Long before American Beer Month began in July, Kalamazoo Brewing Co. founder Larry Bell began evangelizing. “The most dynamic beer culture in the world is here. There is more going on with brewing in America than anywhere else,” he said. A style “may come from somewhere else, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a true American treasure.”
American Beer Month was created by the Institute for Brewing Studies and brewers’ guilds across the nation to raise awareness of the variety and quality of American craft beers. The designation of a beer month gave us an excuse to find out if Bell is right. We drank beer from Salida, CO, to New York City. Along the way:
- We toured one of America’s most modern facilities, New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, CO, and the oldest brewery, D. G. Yuengling in Pottsville, PA. Both are among the fastest growing breweries in the United States.
- We sampled gruit, an ancient style that predates the use of hops, from a brewpub that is part of a far-flung chain.
- We attended a large Fourth of July celebration in the Southwest where the only beers available were from small breweries.
- We saw plenty of high-quality imports at a tap house with 112 taps in Oklahoma City, in a state best known in beer circles for 3.2 beer.
- While in Baltimore, we had a delightful American version of an extra special bitter on hand pump, then visited a Mexican restaurant that pays tribute to both Elvis Presley and National Bohemian beer.
- We were reminded that beer remains a pleasure, sometimes enjoyed because it is a source of local pride, sometimes for the conversation that goes with it, and sometimes for the taste.
More people are drinking more interesting beer in more places than even three years ago. Many American brewers are glad to oblige consumers’ willingness to try more flavorful beers.
One evening, we sampled a variety of American pale and India pale ales along with patrons at KClinger’s Tavern in Hanover, PA. Among the beers was Hop Infusion from Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, PA. The ale lives up to its name, leaving an impression as strong as better-known hoppy beers from farther west. Three years ago, brewer/owner Dan Weirback also produced a second line of beers under the Two Rivers Brewhouse label, aiming to broaden his market with more mainstream offerings. That line has been discontinued, since assertive beers such as Blithering Idiot Barley Wine and QUAD (a Belgian-style quadrupel) developed a loyal following.
A Gruit Revival
In Boulder, the fact that BJ’s Pizza, Grill & Brewery is part of a chain doesn’t keep Derek Osborne from experimenting. He brought a gruit to the Colorado Brewers Rendezvous on July 1 in Salida. In Sacred and Herbal Healing Brews, author Stephen Buhner explains that beer with hops began to supplant gruit in the 16th century, primarily as a result of the Protestant Reformation and the fight against using narcotic herbs in brewing.
Osborne made the gruit in May with the second runnings from a barley wine, using bog myrtle, yarrow and chamomile (instead of more traditional wild rosemary). He answered questions about gruit for almost four hours non-stop in Salida, explaining the traditional narcotic⎯and perhaps aphrodisiacal⎯effects of the beer.
“Will I be able to drug test next week?” one festival goer asked. Osborne explained that he had used small amounts of each herb. The result was a complex and beautifully balanced beer, with plenty of licorice and cinnamon. The chamomile added a bit of honey to the taste and the yarrow, citrus and tartness often associated with Cascade hops.
Osborne was disappointed to learn that two different brewers in New Jersey and another in Oregon have recently made gruits. “I was hoping I was the first in about 1,000 years,” he said, smiling.
The Colorado Brewers Rendezvous was an official American Beer Month event, complete with logo on the tasting glasses. Three days later there was no mention of ABM at the Rio Rancho, NM, Fourth of July celebration, but Turtle Mountain Brewing Co. of Rio Rancho and Tractor Brewing Co. of Los Lunas generated just the awareness that ABM organizers hoped for nationally.
The daylong celebration attracted an estimated 80,000 people for live music, kids’ activities and a laser light show that capped off the evening. Those who wanted alcoholic drinks had a choice of specialty spirits from a local restaurant/bar or Turtle Mountain and Tractor beers. Throughout the day, representatives of the breweries circulated through that area, offering small free samples. As the evening wore on, servers grew busier.
Tastes Great and…Tastes Great
The Boston Beer Co. and some other smaller breweries staged a variety of taste-offs during July, pitting American-brewed beers against some of the best-known imports. Since American beers consistently triumphed, this made a strong point. However, we found it more interesting to sample top-flight (if lesser-known) Belgian beers at Markt, a New York City restaurant serving Belgian cuisine, then have Ommegang from the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, NY.
Would we have picked Ommegang over every one of those Belgian beers in a blind tasting? Probably not. Would we have given it a very high score, better than some if not others? Yes.
Imports are a vital part of the Oklahoma beer landscape. “We are seeing fewer micros,” said TapWerks Alehouse & Cafe owner Scott Woolum. “It seems like the ones who do best are strongest in the regions they come from.”
There are no distributing microbreweries based in Oklahoma. Thus, most of the 112 taps at the TapWerks in Oklahoma City’s up-and-coming Bricktown area offer imports. The same is true at the original TapWerks on Western Avenue, which has 80 taps.
Woolum founded the first just four years ago with 46 beers on tap. Then 15 of the choices were mainstream lagers; two years later TapWerks was up to 73 handles and Bud Light and Coors Light were the only mainstream beers on tap. TapWerks Bricktown opened last year with 112 taps behind both the upstairs and downstairs bars. Boulevard, brewed in Kansas City and the closest thing to a local beer, Anchor and Rogue Ales all have multiple handles, but the best selling beers are imports.
“Nobody else in the state bothers with these beers,” he said, “but we’ve showed the distributors we can sell them.”
Where Beer Still Belongs
Not every beer we drank in July was an American beer, and not every beer was great, but they consistently fit the setting. Lemongrass Rye was perfect with hummus on a muggy afternoon at Free State Brewing in Lawrence, KS. Wine would have gone well with dinner at Markt, but Belgian-style beers served in glassware marked with the names of the breweries were even more appropriate. And the best thing to drink at Nacho Mamas in Baltimore was National Bohemian beer right from a cold bottle (they don’t offer you a glass).
Earlier in the day, we sat at the Wharf Rat Bar in Fells Point and enjoyed the beers made at the nearby Camden Yards Wharf Rat brewpub. The best are traditional British styles, with the ESB also served in the traditional manner, via hand pump. Is it a British ale? Well, yes. Is it an American beer? Yes.
Natty Bo, as locals call National Bohemian, is what traditional American beer turned into by the 1970s⎯a pilsner not much different from almost every other American beer. It was different because it was Baltimore’s beer. National Brewing opened in 1885 and resumed production after Prohibition until it was sold to Carling in 1975, then to Heileman. Natty Bo was still made in Baltimore as recently as 1997.
Where there isn’t a picture of Elvis Presley or a photo from old Baltimore (mostly sports) in Nacho Mamas, there’s a National Bohemian item. These include signs large and small, a gallery of bottle caps on the wall at the front entrance, buckets hanging at the bar and more.
We asked the bartender where the beer is brewed now, and he recited its history. He noted that when Stroh bought Heileman, it closed the Baltimore brewery. “Then Pabst bought Stroh, I think,” he said, remembering that Pabst acquired a Stroh brewery in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. “You’re probably just drinking Pabst,” he said, laughing.
In fact, Pabst brews Natty Bo in Pennsylvania separately but his point was well made. In the 1970s, it seemed like the day would come when you would walk into a bar, order an American beer and be presented a pale, bland lager.
In July, we kept finding reminders of the fortuitous turn we took along the way. When we drank India pale ales at KClinger’s, we tasted a style that American brewers have reinvented. But when we visited New Belgium Brewing, we saw a 21st-century brewery with a soul that’s hundreds of years older.
Founded only in 1991, it has won numerous awards as an innovative business. The brewery donates $1 for every barrel of beer it sells in the state where it is sold, meaning that $145,246 went to local nonprofit groups in 1999. Last year, the brewery signed a contract with the city of Fort Collins to purchase wind power at a premium price for the next 10 years. The agreement financed a new wind turbine in Wyoming. Since it came on line last fall, the power produced by the turbine has reduced the amount of coal burned by more than 980 tons and eliminated more than 4 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
Inside the New Belgium plant, computers monitor production, and brewer Peter Bouckaert is always tweaking the system to make it a bit more efficient. The brewery is literally bulging at the seams, with construction on all sides. In late June, eight new 2,100-hectoliter conditioning tanks were going into place (to come on line in August). They stood juxtaposed with four 60-hectoliter wooden wine barrels that had been delivered the day before.
For three years Bouckaert has been experimenting with a sour beer fermented in wood, along the lines of what you would find in West Flanders. Some of the beer, called LaFoile, was bottled for the first time in March and is for sale only at the brewery. Bouckaert is asked often, including by those who work at New Belgium, how and when production will expand. “We will do something,” he always answers, with a smile that says, “In time, in time.”
Meanwhile, he says, “I think it’s a good illustration of what New Belgium is.”
And why we can celebrate beer in America.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA (St. Martin’s Griffin).