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.