Brewed Too Soon
They Were Ready; Where Were You?
You’ve probably heard of the ‘inventions’ of Leonardo da Vinci. The archetypal Renaissance Man designed a submarine, a tank, a steam cannon, a bridge to span the Bosporus, an airplane, a helicopter, a hang glider and—quite practically—a parachute. Genius indeed, for one man to envision and sketch things that no one had ever dreamed before. Yet none of these designs would come to practical fruition for almost 400 years, waiting advances in metallurgy, textiles, power generation, and power transmission. Leonardo was too soon.
It happens to brewers, too, only in their case it’s usually the culture that’s lacking, not the science. When you look back over the last 50 years of beer in America, you see, time after time, beers that were born too soon. Some held on, surviving until their genius was vindicated. Some went under, leaving only memories and a few bottles on collectors’ shelves. These are the beers that were Brewed Too Soon.
Not every great beer that came before its time was born of a craft brewer’s fevered brain. Every generation forgets that their dried-up, despised parents were once young, and dreamed their own wild ideas. Now we build double IPAs and pack whole leaf hops into re-jiggered water filters to soak hops into the beer as it runs to the glass. But our fathers and our grandfathers built icons: Ballantine IPA and Ballantine Burton Ale, aged months or years in great wooden vats, and they built stills and distilled hops essence to spike them. You can dream really big dreams when you have the resources of a five million-barrel brewery behind you.
“The normal IPA would probably spend a year to two in storage,” I was told by John Brzezinski, the retired head of Ballantine’s Technical Department, the man in charge of formulation. “It was a magnificent product, if that was what you liked. It was stored in tanks 140-150 barrels in size, wooden tanks, lined with mammet [brewer’s pitch]. Before each batch was packaged, it went through taste tests, and Otto Badenhausen [one of the two brothers who owned Ballantine] would be on the panel. Those batches judged to have the best characteristics were set aside for further aging.” That further aging, in vats, not bottles, could be as much as 25 years.
“Once a year,” John continued, “the Ballantine Burton Ale was packaged from those batches. It was not packaged directly, but blended with IPA. IPA had a BU of 45-50, Burton Ale had something like 60-70 from the additional dry-hopping.”
If that sounds amazing, check this out. Ballantine Burton Ale was the ultimate in limited release beers: none of it was for sale. Every case was given away to people the brewery deemed worthy—executives, politicians, movie stars, athletes. Many of them had no idea what to do with a beer like this: President Eisenhower sent his two cases back to the brewery.
If a brewery made that beer today, and sold 1,200 cases for whatever the market would bear, they’d probably find themselves with a lot of money, and maybe a couple first-born children. Back then? A curiosity, a publicity stunt. Imagine: Dark Lord Day, and they’re giving the stuff away.
There were other beers from big breweries and regional breweries that came along in the 1970s and 1980s, right at the beginning of the craft beer revolution, beers that maybe could have made it twenty, ten, or even five years later, but never got a chance. Beers like Prior’s Double Dark, a nice, sweetish dark lager from the Christian Schmidt (earlier known as Adam Scheidt) Brewery of Norristown, PA (Prior’s is rumored to have been the inspiration for Saranac Black Forest Porter from Matt Brewing); or Schlitz’s Erlanger, the big brewery’s shot at a fuller-bodied lager. It was almost as if the craft revolution had given these brewers the courage to re-visit their roots, but it was too soon…and too late.
A Revolutionary Beer
One beer that came out too soon in that time hung around until we caught up with it. Anchor’s Liberty Ale was first brewed on April 18, 1975, the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. That first batch was a novelty. “The first one was not all-malt,” brewery owner Fritz Maytag said, “and it was not really very good. It was a real curiosity.” But he took a trip to England around that time, and visited ale breweries, where he saw that none of the beers were all-malt.
“I suddenly realized that there was an opportunity here that was broader than just the United States,” he said. “Somebody could make a really traditional ale, all-malt, dry-hopped, naturally carbonated.” That’s just what he did with Liberty Ale. “I said Liberty Ale was the only all-malt, dry-hopped, naturally carbonated ale in the world when it was first brewed. No one ever corrected me.”
That’s not the only way Maytag was ahead of the curve. Check out this statement, made in 2000. “Because we were so small and didn’t have grand ambitions of size,” Maytag told me then, “I thought it would be smart to make an ale that was quite extreme in its character right from the beginning. Liberty Ale is a product that time has caught up with.” Dry-hopped, all-malt and an ‘extreme beer,’ in 1975. No wonder it took us a while to catch up. But Anchor Liberty tastes just as sprightly today; a beer that was ahead of its time, but has not been left behind by time, either.
Another beer that held on until it found a market was Coors’s Blue Moon Belgian White. Blue Moon came out in 1995, product of some experimentation by brewmaster Keith Villa at the little Sandlot Brewery, a brewpub-sized outfit Coors had built at Coors Field, in Denver. Villa tested a lot of recipes, and the witbier was popular at the brewpub. Coors decided to take a shot at the growing craft market, and actually took a page from craft brewing: they initially had the beer (and three other Blue Moon ‘flavors’) contract-brewed at F.X. Matt, in Utica, NY, and they were very quiet about their involvement.
Then craft crashed out of its media darling phase in 1996—for a variety of reasons—and Blue Moon was peeled back to just the Belgian White. Sales were lean; we didn’t know what to do with a Belgian white that wasn’t Celis, apparently—another brand that crashed and burned, under circumstances that my libel lawyer advised me not to discuss.
Coors doggedly continued to make the beer despite disappointing sales. It might have been a company-wide policy of stubbornness: they continued to make Zima and Coors Extra Gold, too. But about 2003, sales ticked up, along with the general craft market. Coors didn’t know why, really, and was very cautious about promoting the beer; they just kept making it available, and word of mouth worked very well. It is, after all, a beer that’s different and tasty. Now it’s definitely caught up; sales last year were just shy of one million barrels, and even now, it’s a good bet that most people don’t know where Blue Moon comes from.
The St. Louis version of the story doesn’t have as happy an ending. Anheuser-Busch’s pilot brewery had produced an authentic Bavarian-type hefeweizen for the company’s summer picnic. It’s not hard to believe: A-B employs a substantial proportion of German and German-trained brewers, and they like to drink beer. Then someone got the idea that this beer they liked internally might make it in the hot craft market. The project got the green light and the beer was released in 1995.
Up to this point, it sounds eerily like Blue Moon. But maybe someone at A-B was kin to bluesman Robert Johnson, because the beer wound up named Crossroads. Huh? Crossroads? It was a shame, because the beer was actually quite a nice one. But between the bland, disconnected – soulless? – name and some similarly blah packaging (postcards from the road?), this beer never had a chance. It wasn’t just born too soon, it was taken out behind the brewery and beaten with a shovel. Crossroads didn’t last a year.
Younger beer enthusiasts like to think that the beers of today are wildly innovative, breaking new ground. Actually, double IPA has been around for a while, and so have barrel-aged beers. Double IPA could be said to have originated with Blind Pig, a beer first made by Vinnie Cilurzo back in 1996. I remember drinking it at the GABF that year; it was a shock, a whackingly bitter eye-opener. Drinkers in Temecula, CA, caught on right away, but it would be a few years before other beers that bold began popping up, and even longer before ‘imperial IPA’ became the hot beer of geekdom. Best of all, Blind Pig is still around and still whackingly bitter, now brewed at Cilurzo’s Russian River brewery; I just enjoyed one last night.
Another beer I first tried at that 1996 GABF was Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. It was ahead of the curve then, a real buzz beer at the fest… but it was already four years old.
“We first made it in 1992,” said Goose Island brewer Greg Hall. “It was only at the brewpub for 13 years. It was a pain in the ass to make, and an expensive beer to make: a lot of malt, the barrels and the aging. We didn’t have the sales network that we felt confident could sell it for the higher price it needed.”
Eventually, the beer market caught up. “The market changed,” said Hall, “a lot of people started buying big beers. And the sales force started trusting the brewers more!” Bourbon County Stout sold, and bourbon barrel beers started a wave of innovation that’s still rolling.
Hall doesn’t think we’ll ever stop seeing these kinds of pre-market condition beers. “It’s all about new,” he says. “I’m at the brewpub a couple times a week, and I’ll see some people I’ve been seeing for 20 years. It’s not ‘How are you, how’s the kids,’ it’s ‘What’s new?’ The craft beer drinker isn’t brand -loyal or even style-loyal. They’re collectors, like birders, or trainspotting, and the rarer the beer, that’s the bigger prize if you have it on your list.”
That’s what Hall likes about beer. “We’re doing stuff with beer that no other drink is doing,” he said, excitement in his voice. “What’s wine done lately? Twenty years ago, 50 years ago? Wine looked pretty much the same. It’s not crazy different; same thing with spirits. Beer is where the ‘new’ is at. We’ve done hoppy, we’ve done malty, we’ve done barrels, we’ve done sour: what’s next? And every time we innovate into this new style, we bring new people in.”
There’s just one more “before its time” beer I want to talk about, maybe the most extreme example of them all. A beer that’s been around longer than any other in America, that made it through Prohibition, competition, and everything but acquisition—because it’s still 100 percent family-owned—of course, I’m talking about Yuengling. Founded in 1829, and never anything but a standard regional brewery, they almost went out of business in the 1970s. Now? Yuengling sells from New York to Florida, almost two million barrels. If you can wait long enough, eventually people catch up with you.
Lew Bryson has been writing full-time about beer and spirits since 1995. His fourth brewery guidebook is New Jersey Breweries, published by Stackpole Books.