The Fire Never Died

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 25, Issue 2
May 1, 2004 By

So many trends—from Starbucks coffee to grunge music to gourmet pizza with capers and duck sausage—started on the West Coast that it’s enough to give some East Coast residents an inferiority complex.

Certainly, the West Coast has been ahead of the curve in craft brewing. Anchor’s Fritz Maytag rescued steam beer, that indigenous American specialty, from oblivion. Jack McAuliffe was a modern-day Moses, pointing others to the promised land but never entering it himself. (His New Albion Brewing Co., the first microbrewery, closed in 1982.) Sierra Nevada’s Paul Camusi and Ken Grossman proved that a small specialty brewery could turn out excellent beer consistently and be a financial success.

And yet it would be presumptuous to say that the West Coast revived the tradition of craft brewing in the U.S.

We on the East Coast never lost it.

Those ’70s Beers

Let’s time-travel back to the mid-1970s. America is largely a beer wasteland, with Miller Lite cresting on the success of its “Tastes great, less filling” tagline, and Coors—a clean-tasting but otherwise undistinguished Rocky Mountains brand—acquiring an almost cult status.

But there were oases for the serious beer drinker. I found one in Williams’ Café, a long-defunct watering hole in St. Clair, PA, just outside of Pottsville. The bar served two beers from the nearby Yuengling Brewery, Lord Chesterfield Ale and Yuengling Porter. You could get them separately or blended together as a half-and-half. The heady combination of the citrusy American hops and roasted malts was a wake-up call. Beer did not have to be a homogenized commodity like pork bellies and tomato paste.

Yuengling still makes the ale and porter. They’re hybrids, fermented with a lager yeast but at higher temperatures to bring out the fruity, ale-like characteristics. Yuengling has added an amber beer (Traditional Lager) to its product line as well as a pre-blended Black-and-Tan that utilizes Yuengling Premium rather ale.

The Institute for Brewing Studies does not officially recognize Yuengling as a “craft brewery” because it uses corn grits in its beer. And yet, Yuengling’s executive vice president David Casinelli reflects, “In many ways we are a craft brewery. The way our company is run is closer to small businesses than to the large national brewers. Until recently, we had guys racking kegs with rubber mallets.” Yuengling pumped out over 1.3 million barrels in 2003—it’s now the fifth largest brewery in the country—but still relies largely on word-of-mouth to sell beer.

In northeast Pennsylvania, the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre marketed its own Stegmaier Porter, sweeter than Yuengling’s, with a curious licorice-like taste. (It’s still available, reformulated as a true top-fermented ale.) The Naragansett Brewery in Cranston, RI also made a porter. In fact, the Northeast United States was one of a very few areas on the planet where you could order a glass of porter long after the style had disappeared in its native England.

C. Schmidt & Sons of Philadelphia, a sizable regional with a branch plant in Cleveland, made a Munich-style Dunkel called Prior Double Dark. In his 1978 The Great American Beer Book, a systematic ratings guide to over 550 beers then available in the U.S., James Robertson wrote, “Had there been no other ‘finds’ in all the beers sampled…, discovering Prior Double Dark would have been worth the effort.”

Schmidt’s closed in 1986, and the brewery site is now a vacant lot awaiting development. F.X. Matt, a family-owned brewery in Utica, NY, acquired the brand and recipe. “We made a draft-only version almost exclusively for McSorley’s Ale House in New York,” said company vice president Fred Matt. “We sold 400 kegs a month like clockwork.” Eventually, Heileman/Stroh underbid F.X. Matt on the account, and the production of Prior ceased. However, the brewery today makes a similar brew called Saranac Black Forest, which Matt feels has even more character.

“We used to do a whole specialty line for Utica Club; the Saranac thing is a return to our roots,” he added. During the 1970s, the brewery marketed a top-fermented cream ale and a malt liquor called Maximus Super, which, at 7.5% ABV, was the strongest lager beer then available in the U.S. “We went after a lot of the college markets; it did well for a while, then tailed off,” Matt recalled. “The nationals saw an opportunity and made a fortune going ethnic. We didn’t go that route.”

One of the East’s more obscure operations was Horlacher Brewing Co. in Allentown, PA. During the 1920s this little brewery allegedly produced bootleg beer for gangster Dutch Schultz. After Repeal, the company survived by doing private labels—scores, even hundreds of them—for supermarket chains, drug stores and liquor stores. Horlacher, however, produced a top-of-the-line, bock-style beer called Perfection, which was dry-hopped, fermented to an alcohol content of over 6% ABV and aged a remarkable (for that era) nine months.

Back in 1978, I stumbled across a musty case of the Perfection on the floor a Pennsylvania distributor. The brewery by that time was in its death throes, and the recipe had probably been compromised. But I still regret passing over the Perfection in favor of some commemorative Bicentennial cans holding ordinary beer.

Won’t You Be My Ballantine?

However, if I could bring one brewery back from extinction, Frankenstein-like, my choice would be the original Ballantine brewery in Newark, NJ. Ballantine was one of a very few American breweries that didn’t develop a phobia against hops in the post-World War II era. “At our peak we held 80-85% of the ale market in the country,” remembered John Brzezinski, former technical director for Ballantine. Besides its regular ale, Ballantine brewed a superlative India pale ale measuring 7.5% ABV and 45-60 IBUs. Ballantine IPA was dry-hopped with whole-flower hops; aged in mammet-lined oak casks an entire year; and dosed with distilled hop oil just before filtration and carbonation. At breweriana shows, I’ve uncapped bottles that were at least 25-30 years old, and found the sprucey/resiny hop bouquet to be hardly diminished with time.

“They were probably the most fastidious bastards in the business,” remarked Lee Holland, an industry veteran who’s worked for suppliers like Froedtert Malt and served as executive director for the Brewers Association of America. “They selected the top grade of everything, even more than Anheuser-Busch.”

Ballantine closed in 1972 and the brands passed first to Falstaff Brewing Co., then to S&P Co. (parent corporation of Pabst). Production was shifted first to Cranston, RI, then to Fort Wayne, IN, and finally to Milwaukee. Ballantine IPA lost a little bit of its character with each move, but remained a very respectable brew until the company discontinued the brand in 1996. Now, with Pabst reported to be on the sale block, maybe we can entertain a faint hope that someone will buy the label and try to resuscitate this classic beer.

Ballantine made an even headier brew, the legendary Burton Ale, from select batches of IPA. At around 70 IBUs, the Burton might be considered the great-uncle of today’s imperial IPA style, with one notable difference. Most modern imperial IPAs are meant to be drunk young, to experience the full brunt of the hops. Ballantine Burton Ale, however, was aged for up to 20 years in wood. Every year around Christmas, the brewery would blend well-aged beer with younger vintages and package 800-1,200 cases for friends of the brewery and VIPs. (“I can tell you that Dwight Eisenhower was sent two cases and he returned them,” noted Brzezinski.)

At some time in the early 1970s, Fritz Maytag obtained a bottle of the Burton Ale that had been brewed in the 1940s and packaged for the Fish, Fur and Feather Club, a sportsmen’s club in Chicago. In an interview ten years ago, Maytag called the Burton Ale “the best beer I had ever had up to that point.” It inspired him to research British brewing techniques and release his own dry-hopped ale in April 1975 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. Later that year, a second batch became the first edition of Anchor’s holiday seasonal, Our Special Ale. Eventually, the recipe entered the regular product line as Liberty Ale.

Liberty Ale, with its American hop character, was not a clone of Ballantine but the progenitor of an entirely new style of pale ale. However, I find it interesting that the ember of a dying East Coast brewery helped ignite a mighty conflagration out West.

Playing Catch-Up Ball

Of course, with regard to microbreweries, the West Coast did get the drop on us. New Albion began selling beer in 1977. The first brick-and-mortar micro in the East, the William S. Newman Brewing Co. in Albany, NY, didn’t open until 1981.

Most of the early East Coast pioneers broke into the business through contract-brewing: renting other people’s breweries to make their beer. Names that spring to mind include Jim Koch of Boston Beer Co.; Tom Potter and Steve Hindy of the Brooklyn Brewery; Tom Pastorius of Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh; and Gary Heurich of the Olde Heurich Brewing Co. in Washington, DC. Most of them would eventually open (or purchase) their own facilities. But they produced (and still produce) a lot of excellent beer at other’s people’s plants, and have helped to keep some fine, old regional breweries out of bankruptcy court.

Not long ago contract-brewing was almost a cuss word in some circles. There seemed to be a fear that by eliminating overhead, these contract brewers were going to flood the market with cheap beer and put the “real” microbrewers out of business. Critics also brought up quality-control issues. There was an attitude that anything produced at Pittsburgh Brewing Co. must of necessity taste like Iron City.

I’d like to think that we’ve put this issue behind us. But just for the record: contract brewing was not an option for the earliest West Coast brewers. West of the Rockies, regional breweries had ceased to exist or been absorbed by the large national companies. Eventually, Blitz-Weinhardt in Portland, OR and Seattle’s Rainier Brewery would be put to work brewing other people’s brands. But in the late 1970s/early 1980’s, these plants were humming along at full capacity, producing a plethora of local brands and Heileman staples like Mickey’s Malt Liquor. There was little profit in turning out dribs and drabs for some upstart brewery that might go out of business the next day.

Many of the early East Coast craft brewers specialized in lagers, which didn’t endear them to some ale-quaffing purists. But there is no reason to sneer at a clean, well-integrated lager. Despite its ubiquity, Samuel Adams Boston Lager is still a stand-out, with its delicate Hallertauer-hop spiciness. And the Mid-Atlantic region alone may have more first-class pilsners than any comparable area in Germany.

East Coast brewers paid their dues, just like their West Coast counterparts. Boston Beer’s Jim Koch started out making deliveries in the “Beermobile,” a Plymouth Reliant that held 20 cases. Carol Stoudt broke into the world of off-premise sales hand-filling champagne magnums with a circa 1900 bottler that belonged in an antique shop. Sam Calagione, when he opened his Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, DE in 1995, brewed twice a day, six days a week, using a half-barrel system that was probably America’s smallest—and most labor-intensive—brewhouse. Sheer boredom drove him to experiment with wacky ingredients and combinations.

There was a high mortality rate among the earliest start-ups. Bill Newman’s business plan called for him to brew draft-only ale at his Albany brewery; the realities of the marketplace made him add a contract-brewed amber lager, then forced him out of business in 1987.

East Coast craft brewing seemed to reach a critical mass in the mid-1990s. For a while, every day brought news of a planned start-up. Many never got past the prospectus stage. A few found investors with deep pockets and overbuilt, assuming that double-digit growth would go on forever. Some paid a price, like Catamount Brewing Co. in Vermont, which wound up a subsidiary of the Harpoon Brewery in Massachusetts.

Other breweries, however, grew carefully and organically, making assertive products and finding an appreciative customer base. Some looked to the West for inspiration. More than one brewery tried to do an East Coast version of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. But today they’re blazing trails on their own.

Nobody taught Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione how to brew Pangea (a beer with an ingredient from every continent… including glacial water from Antarctica). His Midas Touch, brewed with Muscat grapes, saffron and thyme honey, harks back not to a West Coast brew but to a 2,700-year-old funereal beverage of the legendary King Midas, reconstructed through laboratory analysis of pottery shards. And while West Coast brewers can claim a certain primacy with regard to the imperial IPA style, Sam added a new twist with his 60 Minute IPA, which receives a steady infusion of hops throughout its hour-long boil. To save on labor costs, Calagione and his brew crew rigged up a pneumatic device—dubbed “Sir Hopsalot”—which dumps a tray of hops into the brewkettle every 15 seconds.

Dogfish Head subsequently upped the ante by releasing a 90 Minute and even a 120 Minute IPA. The latter exceeds the parameters for the imperial IPA style, measuring 20% ABV and 120 IBUs. I’m not sure what you’d call this beer. Maybe an IPB…India pale barleywine?

Do you like strong beers? The 2003 edition of Samuel Adams Utopias, at 25% ABV, is the world record holder. Jim Koch may have sought a wider market with an alcoholic iced tea and a light beer, but he’s still a beer geek at heart.

Belgians? We were ahead of the curve here. Unibroue in Chambly, Quebec was among the first—if not the first—to produce a witbier on the North American continent. In bucolic Cooperstown, NY, Brewery Ommegang, a cooperative venture founded by the Moortgat Brewery in Belgium and American importers Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, has been a tireless promoter of Belgian beer, cuisine and culture.

Stouts? The Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout (which doesn’t contain any actual chocolate, just a heap of specialty malts) is “the ultimate dessert beer,” writes brewmaster Garrett Oliver in his book The Brewmaster’s Table.

The South Will Rise Again

Up to this point, I’ve limited the discussion to breweries north of the Mason-Dixon line. Hamstrung by blue laws, alcohol caps and swaths of dry territory, the Southeast was for years a beer lover’s desert. “Quality is synonymous with temperature: the colder the better,” observed Stephen Morris in his 1984 book, The Great Beer Trek.

This dismal state of affairs is no longer the case. Characteristic of the New South is the Olde Hickory Brewing Co. of Hickory, NC, in the foothills of that state’s Piedmont area. The best-seller at this nine-year-old brewery/restaurant is the 51-IBU Table Rock Pale Ale, claims co-owner Jason Yates. (By comparison, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale measures about 35 IBUs.) The brewery turns out a variety of specialty dark beers, most recently a rolled oat porter incorporating grains from a defunct bakery. (“The owner said the Atkins diet had put him out of business.”)

Olde Hickory’s most unusual beer, however, is the sporadically produced Watauga Tobacco Stout, which has locally grown leaf tobacco added to the boil. Yates believes it adds a little extra bitterness to the beer. He may want to consider a wider distribution. With an increasing number of localities enacting smoking bans, bar patrons may appreciate a legal way of getting their nicotine ration!

Farther south, in Georgia, the Summits Wayside Tavern chain operates locations in Cumming, Sandy Spring and Snellville, each with around 100 draft selections. And this despite a state-imposed limit of 6% ABV that makes many brands impossible to get here. (At press time, the Georgia legislature had approved a bill to raise that limit to 14%.)

Florida is also getting with the program. Recent press reports hailed the opening of the St. Sebastiaan Belgian Microbrewery, a $2.5 million brewpub in Spring Hill in Hernando County. This is the second Belgian-themed brewpub in the U.S. that I’m aware of. The first was The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore, MD.

In addition to our fine indigenous beers, we’ve always had access to the best of the West. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Brickskeller Restaurant in Washington, DC would send refrigerated tanker trucks to California to pick up microbrews like New Albion Ale and Stout, and River City Gold and Dark from the short-lived River City Brewing Co. in Sacramento, CA. I’m still grateful for every bottle and keg of North Coast’s Old Rasputin or Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA that somehow wends it way to the Atlantic shores.

The purpose of this article, however, was not to denigrate but West Coast breweries, but to affirm that craft brewing has truly been a bi-coastal revolution. As Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, in a pensive moment, reflected:

“Historically, great beers came from a place’s endowment with natural resources, like fertile soil or raw materials. But high-speed transportation ended all that. We can now all get the world’s best ingredients, so it comes down to what we do with them. It’s less about place and more about people.”

“I think there are amazing beers being produced on the East Coast, the West Coast, and points in between.”