Going Against the Grain: Audacious American Beers
Only in Castro’s Cuba has a state of permanent revolution lasted longer than it has in the minds of beer writers.
We remember the bad old days—before the revolution—when beer variety was non-existent, when bars and stores offered us the choice between Mainstream Lager A and Mainstream Lager B (and C and D, in more adventurous places).
Then came the thrill of discovery as the beer selection opened up, thanks to enterprising brewers and unconventional importers. Beer didn’t have to mean standard lager; there were rich European brewing traditions that offered us scores of alternative flavors.
Nor did beer have to be produced by huge, factory-like installations. It could be made by scrappy entrepreneurs, brewing on their own with cobbled-together equipment, distributing by pick-up truck and promoting their brews one convert at a time.
It was, indeed, a revolution: an upheaval that overturned the conventional way of thinking in the beer world. And beer writers loved the imagery of rebellion and revolt.
But (Fidel aside) revolutions come to an end. A new view of reality replaces the old. What we think of as “the American Beer Revolution” probably concluded in the nineties.
For beer aficionados, the new reality means sixty or seventy distinct styles of beer in American markets. But outside specialist circles, the new reality actually means that instead of ten mainstream lagers on the shelves, it’s probably nine mainstream lagers and one pale ale.
Despite playing a minor role, pale ales, amber ales and specialty lagers are now members of the beer industry establishment. For a small but significant group of beer drinkers, these are the beers they reach for when they “feel like a beer.”
These beers don’t raise eyebrows at the corner bar, they have a place in the convenience store cooler, and their drinkers aren’t making political statements. The beers are delicious and commercially successful.
Why brew anything else?
Brewing to Reach a New Consumer
Of course, nearly all the new specialty breweries make several beer styles, because demand exists for a variety of flavors. But when a flagship beer can cover the rent, it’s worth asking how breweries decide to take less commercial decisions, and why.
Even the most innovative breweries generally support their medal-winning, more esoteric beers with easy-to-drink brews that sell in higher volumes. New Belgium garners awards with elegant, tart La Folie, but Fat Tire pays the bills. Beer geeks treasure New Glarus’ Wisconsin Belgian Red, the extraordinary cherry-infused beer, but Spotted Cow Ale is the brewery’s biggest-selling brand.
One American brewery made the daring decision to launch challenging beers without the economic “safety net” of a more conventional product. By that criterion, New York’s Brewery Ommegang qualifies as the gutsiest brewing business in the country.
After years of importing fine Belgian beers into the United States, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield opened a Belgian-style brewery of their own in Cooperstown in 1997. Their introductory beer was Ommegang, a Belgian-style abbey ale. At 8.5% alcohol by volume, in a cork-finished bottle with sophisticated graphics on the label, it was like no other American beer.
“It was a conscious decision,” says Feinberg. “We looked hard at our break-even point and the sales effort, and decided we didn’t have to come out with a daily or weekly turnover product.”
Once they made that commitment, Ommegang would succeed only if it could win over consumers already familiar with top Belgian beers, or if the brand could attract a completely new audience, possibly the craft beer drinker not yet ready to make the move to the Belgian imports in one step. In Ommegang’s marketing, they emphasized the connection between beer and food.
“Opportunity isn’t having an idea no one has ever had before,” continues Feinberg. “It’s having an idea lots of people have had, but that you can make work. Beer and food had been talked about for a long time, but our competition could only talk about it: they were geared for volume. I knew we could make our reputation and make our numbers with that association with food.”
“We were dedicated to being as serious about beer as the Belgians. The look was about quality; the packaging was about quality; the beer was about quality. We had to be consistent from top to bottom. Pushing the food and beer message was about pursuing quality. We decided a volume product would detract from that message.”
In 2003, Feinberg and Littlefield sold their share of Ommegang to the majority partner, Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat, home of famed Duvel golden ale.
The couple still imports outstanding beers, but their biggest contribution to the American beer scene has probably been to carve out a new market that is uncompromisingly focused on high-end beer and food.
This spring, Brewery Ommegang released its five-millionth bottle of beer, a jeroboam of Three Philosophers, a blend of a quadruple ale from Ommegang with a small amount of cherry-infused lambic ale from Belgium.
Has Ommegang become the flagship beer that makes projects like Three Philosophers possible? Now, that would be radical.
Maine’s Allagash Brewing Co., founded two years before Ommegang, and Quebec’s Unibroue have also taken Belgian roots and transplanted them to North American soil. In both cases, these breweries made their initial forays into the marketplace with white beers—Allagash Wit and Blanche de Chambly: more approachable than Ommegang perhaps, though hardly training-wheel beers. And both breweries have since developed eye-popping, original beers, such as the complex and powerful Allagash Four (brewed with four of everything: malts, hops, sugars, and yeast strains) or Unibroue’s rich, fruit-filled Terrible.
All three breweries rest their reputations on the natural connection between fine food and fine beer, a connection that is beginning to sound commonplace, but which represents new territory in beer appreciation, and new reasons to brew.
Brewing Because It’s There
The mavericks of American brewing have inspired the term “extreme beer.” Like the extreme sports movement, extreme beer suggests stretching boundaries just for the sake of it, conquering the next peak of alcohol strength or hops bitterness “because it’s there.”
The phrase may be new, but the impulse to test limits isn’t. It’s hard to recall now, but Anchor’s Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine were the extreme brews of their day, with formidable alcoholic strength and, especially in the case of Bigfoot, hop bitterness that was startling.
Today, extreme beer may encompass any brewing that is out of the ordinary. But, for many, it is most closely associated with beers such as the double or Imperial India pale ale, a new beer style that had to be defined to impose some coherence on the most out-there of American beers.
Not everyone is an enthusiast. Rich Doyle, president of Harpoon Brewing Co., is skeptical: “If the purpose is high alcohol or high IBUs, I have to ask, is that crafting a beer or is that just turning up the volume? To use the music analogy, just because you’re louder, it doesn’t mean you’re better.”
Certainly, like extreme sportsmen whose thrills rely in part on the risk—or the reality—of calamity, extreme beers often careen off the track into disaster. Giddy levels of bitterness or alcohol may give a brewery bragging rights, but at the cost of balance and drinkability. But a number of breweries stand out for producing challenging brews that hit high numbers and taste great.
Everything about Stone Brewing Co., from its menacing gargoyle artwork to its user-unfriendly beer names (Arrogant Bastard, Ruination IPA), throws down the gauntlet to the beer drinker. With slogans like “You’re Not Worthy,” owner Greg Koch and his company make it clear that they’ll brew whatever they like.
Stone does brew a pale ale—the rent-paying flagship, again—but their reputation among beer lovers relies on expressions of excess: beers that are over-the-top, in-your-face, testosterone-driven and just plain fun.
Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado emphasized their Imperial IPA’s regal connections by naming it The Maharaja. Other styles—strong in alcohol and Belgian-inflected—are aged in wooden casks chosen for the flavors imparted by the wines they once contained.
Brewing for Attention
Just as craft brews command a disproportionate amount of the media coverage of beer when compared with mainstream brands, the more eccentric (and less commercial) among craft brews command a disproportionate amount of attention relative to the workhorse pale ales—another reason to brew outside the box.
Reconstruct a beer based on the remains of King Midas’ funerary feast, as Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewing Co. did with Midas Touch Golden Elixir, and People magazine pays attention.
Brew the world’s strongest beer, price it at $100, name it “Utopias,” and you have maximum bang-for-the-bottle. Boston Beer produced only a limited quantity, and secured their exclusive beer a place on the life list of every beer lover.
Honeyed, vinous Midas Touch and the cognac-like Utopias were both complex, delicious beers, well worth seeking out. But they didn’t actually have to taste good in order to generate media buzz in the mainstream and the specialty beer press. Here, they had more in common with Big Beer than many beer aficionados would like to admit: this is about the sizzle, not the steak. It just happens that the steak is prime.
Weird beer doesn’t have to be viable. It just has to attract some attention to itself, which reflects on the brewery. Pumpkin ales started as seasonal gimmicks, not serious beers. The hemp-infused beers of the nineties, stouts dosed with real coffee, today’s beers laced with ginseng and guarana: they may all ultimately serve to draw the consumer’s focus back to the main brand.
Brewing for Morale
In a massive brewery with a successful brand, quality control is the name of the game. Once the recipe is perfected, the secret is to produce the same flavors consistently, time after time. The marketing department invents fresh ways to sell the brand to the consumer, but the beer itself shouldn’t change.
The trouble is, the hard work of brewing can become as routine as any other sort of repetitive work. So, the higher a professional brewer rises in a large brewing company, the more likely he or she is to be found in the pilot brewery, creating new recipes, troubleshooting or, well, playing around.
In size, Boston Beer has left the ranks of the micros. Not only is it the top-producing specialty brewer in the U.S., the most recent figures rank it as the sixth largest U.S. brewing company, period (R. S. Weinberg). Much of the company’s brewing capacity is taken up with producing nearly 1.7 million cases of Samuel Adams Boston Lager annually.
But at the Boston headquarters, the small pilot brewery is the center of brewing innovation and excitement. The challenge of creating Triple Bock or Utopias, or an American schwarzbier is less about growing market share than it is about keeping brewing professionals sharp.
True believers among beer enthusiasts will go to great lengths to locate a rare beer: the more transient it is, the greater its appeal. But any brewery that produces seasonal beers or one-off “brewer’s choice” selections is taking active steps to keep creativity alive in the brew house.
At Harpoon Brewery in Boston, the 100 -Barrel Series passes the honor of creating a single batch of beer from one brewer to the next. The ten beers to date have ranged from a classic alt to a Belgian abbey style to a smoked porter.
Owner Rich Doyle explains the appeal: “As we get larger, we don’t want to lose our creativity, that ‘one-off-ness’ that comes with brewing the way we might have done 18 years ago. It’s a tremendous opportunity, not only for the brewers, but for the people in the lab, for the whole staff.”
It’s good for morale. It’s great to do the research, to have a sense of mystery. We don’t any mystery about our regular beer, but that’s the fun in the 100-Barrel Series. After all we’re in it for the fun: it stretches us, stretches our abilities, it give us a reason to talk about it.”
Brewing as Art
“The brewer’s art” is always shaped by economic reality—only an independently wealthy homebrewer could make beer without an eye on its cost and potential market. Brewpubs have more room to experiment than bottling microbreweries that must content with larger quantities, labeling and the like, but any commercial brewer, no matter how subversive, must win over a number of paying customers.
But it is surprising, the experimental beers that drinkers are glad to support. Nowhere is this clearer than in California, where a community of brewers has pushed artistic brewing to the edge, and their public has followed eagerly.
After a gap of a couple of years, Vinnie Cilurzo has reopened Russian River Brewing Co. in a new location, where he has resumed the bold brewing style that netted him a neck-load of GABF medals and the coveted Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewmaster of the Year awards.
One priority is his barrel-aging program. “The brewpub has an eight-by-six window,” says Cilurzo, “and the first thing people see when they come in is wine barrels stacked four high.” The barrels contain a range of styles that take on added character from time in the wood; these beers, together with Russian River’s Belgian line-up, comprise forty percent of the brewpub’s sales.
Cilurzo, inoculates some beers with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus or Pediococcus usually found only in Belgian lambic breweries. One beer, Sanctification (Russian River beers names tend toward the heavenly or hellish) is fermented entirely with Brettanomyces yeast, a trait it shares with a Mo Betta Bretta, a beer brewed in a collaboration between Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port and Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium.
Cilurzo has explored the triple IPA and found it had an enthusiastic following: “It was just for fun. It is actually softer and smoother than the double. At Toronado [in San Francisco], they went through four barrels in two and a half weeks of 11 percent, triple-hopped beer.”
He credits Sierra Nevada with another beer-as-art trend: harvest ales brewed with “wet hops” just off the vine.
“The hops are unkilned: it’s like the difference between cooking with fresh basic and dried basil. You have to use a lot more of the fresh hops, but it changes the profile of a hoppy beer to more minty or lemony. This style’s been under the radar, but a number of breweries are doing it every year, when hops are picked. It’s like beer’s Beaujolais Nouveau: draft only, limited quantity, and only a short life.”
One beer lover summarized the impuse to brew beers that might not fit into the business plan by asking “You mean, what’s to the left of Sierra Nevada?”
More accurately, the mainstream lagers satisfy the thirst of ninety percent of beer drinkers. Once Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager or New Belgium Fat Tire has become the beer of choice for drinkers who want more flavor, how much room is left for beers that are gourmet, exotic, challenging or style-busting? The answer, it seems, is there’s a lot more room than we think.
Julie Johnson Bradford
Julie Johnson Bradford is the editor of All About Beer magazine.