I started to write about the good taste of beer, as opposed to brewing beer, in 1978. I had been brewing and writing about brewing since 1969. And I had been struggling to publish the Amateur Brewer since early in 1977. A local delicatessen asked me to write a column about beer for their monthly customer newsletter. There wasn’t much to write about the good taste of beer at that time. The lead paragraph 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 across the U.S. and other countries. I was fairly well educated in what beers were out there in the U.S.. I searched for beers that had taste; discussed imports and the problem of shipping beer over long distances. I quoted Chicago columnist Mike Royko that American beer tasted as though it were “filtered through a horse.” When some of those brewers complained, he apologized—to the horse.
In that, and subsequent articles, I searched for American beers with taste. My northwest selections were limited to the brews of then Heileman-owned Rainier in Seattle, Pabst-owned Blitz in Portland, independent Olympia in Washington and General Brewing in Vancouver, WA. There were few Craft Brewers in existence. My beer ratings were as follows:
No world class beers.
Fine Beer: Rainier Ale. My enthusiasm for that beer is embarrassing, as I read it now: “Rainier Ale has the good taste of English ales and is only slightly inferior to such greats as Bass and Worthington (and much cheaper).” Hey, what did I know? The imported English Bass of that era was rather pathetic, and Rainier was better then than now, although it was what our brewers called bastard ale (i.e. bottom fermented warm at 70F and aged as a lager at 40F. Rainier at that time had an OG of 15P/1060, 7 percent ABV, with only 30 percent corn grits. Half of the malted barley was 2-row Klages and Peroline, the other half 6-row Larker and Beacon, and hopped with Yakima Cluster hop pellets.
My second choice was Blitz Old English 800 Malt Liquor, which also had better taste in those days. I said it had “the rich full taste of an ale if not the color, with an impressive English hop bouquet.” At that time Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve was being touted as a great beer, but my third choice was Heileman’s Mickey’s Malt Liquor * from Seattle, followed by Henry’s, which I panned as being nothing more than a higher class smoother Blitz-Weinhard. At least my opinion of that beer is not embarrassing to me now.
I reveled in the opportunity to blast the cursed big brewers and what they had done to my beer. I babbled on somewhat incoherently about American beer, which I labeled “yellow industrial swill,” made from the regular Reinheitsgebot ** ingredients plus such “cereals as corn, rice, oats, rye, unmalted barley, sorghum and soy beans, and which may be 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 then approved by the FDA.” The product was called “malt beverage and has been known to appear in such soda pop 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!”
When I reviewed California beers of that time, I found great beer at the two smallest American breweries: Anchor and New Albion. I noted that Anchor brand Steam Beer was world class, “probably the best regular beer made in the U.S., and one of the best in the world,” which, along with Anchor Porter and Old Foghorn, made a great marketing coup in the tiny good-beer sweepstakes of the time. At the same time, in Sonoma’s New Albion Brewery, Jack McAuliffe and Suzy Stern made two fine beers: New Albion Ale and Stout. I wrote, “there are no other California Fine beers.” In later issues I praised Ballantine’s Old India Pale Ale, the only remaining American IPA from the 19th century, and such imports as Pilsner Urquel, Die Kirch Malt Liquor (Luxembourg), Dortmunder Ritterbrau, Pinkus Alt, San Miguel Dark and Old Peculier Yorkshire Ale. I declared that if the reader wished to sample one of the newly popularized “lite” beers, it would be cheaper and simpler to add ice cubes to one’s regular beer.
Aside from Prohibition, those were the darkest hours of American beer and we can look back on them with a smile. But it is well to remember the struggle to return the country to decent beer and remind ourselves that those who remain ignorant of history may be compelled to repeat it.
The craft brewing movement was brought about by the actions of Boulder, CO-based Charlie Papazian’s enthusiastic support of good quality homebrewing. He was teaching homebrewers to use some of the procedures and methods I had written about in my 1969 book, Treatise on Lager Beers. His classes produced a good number of homebrewers making some very nice brews. It wasn’t much longer before homebrewers started to build small commercial breweries. These came to be called microbreweries until they began to be successful as larger operations. We call them craft brewers these days. American style craft brewing has spread across the world. Papazian and his group are responsible for changing the very nature of the world’s brewing industries. Craft brewing has spread across Asia, and now seems to be invading many other areas.
The enemy has not given up, and they continue production and shipment to Europe and Asia, where young people are taking to drinking American yellow industrial swill, while the Coors-Bud-Millers mob is displacing some wonderful traditional German, British and Belgian beers. We are winning the revolution, but this is not the time to relax our vigilance. In 1978, the enemy didn’t even know we existed, now they do for certain.
*In those days regular “beer” was required to have an alcohol content of under 5 percent ABV, while malt liquor was anything over that.
**The Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, limiting beer to malted barley, hops, and water. Yeast hadn’t been discovered at that time, but was certainly included.