This Beer is Your Beer: In Search of a New American Beer
We in this country are boastful to the point of annoyance about our technological prowess, but we have long nurtured an inferiority complex about the artistic merit of our aesthetic creations. Since the days when small-town opera houses staged crude pastiches compared to the glittering spectacles staged in Europe, our insecurity has festered, encompassing a wide range of aesthetic endeavors. One of them is beer. How else to explain the survival of green-bottle imports other than snobbery based solely on their European origin?
We in the homebrew community are not immune. We look to Britain and Germany, those great brewing traditions with taproots going back to the Bronze Age, for a sense of order and righteousness. And Belgium, that jewel of artistic fervor, which provides inspiration and authority. These are profoundly good places to start, but in my belief, they are not an end in themselves.
A meticulous recreation of the grand old styles of Europe is a necessary step in the learning process. Picasso spent a lot of time copying the old masters of his day. And of course we’ve always had our adventurous side, with some brewers leaping into the unknown, looking to make something new and different.
New World Inspiration
As I travel around the country talking to brewers, I have lately been struck by the amount of interest from home-and craft-brewers in creating beers that build on the best of Old-World tradition but are also undeniably American. From Alaska to the Carolinas, brewers are working to discover their roots, dig them up and literally brew them into beer.
This quest is not new. As early as 1550 colonists in Virginia were brewing with corn (maize), Their goals were practical and economic, but they did succeed at inventing American beer. Of the some $70 billion dollars worth of beer sold in this country last year, more than ninety percent of it contained corn or rice.
Recently, American ingenuity jumps from the glass thanks to our exuberant use of American hops in all their resiny, grapefruity glory. Inspired by English pale ales, they have turned into something quite different, and just about define American craft and home brewing. Not a bad start, but having reached a chemical dead end with the insolubility of hop resins above the lip-peeling 100 IBU, adventurous brewers are looking for something more challenging and meaningful.
The recent fascination with pre-Prohibition pilsner was another good start, as it unwinds an eight-decade march to blandness and replaces it with something more flavorful. Other historical sources are ripe for plundering: the aniseed-tinged Swankey from Pennsylvania; Kentucky common beer and others have been explored, but by no means exhausted.
Local ingredients are a fertile source of inspiration, even if the materials never had much of a role in beer. Many brewers in the Southeast are brewing beers using sorghum syrup pressed from the stalks of a type of millet. Maple is popular in northern regions. I was recently told of an Alaskan brewer who uses $600 worth of birch syrup in a brew each spring. This particular form of liquid gold has to be boiled down to one percent of its original volume, which explains the shockingly high price.
Other Alaskans are looking at the local fruit such as salmonberries and unique varieties of blueberries to create new beers, and there are a number of herbs found there—sweet gale and juniper, for example—that have an ancient brewing heritage. In other parts of the country, brewers are seeking out both indigenous and locally cultivated products. Some are even growing rare varieties of fruit and other products.
In California and elsewhere, brewers are working with the many parts and pieces of Belgian brewing, looking to rearrange them into something new and uniquely American. Pro brewers such as Tomme Arthur, Tom Nichols and Vinnie Cilurzo are leading the charge, but homebrewers are pursuing similar paths. Dark saisons, sour strong ales, 100% Brettanomyces-fermented beers and caramelized raisins are all in their toolkit. At last fall’s Great American Beer Fest, I judged a beer described as a “strong brown ale with dark candi sugar and brown raisins, fermented with American and Belgian yeast, racked to a Bourbon cask, then refermented with Brettanomyces, sherry yeast, sour cherry, dates and honey, aged on American oak, then blended with a barley wine.” Is this overkill? Probably. But who cares? And besides, the beer took second place.
Today, I present you with a recent effort of mine, a subtler effort that borrows from some of the extreme monsters described above. It’s a winter saison, an idea that originated with Dany Prignon, brewer of the eccentric Belgian Fantome beers, but quickly naturalized here by Tomme Arthur and a number of homebrewers. My own recipe is a big city version, inspired by the global stew that is Chicago, and takes advantage of our abundance of ethnic ingredients. As usual, you can slavishly recreate my version, but I sincerely hope you would put your own spin on it. There’s plenty of great ideas whirring around, and we really are at the beginning of this new kind of American beer.
The frontier is still open for business. Let’s get brewing.