, for the most part, artisanal Belgian-style style variations in 25 ounce bottles, with names like Mischief and Saison Rue.
The truth of the matter is, there is a lot of love going forward in this ancient beverage. The idea of producing a product that is flavor neutral, as was the practice in the 20th century macro-brewing industry, seems distant and strange today.

There Is No Such Thing As Too Much Beer

The science of tasting beer can be a hilarious subject. Take a look at members’ reviews over at Beer Advocate, where some brews are hailed as the second coming, while others, for the crime of being produced by companies owned by international corporations are banished to the outer darkness, the unholy ones, as it were. All of this of course, is quite arbitrary, especially when beloved breweries, such as The Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, receive an Anheuser-Busch Inbev offer they could not refuse.
It should be noted that Goose Island chose to discontinue producing their Nut Brown Ale and Oatmeal Stout before the acquisition. Their concentration on the beer connoisseur segment of business, emphasizing expensive, oak barrel aged products, seemed far away, from the Goose Islands I sampled in the last century, which were modestly priced ales of great character. Such is the nature of change, as the old cliché goes. But one thing I do hope for, is that Goose Island returns to bottling their Christmas Ale into 12 ounce bottles, instead of the 22ounce version, given the silly name of bomber, so in vogue with the craft beer crowd. With a few exceptions, most bombers means you are going to spend a lot of money for 22ounces of beer. Three $9 bombers means you are paying $27 for a five and a half pack of beer. I gather that many believe that this leads to a superior drinking experience. Equally, many believe that if a beer is modestly priced, it must not be good, and many a fine recipe is dismissed because it is not expensive enough. Delegating many tasty recipes to condescending terms such as a good gateway beer.

I bring all of this up because of recent tastings of different Oktoberfest beers, which are popping up everywhere. Take Beck’s Oktoberfest from Bremen, Germany. A fest beer given the Oktoberfest designation in the United States, since only the brews within the city limits of Munich are allowed to use the name in Germany. Beck’s, now a part of the Inbev global portfolio, still makes a very tasty Marzen lager for fall, using only the four classic ingredients.
Or take Shiner Oktoberfest, probably the lightest take on Marzen. Where a doughy palate is simple and direct. The 96 Anniversary recipe, called a seasonal ale on the bottle. But this is where geography plays into the picture. The Spoetzl Brewery, being in Shiner, Texas, has to designate any beer above a certain alcohol level as ale, regardless of the fermentation method.  The geographic location also helps explain why this recipe has a lighter approach: it gets very hot in Texas. Different parts of the country have different requirements.  There is certainly room enough for all to be enjoyed.

In the world of beer each new year brings surprises. A good example is the Christian Moerlein Saengerfest Maibock which appeared at the end of spring, beautifully balanced with a generous, juicy malty palate with a floral note in the finish. As described in my original notes as “one of the best American beers sampled this year”.  But my perception is  biased perhaps, because I truly love bock beers, including the golden coloured ones, with a hint of honey-nectar in the nose.

The same can be said of Oktoberfest. Funny how matters sometimes work out. Only a week ago, minus a day, the temperature reached 100 degrees and people complained that it was too hot to be drinking Marzen. This was before a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico caused the season to turn in the Ohio Valley, and only 2 days later, I was out in the backyard drinking Samuel Adams Octoberfest with temperatures in the upper 50’s.

Some folks have complained about Oktoberfest beers appearing too early. Taste wise, this is sometimes true. When Samuel Adams version comes out at the beginning of August, it does not have the malty depth that it has now. Sampling a 22 ounce bottle each week of that month, it was fascinating to notice its development: from a very bright Nouveau creation where hops are in the forefront, to the malty depth and goodness found post-Labor Day, where the five malts have their say, as it were. As they say in cosmological physics: gravity has the final word.

The release of Hudepohl Oktoberfest Bier is joyous event for me, here in southwestern Ohio. It also compliments their Moerlein Fith &Vine Oktoberfest, which is also a tribute to Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. In fact much of this is a Cincinnati story. The revival of the Hudepohl name is a tribute to this city’s beer baron past. This version of Marzen, I do believe would make Ludwig Hudepohl II proud.

Guinness Black Lager: The beer experts continue to weigh in on this. Some go to great lengths to describe the appearance of the pour, totally ignoring the instructions from Guinness that this beer is designed to be served cold and consumed straight from the bottle. Which I did, and found it to be an alternative to Bud, Miller and Coors, very drinkable with moderate alcohol strength. Which is perhaps what Guinness is aiming at: a decent beer for the football-tailgating crowd. The question has arisen whether Guinness Black Lager reflects the character of the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin. I would have to say yes. It will be interesting to see whether this first bottom fermented Guinness actually sells.

The Parameter Of Purity

I have to chuckle when I consider the arbitrary distinctions offered up by the craft brew crowd to distinguish themselves from their macro mainstream brethren. A good example of this can be found when a particular beer from a particular brewery is sought after and coveted. Bell’s Hopslam is one of those. A tasty offering that some enthusiasts consider the final word on great beer.
A sales representative was shocked that I was more modest in my assessment. I told the gentleman that Hopslam’s use of honey in the recipe provided fermented strength that simply would not be there without it. Besides, when it comes to honey beers, La Binchoise Biere des Ours, is, for myself, the world’s benchmark example. But then, how many craft beer drinkers in the United States have sampled the beer of the bear?

Then there is the use of adjunct grains, which, once upon a time, was considered a no-no, when purity, that is the German definition of using only the four ingredients (water, barley malt, hops and yeast) helped define what was considered good beer. Well that is no longer the case. Just ask Joe Kesteloot, head brewer at Peach Tree Brewing, in Knoxville, Iowa, who makes a Belgian-style ale using bushels of corn, called Cornucopia, in celebration of the Iowa sweet corn harvest. The key here is Belgian-style, since the Belgians use fruit, honey, candy sugar, and numerous spices in their creations. Reinheitsgebot does not exist in such circumstances, and many so-called cutting edge brewers in the U.S. feel the same way. Which is fine, but this does not change the fact that some of the world’s greatest beers, such as Aventinus and Fuller’s 1845 Ale, achieve their flavorful distinctions by using only the big four, where the strain of yeast, or proprietary house yeast, becomes incredibly important. Belgium’s Duvel was created by using a stolen yeast from Scotland. You might have thought that reverse engineering started with electronic devices, well think again.

The great beer writer James D. Robertson taught me long ago that when it comes to approaching beer, it is vitally important to meet the brew half way, without preconceptions.
So whatever the style, the final question is: does it taste good or not? The Alstrom Brothers founders of the web site Beer Advocate, certainly understand this, while some of the members there, not so much.
To paraphrase the late Justin Wilson: What kind of beer should you drink? The kind of beer you like!