A friend calls: “Fancy going to hear some music tonight?” I ask: “What do you have in mind?” He tells me the name of an artist, or a band. I have never heard of them. “It’s not medieval chamber music is it? Like that last gig, where each set was about a year long?” He reassures me, but I am still not confident he understands my tastes. There was another bad experience, with an especially syrupy pop-country band and some Nebraskan line-dancers. “No, it’s classic 1950s East Coast bop, with a scat singer.”
If I am going to spend an evening listening to music, I would prefer to know what style. I don’t mind experimenting if I am in the mood, but I would like to be spared something I definitely don’t fancy. Maybe that band would not have seen themselves as classic bop, but I wasn’t going to be a paying customer unless I had some general guidance as to what was on offer.
It’s the same with food. If I order a burger, I don’t expect a Coney dog. Everybody knows what a burger is, don’t they? Words have to mean something.
I have an old friend called Gary Gillman, with whom I have enjoyed gastronomic tours of places as distant as Montreal and Lille. I have reason to believe Gary may occasionally enjoy corned beef on rye. If he ordered corned beef in Britain, he might be confronted with bully-beef, a horrible wartime dish. In Britain, you have to ask for “salt beef”. There is a degree of fun to be had in exploring different states’ view as to what constitutes chili or barbecue (or even how either should be spelled), but I wouldn’t be happy to order either and be given a dish of granola. There is a company somewhere that thinks barbecue sauce should be yellow; well, you always get one.
As you will have guessed by now, we are talking about beer. That is to say, about styles. Gary wrote a letter to the paper recently on this subject. To this paper, actually. He said that the beer world was not a Cartesian exercise. I have no idea what that means, having left school at 16 to become a writer.
The paper gave Gary a good reply, which should have left everybody happy, but won’t. Everybody in the world of beer loves arguing about styles, and I want my ten cents’ worth (rates of pay around here aren’t spectacular). I am not sure of this, but I think I may have invented the term “beer style.”
As I was mentioning the other day, when I started writing about beer, there were fewer than 50 brewing companies in the US. There was only one that did not make a light lager: Anchor Steam. It was the only brewery with a truly serious commitment to speciality products. The next most serious was Champale, making flavored “malt liquors.” (Was there ever such an oxymoron as malt liquor? It’s not malty, and it’s not a liquor).
There were several dark lagers, such as Augsburger and Prior Double Dark; a few “cream ales,” notably Little Kings (which even then was not really an ale). Utica Club and Genny (which were); the odd golden ale (Black Horse. for example). There were two amber-colored ales: Rainier (which wasn’t) and Ballantine’s IPA (which was). There was the odd porter (e.g. Yuengling, Stegmaier). Those breweries were the last vestiges of American brewing tradition and diversity. Some had products that were further variations on their themes, but scarcely anyone expected either the breweries, their beers or the styles to survive. The idea that some, notably Yuengling, would expand: that would have seemed crazy. In my 1977 World Guide to Beer, I described ales in the US as “a persecuted minority.”
None of the beers I have just mentioned was readily available nationally. In most parts of the US, only light lagers were available. Choice?: “Sure, we have Blatz, Old Milwaukee, Bud, Heineken…”
Most of today’s beer-drinkers don’t remember those days. They weren’t there. Ohmigod, I am beginning to sound like a Vietnam vet. (Digression. Notice to Vietnam vets: “33” wasn’t a great beer; You just needed a drink. No, I do realize that I wasn’t there, but I am familiar with the beer. Anyway, I was just trying to answer your question.)
Trying to find a beer that tasted of anything at all was extremely difficult. In the Midwest, some friends and I would look for beers from small breweries on the brink of closure. The breweries couldn’t afford to invest, were badly maintained, and hard to keep clean. That “cellar character” seemed significantly more interesting than no taste at all.
We arranged a visit to one of these breweries. If you were a beer geek, where else was there to visit? The owner was so tickled to see us that he took us for lunch at his country club. We were introduced to the local chief of police (his brother), the town attorney (his brother-in-law) and the bank manager (his cousin).
Round about the meat-and-potatoes course, he absent-mindedly mentioned that he had a new product. The implication was that this might ensure the future of the business. “What is it?” we asked, excitedly. “A light ale,” he smiled. That sounded revolutionary.
We asked if we might try it. He replied, without any suggestion of embarrassment, that it was not available at the country club. As this was apparently his premier outlet, patronised by the most influential people in the county, the absence of his hottest hope seemed perverse. He asked the chief of police if a car could be sent to the brewery. Its red lights whirring and flashing, a car duly bore the prize to us.
It was poured, with some ceremony, and proved to be a perfectly ordinary third-rate imitation of Miller Lite. “Well?” beamed the brewery owner, “what do you think”. Thinking as fast as one can in the prairies, I said: “Well, it certainly is light.” This pleased him, as he was planning to put Miller out of business.
From my side of the table, there was an obvious question hanging in the air. “Light ale?” I inquired, as gently as I could. “Why ale?” This acute, probing question discomfited him not one iota. (I am not sure what an iota is, but that last sentence was a formulation I learned from Dave Barry. There were certainly no iotas visible.)
Still pleased that I deemed his beer “light,” he explained “ale.” His answer was as follows: “You have to have a light beer these days if you are going to succeed. Everybody else already has one. They all call theirs ‘Light Beer.’ We wanted to be different, so we called ours ‘Light Ale.’”
That was it. I mentioned that it was not an ale. It was not even vaguely trying to be an ale. He looked at me blankly. After a time, he said: “What’s an ale?”
That’s where we were with styles back then. I hope we are not going back. The beer had a good cellar character, but the meat and potatoes were overcooked.
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.