In my last entry, I promised to outline some of the similarities between the history of coffee and beer in America. I found that there is a similar progression from low to high quality beverages, but for very different and very interesting reasons. The different movements in coffee came about as a result of changing tastes and preferences, but a lot of the progress made with beer came about by external forces. So, I have no choice but to give you a crazy history lesson.
Beer is really old. I mean really, really, really old. Beer is so old that archeologists believe some of the earliest examples of writing are receipts for beer to be paid to laborers. That’s right—not only has beer been around longer than the written word, but it may have been a contributing factor to writing’s development.
Over time, tastes have changed, and we have the means to drink beer from all parts of the world. Styles of beer from all sorts of countries have influenced other styles, so we have an ever-expanding menu of beers to choose from that is constantly evolving. A lot of American brewers have gone into the world and sampled these beers and returned with inspiration. If you know where to look, you can find nearly every beer-producing nation represented in beers all over America.
But, for some reason, when people think of American beer, they think of Budweiser or Coors or something along those lines. These are all light, golden pilseners, and they don’t taste very good in my opinion. Through a series of events in American history, the light, golden pilsener became the identity of American beer, and only the last 25 years or so have we seen any kind of variety available in domestic beers.
How did it come to this? This is not a country opposed to foreign tastes; the ol’ U.S. of A. has many restaurants featuring food from every inhabitable continent, and they have done quite well. How is it that this took so long to translate to beer? Maybe… just maybe, I’m about to make good on that crazy history lesson I promised. And if you behave, I’ll highlight five American breweries that I feel embody some of the best that American beer has to offer.
And Then There Was Beer
If you want to get literal (and I always do), the history of American beer begins with the Native Americans. The original American brewers made an alcoholic beverage comprised of maize, birch sap, and water. About half a millennium ago, Europeans arrived with British-style ales and took over the place. For a few hundred years, that was the predominant style of beer available in the States.
And then came the Germans! Around the middle of the 19th century, there was an increase of German immigrants coming to America and bringing their delicious lagers with them. For the time and place, this was a beer that was highly profitable and easily transported. While the larger companies began by brewing in distinct styles in the traditions of a select few European countries, the pilsener style was the eventual winner.
Most of the oldest American breweries are known for making pilseners. Just to throw out a few names, there’s Yuengling, Schlitz, Miller, Coors, and Budweiser. They are made with Czech-style hops and a pale, lightly roasted six-row barley. When people think of American beer, they usually think of this.
These large companies made their beer happily and profitably for several decades, until a few upstarts calling themselves the Temperance Movement decided that there was to be no more fun of any kind. Perhaps you’ve heard of Prohibition? That was their fault. For 14 years, the industry was at a standstill while only the largest breweries stayed in business making soft drinks and non-alcoholic beer.
In 1933, everyone chilled out long enough to repeal Prohibition and get back to making all that wonderful beer. And that’s all there is to this story.
After 14 years of not producing, it’s not like these guys could just walk into the brewery, flip a switch, and be up and running again. It took some time. And in case you weren’t aware, the 1930s were a pretty crazy time for most Americans. We were in the middle of the Depression and at the brink of war. Even though people needed a drink more than ever, supplies and finances may have been slightly limited. The damn Temperance Movement didn’t miss a trick. They figured that even with Prohibition repealed, they could use the war to put the major breweries out of business once and for all.
Still having a powerful and vocal support base, the Temperance Jerks appealed to legislators that commercial brewing squandered precious equipment, grain, and manpower that could be going to the war effort. Brewers were able to quell such concerns by pointing out the obvious health benefits of beer, like vitamin B, and Congress, thankfully, bought it.
So now we have only the largest breweries left, with Prohibitionists looking for any excuse to get them shut down. Those still standing joined forces to come up with a solution. Quality ingredients were scarce and costs had to be low, but they had to sell a lot of beer to stay afloat. Grain was abandoned in favor of corn and rice, which were cheap and could produce alcohol, if not flavor. A successful advertising campaign extolling the need for “little things” to keep life normal helped sell more beer.
And we, the consumer, were left with only a few of the largest breweries churning out a near-identical, low-quality beverage labeled beer, and it was the only thing available for nearly 40 years.
Then a wonderful thing happened. Jimmy Carter was elected President. While he may be best remembered for malaise, gasoline lines, and the Iranian hostage situation, he had good qualities other than not being Richard Nixon. Carter made it legal for people to brew beer in their own home. For the first time in over 50 years, Americans could legally make their own beer. And they realized that it tasted a lot better than the crap they were stuck with all their lives. This was the beginning of the craft-brewing movement.
In the 1980s, small breweries started popping up all over the country. While giants like Anheuser-Busch and Coors were drowning us with light, golden pilsener, these craft brewers were making smaller quantities of high-quality beer in all sorts of styles. Rich Doyle founded Harpoon in 1986 when he returned from Europe and realized all the beer in America sucked. Jim Koch started a brewery with a few friends after he successfully recreated his great-great-grandfather’s old recipe in his kitchen. He later sold that same beer as Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Now Sam Adams is the second-best-selling domestically owned beer company in America.
By the 1990s, even the giants were trying to catch up. They began producing quality beers under subsidiaries, like the Coors-owned Killian’s Irish Red. Some of them simply bought craft breweries and let them keep doing their thing, like Anheuser-Busch did with the Chicago-based Goose Island.
It’s been less than 30 years since the craft brewers hit the scene, but they’re beginning to make their mark. Larger companies have once again joined forces to combat this rising threat. Anheuser-Busch merged with the Belgian company InBev to become Anheuser-Busch InBev, while Molson Coors merged with Miller Brewing to become MillerCoors. While these two monstrosities are trying to outsell one another via outspending in market research and advertising, the newer, littler breweries are seeing an increase in sales by perfecting their craft and introducing Americans to unique and exciting beers. It looks like things are moving in a positive direction for the beer scene in this country, and hopefully it’s a trend that will continue.
If you’re still reading at this point, I suppose you deserve a little treat. So, as promised, here is my selection of five American breweries that have caught my eye as going above and beyond. I do not make any claims that these are better or worse than any other. I just like their stories, and thought I should share them with you.
Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, DE)
Every time you hear someone say there’s no reason to go to Delaware, pour a Dogfish Head directly into their mouth. I have never had a beer from these guys I didn’t like. I did not care for India pale ales (IPAs) for the longest time, and it wasn’t until I had some a Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA that I changed my mind. This is a beer so alcoholic that you will never see it served more than 8 ounces at a time. They call it the 120 Minute IPA because they make it by adding hops to it every 3 minutes for 2 hours. It is so hoppy that it transcends bitterness and becomes a sweet, delicious thing of magic. And that beer is not even why I decided to highlight them.
In the late 90s, Dogfish Head began a project called Ancient Ales. Working with molecular archeologist, Dr. Patrick McGovern, they recreated a Turkish beer from 8th century BCE by analyzing residue samples from clay jars found in the tomb of King Midas. The recreation was named Midas Touch Golden Elixir, and they have since crafted several other Ancient Ales with origins in Honduras, Egypt, China, and more. You always hear about how long people have been drinking beer, but these guys are actually giving us a chance to taste what it was like in its infancy. Thanks, Dogfish Head!
Samuel Adams (Boston, MA)
Most people have heard of Sam Adams, even if they’ve never tried it. Founded in 1984, Sam Adams has gone from a small local brewery selling an old family recipe to the second-largest American beermaker. I enjoy many of the beers from Sam Adams, but it’s not the taste I’d like to tell you about. While there are many craft breweries that are becoming more and more successful, Sam Adams has become the largest of them all.
While one of the guiding principles of craft beer has been quality over quantity, Sam Adams has done a very good job of finding a balance that maintains excellent standards for their beer while reaching a very large audience. I can only speak for myself, but there are plenty of styles of beer I had never tried before finding them in a Sam Adams seasonal variety pack. I’m not crazy about their spring and summer packs, but when fall and winter come around, I horde these things like a squirrel hordes acorns. You can find winter lagers, pumpkin ales, coffee porters, and chocolate bocks, and they’re all in the same package! Tell me that’s not cool.
Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, NY)
I was just introduced to Ommegang this past Christmas when Jackie and I each got a gift set complete with three beers and a tulip-style beer glass. What sets Ommegang apart from other American breweries is not simply their delightful gift sets, but their commitment to producing a high-quality beer in the Belgian style. Don Feinberg opened the brewery in 1997 on a 136 acre hop farm in upstate New York in a Belgian-style farmhouse. How cool is that?
Their dedication to authenticity has gotten noticed. There have been times they have found themselves unable to meet demand. A few years ago, they were so strapped for beer that they had to outsource production to Brouwerij Duval Moortgat in Belgium just to keep up. I have a feeling the good people of Duval wouldn’t do the same favor for the folks over at Budweiser. If you ever find yourself needing to impress a Belgian, hand them an Ommegang.
Anchor Brewing Company (San Francisco, CA)
I’ve had an Anchor Steam Beer once or twice. I can’t complain. I’m not even sure if they technically qualify as a craft beer, so they may not fit well into the theme of this post. I’ve, though, decided to include them because steam beer is the most American beer in origin, and Anchor has been the largest producer of the style for over 100 years.
Steam beer was invented around the time of the gold rush out of necessity. Prospectors came in droves to the west coast with their beards and lager yeasts, but they were unable to refrigerate the beer during the fermentation process. Thinking quickly, they fermented it at higher than normal temperatures, creating California common beer, more popularly known as steam beer. This is an extremely simple way of explaining how it is made, but you get the idea (or Wikipedia can give you an even better idea).
Despite numerous near-bankruptcies and a terrible reputation at different times for different reasons, Anchor Brewing somehow held on for life long enough to make a comeback. Now they are one of the last breweries producing California common beer, and they’re doing a damn good job. Way to go, fellas!
Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project (Somerville, MA)
I know what you’re thinking. Two of the five breweries here are from the Boston area… maybe I’ve got some kind of bias. Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t. The truth is, I can only write about what I know. As a resident of Massachusetts, I have access to a lot of Massachusetts-based beers that probably don’t get sold everywhere else. By the same token, I’m missing out on a lot of other regional craft brews that don’t make it all the way out here. What can you do?
I’ll tell you about Pretty Things, that’s what I’ll do! I was first exposed to Pretty Things sometime last year when I had their quadruppel ale, Baby Tree. Admittedly, I was drawn to the image of a tree filled with babies, but it turned out to be a good buy. Ever since, I’ve tried every beer of theirs I could get my filthy little hands on, and each one is worth getting again.
They stand out for me not just because they are a local brewery making great beer, but because the people making the beer are hardcore into beer. Dann and Martha Paquette are so into brewing their beer that when they couldn’t get their own brewery, they just borrowed other breweries. They brew in the middle of the night so they can be done with their beer in time for the brewery to have their normal hours of operation. I’m reminded of how Kevin Smith filmed Clerks by night while his convenience store was closed. They probably do a better job of cleaning up when they’re done for the day.
Those are my five picks for this particular day! There are many other breweries that make many other things worth mentioning, but I feel like these five are a good sampling for the variety and quality you can find in American beer. Try them out sometime. Try others out and tell me about them. The important thing is to keep trying new and different things, because you never know when a beer you used to hate becomes a beer you love.