When St. Nikolaus Visits Pittsburg

It was indeed bittersweet, but nevertheless a joy, to have return Pennsylvania Brewing Company’s St. Nikolaus Bock Bier in time for St. Nicholas Feast Day, a traditional starting point for the Christmas holiday season, and as the patron saint of brewers, is a celebration I will never fail to acknowledge. Penn-St-Nickolaus-Bock-e1352663175303-200x200 For this is a living, very tasty tribute to a great Holiday tradition, one I first encountered in 1986, when I first tasted Wurzburger Holiday Bier, the great Bavarian Christmas dopplebock created in 1643.
But what makes Penn Brewery’s bock bier’s timely appearance bittersweet, is the rocky road Penn Brewery has traveled to arrive at this joyous moment. Founded in 1986, Penn Brewery was revival of the brewing roots laid down by the Eberhart & Ober (E&O) families.
First having their traditional German origin recipes contract brewed by the Pittsburgh Brewing Company and Jones Brewing Company. They then became Pennsylvania’s first tied house since prohibition, when they created their brewery and restaurant  at the old E&O building site. Business matters became shaky, so much so that by 2008, a private equity firm took a majority stake in the enterprise, who promptly closed the restaurant and brewing operations, and contracted out the remaining beers, with less attention to quality control.
Fortunately, (by Saint Nicholas speed if you will) a group of local investors bought the brewery back in 2009, and by 2010, the brewery and restaurant had returned. Which is a very good development for folks who enjoy delicious, high quality beer.
Which brings me to the wassail side of this story. Spiced ale, as most conscious beer seekers know, has become a gigantic portion of the holiday offerings from many breweries. And this covers quite a range of approaches: from over-the-top, big spiced boozy affairs, to multi-layered complexities of medium strength. But how fortunate that this year, I was able to try Penn Brewery’s Nut Roll AlePenn_Nut_Roll_Ale a subtly spiced nut brown ale that is an absolute pleasure to drink. A doughy, Christmas pretzel of a beer that is spice festive without being overbearing.
Lastly, there is the matter of Penn Brewery’s St. Nikolaus Bock Bier Brewer’s Reserve 2012 Penn-St-Nickolaus-Bock The dopplebock version of their Christmas bier. Here their great Christmas bock acquires a depth and smoothness that should be expected from something designated as Brewer’s Reserve. A malty backbone of an iron-like strength gives this lager the kind of depth usually associated with Imperial Stout or Barleywine. But because this is extensively aged bottom fermented bock, their is a smoothness that has to be consumed to be believe. Easily, this is one of the best beers in the United States.
So up on the housetop, click click click… down through the Pittsburgh chimney comes good Saint Nik!



In William Knoedelseder’s Bitter Brew, The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, I read a very interesting account of the Busch family dynasty, from its urban pioneer beginnings to the corporate behemoth that eventually succumbed to the unrelenting desires of global capitalism. At times an utterly fascinating account, William Knoedelseder has peppered his text with vignettes worthy of a movie. Here is where you learn that August “Gussie” Busch Jr. had to shoot a red deer once bottle fed by his wife Trudy, when the fully grown deer known as Ike was in the middle of rutting season, and “had his magnificent head mounted on the wall in the gunroom.”
And there is no doubt that this is an American family biographic portrait, with plenty of lust for power, both financial and sexual, along with all those other human foibles, now commonly called issues by the pop-psychology crowd. Desires for parental approval and vindictive revenge and all bound together by an allegiance to guns.
The more examinations of the Busch dynasty written, the more it becomes apparent that this now considered defunct model of a company town was inseparable from upheavals in American society. Here it is said that when Gussie Busch bought the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, he wanted it integrated, so as to not offend his African-American, Budweiser drinking customers. For the so-called Alpha Busch, it was all about making friends and selling more beer and everything else would fall into place.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that the Busch family celebrated Saint Nicholas Day (December 6), a Christmas holiday almost completely forgotten in the United States, but recognized throughout the world as the patron saint of brewers, sailors and children. It was on such a day in 1974, that tragedy struck Gussie’s eleventh child Christina in a fatal auto accident that concluded with a ventilator being shut off on December 17.
Knoedelseder accounts that this was the event that broke the Gussie Busch leadership hold at Anheuser-Busch. Not long after this, August III, Gussie’s son pushed the alpha Busch out. It is interesting that in the nepotism of A-B leadership, each Busch had a unique set of challenges to the company’s survival. For August A. it was the German phobia of World War I and the great cultural destroyer of Prohibition. For Gussie, it was rebounding from the Great Depression and staying on top of a post World War II drinking public. For August III it was the popularity of Miller Lite, which caught them completely off guard. For August IV it was transnational global business, that the party animal heir apparent, was totally unequipped for. This last of the Beer Kings saw Anheuser-Busch become a wholly owned subsidiary of InBev, a capital driven portfolio of brewing companies, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, create nothing but simply own.

                   Some Interesting Sentences

There is a remarkable passage in Bitter Brew, when William Knoedelseder describes the early actions of Adolphus Busch that eventually would lead to a business empire:

“One of the first things he did as president of his own brewery was to acquire, through a close friend and local restaurant owner named Carl Conrad, the recipe for a beer that for years had been produced by monks in a small Bohemian village named Budweis. The crisp pale lager was known in the region as Budweiser.

Too many modern craft beer enthusiasts are unaware of A-B’s innovative contributions. Take Budweiser, although it is often dismissed as a bland adjunct lager. It nevertheless a beer brewed in a time-honored method. Compare it to the chemical infused soup concocted by Schlitz in the 1970’s, where the term knock off took on an entirely new, unwelcome meaning.