The Beer Heard ‘Round the World
Our nation had existed only 200 years, but 1976 was a banner year for American brewing. That’s the year the craft-brewing revolution began. Or was it?
OK, maybe it was 1965, when young Fritz Maytag took over Anchor Brewing (24th-ranked in the U.S.), America’s smallest then-failing brewery. He built his flagship brand—San Francisco Steam Beer—into what has become a world-class beer. Maytag is clearly the father of the Craft Beer movement within the U.S.
Or was it 1967? That’s when serious degradation of American beer really began with the introduction of low calorie, so-called “Light/Lite” beer. American beer became completely bastardized, with water as the super ingredient, to the detriment of malt and hops. Dark beer and ale beer began to disappear from market shelves.
Or was it 1970? The CAMRA (CAMpaign for Real Ale) began in England in 1970, as British beer lovers were alerted to the fact that their large brewers—the “Big Six”—were copying their American counterparts: buying small breweries and doing away with many long-time favorite British beers. The beloved British “cask-conditioned” real ales were gradually being phased out. This was the beginning of what became parallel brewing revolutions in the U.S., Canada and Britain—and it had a big effect on beer drinkers in those countries. CAMRA spurred a young Michael Jackson to begin writing about the wonders of world beer, culminating in his book A World Guide to Beer. That volume spurred wide interest across the U.S., Canada and Britain about the spectacular gift of our ancestors—the world’s great beer styles.
Or maybe it began in 1972? That’s the year when, in Innerleithen, Scotland, a tiny brewery (Traquair House) re-opened after decades of inactivity. It offered a very small quantity of hand-made traditional beer to the local populace. Traquair House brewed only six British barrels per month (just 259 U.S. gallons).
Craft Brewing’s Banner Year
But I think it all really got started in 1976, when Jack McAuliffe, a U.S. Navy man stationed in nearby Edinburgh, carried the idea back home. He built, by hand, his own small “micro-brewery.”
In August of that year he began brewing his New Albion Ale in 50-gallon batches. Sales began the next year, in Sonoma, CA. Although his small brewery achieved a modest success, his six-barrel-a-month (186-gallons) production proved inadequate and, in 1983, the tiny brewery finally closed. But McAuliffe’s real contribution was to inspire others to believe that small breweries could prove successful (even if his didn’t), and his efforts encouraged many others. He is certainly the creator of the modern micro-brewery, inspiring a multitude of homebrewers to take to the craft and fulfill their dreams.
I remember that era well—it’s when I became interested in producing alcohol. Years earlier, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had intruded into my consciousness, and I often wondered how one might earn a living in a civilization that had been destroyed by atomic weapons. I knew from my experiences on Okinawa during WWII, that the people who could make alcohol were beloved by all and sundry. (Of course, if that were completely true, I’d probably have become a world-class ruler by now.)
I started by studying winemaking, but when I found Maytag’s San Francisco Steam beer, I knew it had to be beer. Never mind that my stepfather’s homebrew was a menace to society, not to mention the sobriety of his stepson and that personage’s college friends (3.5 lbs. hop-flavored malt extract syrup, 10 lbs. corn sugar, 10 gal. water and Fleishmann’s yeast—Ugh!). I discovered a different recipe for my beer and never looked back.
A Case of Jaundice
By 1975, we all knew that American beer was in trouble because it was getting thinner and more yellow. By 1977 I was belaboring these breweries about their miserable, tasteless beers, at a time when the world produced so many wonderful brews. That was the year Michael Jackson’s World Guide came out, for which I was grateful. (I couldn’t afford travel to Europe and all of those other places, just to try their beers. Anyway, I was having too much fun making them at home.)
A local delicatessen asked me to write a column about beer for a customer newsletter to be published monthly. There wasn’t much to write about the good taste of beer at that time. The lead-off paragraph of my first piece said it all.
“Do you find yourself drinking more beer these days, and enjoying it less? An increasing number of Americans are finding themselves in this dilemma. American beer has become lighter and lighter, until finally one is forced to concede that it is indeed ‘water.’”
I concluded that, for the most part, there was no diversity of choice in American beers, even though there were labels aplenty. My conclusion: “If you taste one American beer, you’ve pretty much tasted them all.” At that time I had tasting notes for some 120 beers from the U.S. and other countries; I actually knew what I was talking about!
Natural Equine Filtration
I had great fun quoting Chicago columnist Mike Royko (since deceased) in what was surely one of his best literary efforts of that era. He wrote that American beer tasted as though it had been “filtered through a horse.” When some of those brewers complained, he apologized—to the horse.
It’s embarrassing now, when I see my praises for Rainier Ale, but what else could I do? The “green death” was clearly the best American beer, or at least the only one with taste. Rainier was better then than it is now. It was what was called a “bastard” ale; brewed from lager yeast, with ferment “warm” at 70 degrees F, aging 30 days at 32 degrees F.
I babbled on at some length about American beer made from the Reinheitsgebot ingredients PLUS such “cereals as corn, rice, oats, rye, unmalted barley, sorghum, and soy beans, any of which might be used in the form of flour, coarse ground grain, steam rolled and pressed grains, (or) chemically leached cereals such as grits. To these may be added any of the 59 other chemicals and ingredients approved by the FDA. ” The product was called “’malt beverage’ and has been known to appear in such flavors as raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime…(and) fermented and aged for as little as two weeks…and (thoroughly filtered to) remove most of the…’good’ taste of beer your grandfather may remember.” I concluded: “One of our beverages is missing–beer!” Dark beer was dying and along with it, good American ales.
Beware the Yellow Horde
Today, we have (in addition to light/lite beer) yellow Dry Beer (from the Japanese), which was followed by yellow Light Dry Beer. We also got yellow Ice Beer (from the Canadians), Light Ice Beer, dark yellow Red Beer and color-free beer. Did I mention Michelob Ultra yellow lo-carb beer. Will it never end?
Not for a while anyway, because the yellow-beer mob is invading all of the great brewing nations of the world, and a few new ones (such as China). As we speak, the yellow horde is introducing its tasteless, colorless, adjunct-laced, senseless, useless, boring malt beverages to the youth of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The poor things.
And what of the Chinese? It may well be 2050 before they are able to taste most of the nearly ninety beer styles we have access to these days. But by then, the world’s great beer styles will only be made here in the U.S.—assuming we don’t try to invade China for their beer.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, OR, where he looks forward to Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival December 1-4, 2005. It’s worth a trip to Oregon for that reason alone.