The Living History of Beer
Prior to the spring of 2001, my experience with beer was limited to days long gone: downing entirely too many plastic cups of whatever was on tap during “dime beer” hour in the mid-1970s at the Vine in downtown Iowa City (the original Vine, not that ersatz joint in business today).
But in April 2001, I began writing a history of beer in America, from the industry’s early years in the 1840s to microbrewing in the 1980s. I prowled through newspapers and old trade journals, cobbling together fragments of fact, trying to create an accurate account of American brewing’s pre-Prohibition history.
The personalities of the long-dead emerged from those old pages: multi-lingual, flamboyant Adolphus Busch; Frederick Pabst, uneducated but brilliant, cautious but fiercely ambitious; dashing Jake Ruppert’s penchant for polo and porcelain; George Ehret, who, at the time of his death, owned large chunks of Manhattan—men of drive and spirit, most of them immigrants, who created one of the nation’s largest industries and invented a new kind of beer.
Then, in the spring of 2005, I left the dead behind and turned to the living, interviewing beermakers—home brewers, microbrewers, and owners of the “heritage” breweries—about their life and work in beer.
Beer folk, I discovered, were smart, funny, and fully engaged with the world around them. More to the point, each had been touched in some profound way by beer itself. Beer was less a job than it was a destiny.
Fritz Maytag described his years of struggle: to learn how to brew and to make the brewery pay, challenges that nearly broke him emotionally and physically. Jack McAuliffe recalled the Herculean challenge of building the nation’s first microbrewery. Ken Grossman’s voice still resonated with the awe he experienced when, as a ten-year-old, he assisted a homebrewing neighbor and discovered the “magic” of beer.
Beer: A Living Presence
These tales transformed my own work. Suddenly beer became a living presence in the book I was writing in a way it had not been when I was mucking about in the archives dealing with dead people. More important, my own curiosity was aroused. What was it about beer, I wondered, that engendered such passion and energy?
I visited my local stand-alone liquor store. My own overwhelming experience: the owner stocked six hundred kinds of beer. Focusing on names I recognized, I loaded my cart with a selection and took them home.
And began tasting. For the first time tasting and experiencing the way the beer felt on my tongue. I experimented at the dinner table, pouring beer instead of wine, pairing lager and ales with all manner of food.
More revelation: Beer was every bit as complex as wine and certainly more varied. A stout bore no resemblance to a porter, and both existed in a different universe from a pale ale, which was in turn only a distant cousin to an all-malt lager. And so I, too, was seduced by the joy and wonder of beer.
People often ask me what I think brewing will look like in ten or twenty years. I’m not sure, but this much I know: at the heart of this industry are passionate, lively people who are creating some of the finest and most interesting beers ever made. They gravitate toward brewing because beer itself is an exciting creature capable of infinite complexity and nuance.
So I’m not certain where the industry will be in another decade, but I’m optimistic: beer will continue to attract the brightest and the best, and those people will continue to infuse the industry with creativity and passion.
So maybe I do have a prediction: We ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! American beer’s best days are yet to come.
Maureen Ogle is a historian and writer who lives in Ames, IA. At present, her refrigerator contains Anchor, Saranac, Budweiser, Leinenkugel, Boulevard, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, and Sam Adams.