All posts by grivers

Size Matters, Too

Ain’t it fine and ain’t life grand

When you don’t need nothing

But some beer and a bushel

Down in Mary’s land

 

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s idyllic paean to the good life in St. Mary’s County, Southern Maryland, should ring true to anyone who has visited this serrated peninsula of tidewater that extends like a giant tongue into the Chesapeake Bay. Home to aging watermen and dilapidated tobacco barns, rural, insular St. Mary’s has always stood apart from its neighbors. A Catholic sanctuary for early colonists encircled by sometimes hostile Protestants and a Free State hotbed of slavery and Confederate sentiment during the Civil War, its populace has even earned its own pejorative geo-ethnic acronym: SMIBs. Small wonder that they drink beer differently down in Mary’s Land: from 10-ounce cans.

The origins of this downsized drinking culture date back to the early 1950s when Budweiser was the King of Beers in name only and Anheuser Busch lagged behind Schlitz in national sales. Southern Maryland was an especially tough market for A-B. Its distributor, Foley Drury, was moving only 10 cases a week in St. Mary’s County, where a can of Budweiser cost a nickel more than more popular Baltimore brands like National Bohemian, American, and Arrow. To compete, A-B came up with a 10-ounce can of Bud that would sell for the same price as its 12- ounce competitors. The brewer introduced the new package size with great fanfare at the St. Mary’s County Fair in Leonardtown in 1956, including an appearance by the famed Clydesdales. Locals have been drinking their Budweiser (and now Bud Light) from 10-ounce cans ever since—even though you can often buy 12 ounces of Bud in a can for the same price.

Many say the 10-ounce “Baby Buds” stay cooler than 12-ounce cans. Some appreciate how snugly the can fits in the hand, allowing it to be “palmed,” or concealed more easily from passers-by or police. But mostly, I think, it’s a way of proclaiming “I’m from St. Mary’s County and proud of it.”

The 10-ounce cans are filled at A-B’s Houston brewery and are also popular in the Eastern Shore counties of Dorchester, Talbot, and Cambridge; along the Gulf Coast; and in Puerto Rico. But nowhere do they dominate sales like they do in St. Mary’s County.

Indeed, smaller is often better when it comes to beer. As a sophomore in high school, I remember beer-savvy upperclassmen drinking Colt 45 malt liquor from squat 8-ounce cans. With an alcohol content of 5.9%, each can contained the same amount of alcohol as the cheap beer (4.0%) I was drinking from a 12-ounce can.

Today, though, the cool kids are drinking from 19.3-ounce British imperial pint–sized cans—or “stovepipes.” Since their introduction this summer, tall, thin cans of Founders All Day IPA (4.7%) have become the brewery’s leading-selling single-unit package. Each 19.3-ounce can delivers the same payload—0.9 ounces of pure alcohol—as a 12-ounce can or bottle of a strong 7.5% IPA such as Cigar City’s Jai Alai or Bear Republic’s Racer 5. Twenty-one percent larger than an American pint, this size works great for lawn mowing (fewer trips to the fridge). A major plus for me.

The imperial pint has also been adopted by canned-beer pioneer Oskar Blues for its bourbon barrel–aged editions of Ten FIDY Russian imperial stout (12.9%). While two American pints (32 ounces) of uber-strong beer are probably too much for most evenings, one 19.3-ounce serving often hits the sweet spot. And after shelling out $13.99 per can, drinkers can more easily rationalize the cost by getting a few extra ounces of this black beauty.

For most of the past 30 years, factory brewers have led the way with packaging innovations, like the 18-can “suitcase” and the 30-can party pack, but more recently it is craft brewers who are pushing the envelope. Founders, Southern Tier, and 21st Amendment, among others, have enjoyed much success in the past year with a 15-can “executive suitcase.” Midway between a traditional 12-pack and a suitcase, this format combines volume discounts with convenience and has recently replaced the 18-can package for MillerCoors’ bargain brand, Keystone.

Perhaps the most successful innovation of the past few years is the four-pack of 16-ounce cans. You’ll rarely receive a 16-ounce pour of strong beer in a taphouse or pub. So it’s not surprising that imperial-strength beers and double IPAs have done well in this format. I’m a wimp, sure, but after one pint, say, of Tröeg’s Nimble Giant (9.0%), my options for the evening are limited.

Maybe, I should retire to Mary’s Land where I can drink my beer ten ounces at a time.

Top 40 American IPAs

One of every three craft beers sold today is an IPA, having displaced “seasonals” as North America’s leading-selling style a couple of years ago. For most of the new millennium, IPAs have been the most contested category at the Great American Beer Festival and the style that has inspired the most innovation and experimentation among brewers. Listed here are the Top 40 most popular IPAs ranked by alcohol content, with original gravities and IBUs where available.

Top 40 American IPAs
Beer Brewery OG* IBUs ABV
Deviant Dale’s Oskar Blues 85 8.0%
Hop Rod Rye Bear Republic 1074 80 8.0%
Harvest Ale Founders 70 7.6%
Flower Power Ithaca 1076 7.5%
Head Hunter Fat Head’s 17.0 87 7.5%
Jai Alai Cigar City 17.0 70 7.5%
Perpetual Tröegs 1068 85 7.5%
Racer 5 Bear Republic 1072.0 75 7.5%
75 Minute Dogfish Head 7.5%
Hopsecutioner Terrapin 16.0 71 7.3%
AleSmith IPA Alesmith 1066 73 7.25%
Loose Cannon Heavy Seas 45 7.25%
Torpedo Sierra Nevada 17.0 65 7.2%
Centennial Founders 65 7.2%
Titan Great Divide 7.1%
ApriHop Dogfish Head 1067 50 7.0%
Big Eye Ballast Point 84 7.0%
Duet Alpine 1065 7.0%
Hop Nosh Uinta 82 7.0%
Lunch Maine 80 7.0%
Nelson Alpine 1065 7.0%
Sculpin Ballast Point 70 7.0%
Two Hearted Bell’s 1060 7.0%
Union Jace Firestone Walker 60 7.0%
Finestkind Smuttynose 15.0 73 6.9%
Stone IPA Stone 71 6.9%
Celebration Ale Sierra Nevada 16.0 65 6.8%
Julius Tree House 6.8%
HopDevil Victory 6.7%
Furious Surly 15.0 6.6%
Rebel Samuel Adams 45 6.5%
Fresh Squeezed Deschutes 60 6.4%
SweetWater IPA SweetWater 6.3%
Lagunitas IPA Lagunitas 1060 51 6.2%
Blind Pig Russian River 1058 6.1%
Latitude 48 Samuel Adams 55 6.0%
60 Minute Dogfish Head 60 6.0%
Goose IPA Goose Island 1062 55 5.9%
Harpoon IPA Harpoon 1060 42 5.9%
Liberty Ale Anchor 1058 41 5.9%
* expressed as degrees Plato or as specific gravity

Many of the IPAs at the lower end of the list, such as 6.2% Lagunitas IPA (1995), 5.9%  Harpoon IPA (1993), and 5.9% Anchor Liberty Ale (1975), were first brewed before the 1995 Supreme Court decision (Rubin v. Coors) that struck down a 60-year prohibition on labeling alcohol contents of beer. From that point on, ABVs of IPAs began to inch higher. In particular, the 5.9% IPAs hark back to the days when most Southern and many Midwestern states imposed 6.0% ceilings on beers of any style. Conceding one-third of your potential market by brewing a stronger beer is no way to build a national brand.

The most popular IPA strength today is 7.0%—a sort of sweet spot where flavor and drinkability are in perfect balance. This is where you’ll find such classics as Sculpin, Two Hearted, Lunch, and Duet. Some brewers, though, push the envelope to 7.5%, the unofficial boundary between single IPAs and double, or imperial strength, IPAs. That extra half percent of alcohol, flavor, and hop goodness helps explain why Jai Alai, Perpetual, and Head Hunter are such consistent sellers.

Not surprisingly, beers from Oskar Blues and Bear Republic top the list with 8.0% ABVs—a level most drinkers associate with double IPAs. After all, these are the same guys that brought you Dale’s Pale Ale—which at 6.5%, drinks more like an IPA—and Racer 5, whose 7.5% strength and gold medal at the 1999 Great American Beer Festival forced organizers to split the IPA category into a milder “English-style” division and one for the increasingly popular and stronger “American-style IPAs.”

Nearly a decade ago, Stone Brewing cofounder Greg Koch told me “there’s nothing India about IPAs anymore.” For sure, contemporary brewers use the term rather loosely to describe virtually any hoppy beer. But hey, if you brewed it, you can call it whatever the hell you want.

SOUTHERN CRAFT: Emerging from the Shadow of Prohibition

As this summer’s Great American Eclipse carved a 70-mile wide shadow along the southern edge of the mid-Atlantic states, it illuminated an arc of brewing innovation and creativity that stretches from Nashville, Tenn. to Charleston, S.C. The beer now pouring along this northern tier of the Deep South is so full of character and flavor that, for beer geeks like me, it nearly eclipsed the main event in the sky above.

The last time I visited Tennessee, just two years ago, local brewers were still handicapped by a Repeal-era law that capped alcohol content for most beer sold in the state at 5% alcohol by weight (6.25% abv)—effectively banning the sale of most IPAs. A “Fix the Beer Cap” campaign organized by the Tennessee Brewers Guild brought about legislation that raised the alcohol ceiling to 8% abw (10.1% abv). In the 7½ months since the new alcohol cap went into effect, Volunteer State brewers have been producing IPAs, DIPAs, and other high-gravity beers—as well as more sessionable brews—that compare favorably to those brewed anywhere in the nation.

Ground zero for Tennessee’s brewing revival lies across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville in the working-class neighborhood of East Nashville. That’s where you’ll find superb kettle sours at Southern Grist, experimental pilsners at lager specialist Little Harpeth, a range of well-made IPAs at Smith & Lentz, and a coconut cream pie ale at East Nashville Beer Works that’s as good a dessert beer as I’ve tasted all year. The jewel in this crown of recent upstarts, though, glistens just across the river in the old Germantown neighborhood, where Bearded Iris brewers Kavon Togrye and Paul Vaughn have dedicated themselves to perfecting the intensely juicy but softly bitter, hazy beers first brewed in New England a few years ago. When I visited the brewery, they were pouring one pale ale, three IPAs, three DIPAs, and one hoppy kölsch—none of which would have seemed out of place in Burlington or Boston. Visit Music City and you’ll understand why the Brewers Association selected Nashville to host its annual Craft Brewers Conference next spring.

Main bar at Bearded Iris

While Tennessee was the last southern state to raise abv limits for beer, neighboring North Carolina was the first. Its “Pop the Cap” campaign in 2005 was largely responsible for enticing craft heavyweights Sierra Nevada and New Belgium to open second breweries in Mills River (2014) and Asheville’s River Arts District (2016), respectively. As the solar eclipse raced across the western tip of the Tar Heel State, it passed just south of Asheville, four-time winner of the annual Beer City USA poll.

After Wicked Weed Brewing opened south of downtown in 2012, it triggered a second explosion of new breweries—including Burial, Hi-Wire, Bhramari, Twin Leaf, One World, and Catawba—that transformed the city’s South Slope neighborhood into one of the densest brewery districts in the nation with a dozen breweries clustered within a zone barely half a mile square. Meanwhile, Wicked Weed’s award-winning hop-forward ales, Belgian specialties, barrel-aged sours, and Brett farmhouse beers have earned it such plaudits as “Best Craft Brewery in North Carolina” from the website Thrillist and the “South’s Best Brewery 2017” from Southern Living magazine. Wicked Weed’s acclaim also earned its founders and investors a huge financial windfall this spring when the enterprise was acquired by AB InBev’s High End division. It was the world’s largest brewer’s tenth craft brewery purchase, but it ignited a firestorm of rage among beer enthusiasts like none of the previous nine. At least 44 of the nation’s leading sour beer producers withdrew from Wicked Weed’s annual Funkatorium Invitational this summer, forcing the cancellation of the event.

Inside the Funkatorium

Threats of boycott continue to fill social media. And yet I could not find an empty seat when I visited the brewery’s spacious main pub during the slackwater period between lunch and happy hour on a Tuesday afternoon.

Approximately four minutes after the moon’s shadow nicked the southwestern outskirts of Asheville, it crossed just south of Charlotte, North Carolina’s second-most beer-friendly city. Sixteen breweries operate within the city limits, and five populate the city’s burgeoning NoDa (North Davidson) neighborhood. NoDa Brewing Co. was the first, in 2011; its Hop, Drop & Roll IPA is the city’s best-selling craft beer. Heist, Birdsong, Free Range, and Bold Missy soon followed. Locals consider Heist’s Citraquench’l IPA the best New England-style hazy beer in the state.

Charleston, S.C., the eclipse’s last stop in the U.S., boasts 14 breweries, including the wildly inventive Westbrook Brewing Co., whose innovations range from its signature White Thai, a witbier seasoned with ginger and lemongrass, to barrel-aged releases of its iconic Mexican Cake imperial stout, which can sell for up to $200 a bottle—further proof that you no longer need travel to Vermont or San Diego County to find great American craft beer.

CHASING WHALEZ WITH THE BEER HUNTER

chimay blueWhat makes a beer a “world classic”?

According to Michael Jackson, who introduced the term in his landmark World Guide to Beer in 1977, world guidea world classic was the definitive example of one of 34 historical beer styles: Pilsner Urquell, Saison Dupont, Guinness Extra Stout. I tasted my first my first world classic (Anchor Steam) in 1980; it would take me five trips to Europe to tick the remaining 33. Today, BeerAdvocate lists nearly a thousand beers worthy of “world class” status. Social media–driven grade inflation? Or further evidence of a golden age of brewing?

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Mr. Jackson’s passing and the 40th anniversary of his World Guide, which was published at a time when many of the world’s classic beer styles were either disappearing or losing their traditional character. sippingMr. Jackson, for example, lamented the replacement of Pilsner Urquell’s wooden fermenters with stainless steel after the collapse of communism, but continued to rate the beer as a “world classic.” Today’s beer geeks are less forgiving, rating Pilsner Urquell as merely “good” with a score of 82. Contemporary beer hunters prefer Dvanáctka, the more traditional unpasteurized, open-fermented Czech pilsner of the Kout na Šumavě brewery, which they rate as “excellent” with a score of 90.

Mr. Jackson was never a big fan of assigning scores to beers and claimed that his publisher pressured him to do the ratings to make his series of Pocket Guides more commercially viable. And yet with the passing of Mr. Jackson, no one has had the hubris to claim that Heady Topper, say, and not Pliny the Elder, is the definitive version of the American IPA style. For better or worse, today’s world classics are determined by a digital democracy on rating platforms such as BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, and Untappd. BeerAdvocate, for example, assigns “world-class” status to any beer that scores 95 or higher. Such rankings act as a kind of Dow Jones index for beer traders to determine a beer’s market value. Combine a high score with sufficient scarcity and you’ve got what fan boys call a “whale.” In a world where more than 10,000 breweries are producing in excess of 100,000 different beers, we would be lost without such data-crunching websites and their volunteer armies of dedicated beer hunters.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Jackson was an army of one, scouring the planet for good beer. He was, in fact, the ultimate ticker. tastingAt a time when there were only a few hundred American breweries, producing just three or four different beers, he was able to taste nearly all of them—assisted by a cadre of beer enthusiasts who shared his passion. I should know: I was one of them.

Chauffeur, valet, fixer, and even bodyguard, I accompanied Mr. Jackson on four beer-hunting expeditions in the late 1980s and early 1990s: through New England, the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and California coast. No brewery was too obscure, no pub too sketchy, no beer too problematic. He wanted to visit them all and taste everything. Always in search of authenticity and artisanal techniques, he expanded his list of world classics in the 1990s to include Anchor Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot, and Alaskan Smoked Porter. But as the craft-brewing revolution gained steam and his Pocket Guide descriptions became more numerous but less current, American authors began to fill in the gaps with their own regional guides. When seasonal brews exploded in the early 2000s, only the bimonthly brewspapers could keep up.

I often wonder what Mr. Jackson would have thought about our contemporary craft brewing scene. While beer styles will always be relevant, many of today’s craft beers defy categorization. As a third generation of American craft brewers increasingly blur the boundaries between traditional styles, each new beer is potentially a style unto itself, defined as much by its ABV as its historical origins.

One no longer has to cross ocean or continent to taste these world-class beers. Here in the Washington metro area, for example, we have nine beers rated 95 or higher on BeerAdvocate’s data base (the most statistically valid, in my opinion): On the Wings of Armageddon from DC Brau (95), Talking Backwards Triple IPA (96) from Ocelot, and seven brews from Aslin, including the frighteningly delicious Master of Karate (99).

Last month, DC was swimming in whalez during the recent Craft Brewers Conference, as premier breweries from around the nation shipped their finest suds to DC watering holes. ChurchKey’s “East Coast’s Finest” event featured seven world-class beers from Trillium, Other Half, The Veil, Bissell Brothers, and the Suarez Family. Meridian Pint boasted a similar bounty of cetaceans during its “IPA Fest” of 60 IPAs from 30 breweries. Had Mr. Jackson been in town, I’m sure he would have been riding shotgun in the harpooner’s boat with Ahab and Queequeg.

Beer Fit for a Queen

elizabeth color“The Queen is out of beer?” a butler probably bellowed to a housekeeper.

“No beer, only ale,” a housemaid might have whispered to a valet.

“Nuthin’ but huf-cap [strong ale] in the Queen’s buttery [liquor room],” some scullery maid must have snickered to some footman.

What we know for certain is that on June 28, 1575, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leister, sent a handwritten note to Secretary of State William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England. leister“There was not one drop of good drink for her,” wrote Leister “Her own [ale] here was so strong as there was no man able to drink it…. It did put her far out of temper.”

The crown employed 60 brewers in London and the provinces plus one traveling brewer to supply the court with suitable refreshments. And yet, Queen Elizabeth I was now in a grumpy mood because one of them had neglected to brew sufficient quantities of beer, the hopped, low-alcohol tipple that was replacing potent, unhopped English ale throughout the kingdom.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Leister, who was planning perhaps the most audacious marriage proposal in English history. A distant cousin but close childhood friend who knew the monarch better than anyone, Leister would soon be welcoming Elizabeth and her entourage of 31 barons and a staff of 400 to his private estate, Kenilworth Castle. kenilworth2He had hired two of London’s leading architects to transform the historic 10th-century fortress into a “Renaissance Palace,” hoping to impress the Queen into marrying him. The party went on for 19 days—a record for a royal visit—and included nightly banquets, concerts, and fireworks, as well as deer hunting, bear baiting, and cutting-edge theater from London’s leading playwrights, one of whom would have been able to see the fireworks from his residence in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.

Despite the spectacle and pageantry, Leister did not prevail. Since their chaste but passionate romance first blossomed 15 years earlier, Elizabeth had lavished “dear Robin” with estates, royal contracts, and numerous sinecures. By now, the Virgin Queen, aged 42 and 17 years on the throne, had famously announced to Parliament that her only husband would be the Kingdom of England. Leister, once a dashing courtier and skilled equestrian, also 42, was now bald, gimpy, and in failing health. Their romantic entanglement, always politically fraught, now seemed sad and pointless. In the end, Elizabeth rejected the final proposal from perhaps the only man she ever loved, telling him, “I will have but one mistress here and no master.”

Modern readers might be shocked to learn that Queen Elizabeth was a beer drinker. But in a pre-industrial Europe scarred by centuries of waterborne epidemics, thin, barely alcoholic “small” beer comprised the majority of liquid consumed every day by commoner and nobility alike—especially in the British Isles. In those pre-coffee, pre-tea days, virtually everyone, including good Queen Bess, started their day with a glass of beer: a neat package of hydration, nutrition, and stimulation. Juice, cereal, and coffee rolled into one convenient meal.

Elizabeth was a thoroughly modern woman and embraced the new leaner, drier “beers” from Holland that had largely replaced the potent, thick, sweet ales of her father’s time. “Only the old or the sick” still drank ale, wrote William Harrison in 1577 in his Description of England. In fact, court brewers produced a special light beer for Elizabeth that was hoppy enough to endure two months of aging before drinking. The rest of the royal household drank a one-month-old small beer. These beers probably contained between two and three percent alcohol by volume and were the forerunners of “dinner ale,” a kind of family-friendly table beer that survived into the 20th century.

Despite her enthusiasm for Dutch beer, Elizabeth was one of England’s earliest temperance advocates. She oversaw the first licensing of ale houses and introduction of the first civil penalties for public drunkenness, in which inebriants were paraded through town in a “drunkard’s cloak” (actually a barrel with holes for the head and arms). Throughout her reign, she railed against “doble-doble” beer, a malt liquor made extra strong by running the wort through a second bed of grain before fermenting. In 1560, she demanded that brewers brew as much “single” beer as the more profitable doble-doble beer, though there is little evidence that the brewers complied. She championed legislation in 1597 that restrained the excessive use of malt, though this too seemed to have little impact on her subjects’ thirst for potent beers and ales.

The Queen’s own taste for less-intoxicating brew was ultimately satisfied by former paramour Leister, who built two personal breweries for Elizabeth: one to the west of London in Sion and another at Puddle Dock, along the Thames. The Queen would never run out of beer again.

Pre-Prohibition Lager: America’s Least Appreciated and Most Misunderstood Indigenous Beer Style

For beer drinkers, the real tragedy of Prohibition was not a 13-year absence of malt beverages but the 60 years of mediocrity that followed. The era preceding WWI and Prohibition was a Golden Age of brewing, as crisp American-made lagers, lightened by the addition of corn or rice, bested Bohemian pilsners and English pale ales for blue ribbons and gold medals at international expositions in North America as well as Europe. Post-Prohibition beer? Not so golden. The only awards American megabrewers win are for entertaining ads that divert our attention from the insipid character of the products they promote.

 But don’t blame the descendants of Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch. They tried their damnedest to resurrect the robust, flavorful beers that once made Milwaukee and St. Louis famous. In fact, they may have tried a little too hard.

 For nine months prior to Repeal, beer drinkers had made do with a kind of light beer authorized by the Cullen-Harrison Act of March 1933, which modified the definition of “intoxicating beverages” in the Volstead Act from 0.5% to 3.2% abw (4.0% abv). After Repeal, U.S. brewers were free to resume brewing the pre-Prohibition lagers that were nearly as hoppy and potent as today’s IPAs. stern brauLest the public confuse the resurrected pre-Pro beer with the 3.2 post-Pro beer, the brewers attached such descriptors as “prewar strength,” “high proof,” high proof“extra strength,” “high test” and “14 percent original extract” to the labels of the newly legal brews.strong beer

 A tardy U.S. Congress, which had been caught off guard by the swift ratification of the 21st Amendment, finally acted to promote moderation and establish regulations that would curb the excesses of the saloon. Its main achievement was to abolish the old system of “tied houses” owned by or beholden to brewers, and establish a three-tier system that legally separated brewers from wholesalers from retailers. But while it was at it, Congress decided to take a whack at strong beer, the perennial whipping boy of temperance advocates and the boogeyman of abuse since the age of Queen Elizabeth I.

 A House Ways and Means Committee questioned the validity of such claims as “prewar strength,” and noted that the variation of alcoholic content “has little consumer importance,” that selling beer on the basis of alcoholic content “attempts to take advantage of the ignorance of the consumer and of the psychology created by prohibition experiences.” The committee’s report concluded that the abuse of such claims had grown to such an extent since Repeal that “the prohibition of such statements is in the interest of the consumer and the promotion of fair competition.” (Sixty years later the Supreme Court would come to exactly the opposite conclusion.)

 On Aug. 29, 1935, Congress incorporated the committee’s recommendations into the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. The legislation mandated the labeling of alcoholic content, or proof, for all spirits and wines with an abv greater than 14% abw (17.5% abv). However, “statements of, or statements likely to be considered as statements of, alcoholic content of malt beverages are hereby prohibited unless required by State law.” While the federal legislation failed to limit alcohol content, state legislators, especially in the South and Midwest, were more than happy to cap beer potency on their own turf. Most of these alcohol ceilings remained in effect until just the last decade or so when lawmakers realized that the craft beer boom was leaving them behind—along with the all the jobs and tax revenue it generated.

 Thanks to the language of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 and the subsequent limits on beer strength imposed by individual states, most brewers voluntarily limited alcohol content to 5% abv. Few complained. If you add the years of 2.75% “war beer” that preceded Prohibition and the nine months of 3.2 beer that followed it, nearly an entire generation of Americans had never tasted full-strength beer—much less strong beer.

 Ever since the first stirrings of the craft beer renaissance, pre-Prohibition beers (generally lagers) have seemed poised to make a comeback: first in 1981, when the late mathematician and pioneering homebrewer George Fix won the best-of-show David Line Trophy at the Second Annual International Beer Competition in Phoenix for his Pre-Prohibition Pale Lager (6.25% abv); later, in 1997, when the Manayunk brewery’s Tom Ciszauskas brewed the first commercial resurrection, Harry’s Prohibition Pils; batch 19and again in 2010, when Coors’ Batch 19 (5.5%), inspired by a pre-Pro recipe, briefly focused attention on this misunderstood style. Sadly, American megabrewers’ longstanding abuse of corn as a brewing adjunct (sometimes as much as 50% of the grain bill) has turned a generation of American beer drinkers against any beer brewed with corn. As I sip from a can of Surly’s tasty corn-based #merica! all I can think is “What a shame.”surly

 

5.6/6.9/9.6: Slash Line for a Golden Age

By almost any objective measure, we are living and drinking in the midst of a golden age of brewing. Whether it’s the record number of American breweries (4,269), the diversity of beer styles recognized by the Association of Brewers (151), or craft beer’s percentage of domestic sales (16%), American beer drinkers have never had it so good.

But here’s an even more significant statistic: 5.6/6.9/9.6. That’s the ABV “slash line” representing the average strength of today’s pale ales, IPAs, and double, or imperial, IPAs. I have chosen to ignore the other 148 styles because it was American pale ale, after all, that launched the craft brewing revolution nearly four decades ago; American IPA that is currently its most popular style; and double IPA that is the most powerful expression of our present obsession with hop-forward beer. Together, these three styles form the backbone of nearly every American brewery’s portfolio.

Now, compare our current slash line with the slash line of the lager era that preceded the craft brewing renaissance: 4.2/5.0/6.3 (the average ABVs for light beer, premium beer, and malt liquor, respectively). Throughout most of the 20th century, everyday beer in America ranged from cheap, or “budget,” beer, characterized by a high percentage of adjunct grains and low alcohol content (4.0–4.5% ABV), to premium beer with a lower percentage of corn grits or rice and somewhat greater strength (4.5–5.0%). When the economy was good, more people drank premium beer, while recessions increased consumption of cheap beer. But towards the end of the century, the big industrial brewers figured out how to charge a premium price for lower-gravity beer: by calling it “light” (or Lite). This may have been a golden age for the ad agencies who crafted the illusion, but by most objective measures, like competition (just 38 brewing companies in the late 1970s) and diversity (one style, two strengths), it was a historic nadir for the craft of brewing.

sierraThings began to change in 1980 when Sierra Nevada introduced a pale ale seasoned with Cascades hops, a revolutionary new strain developed by researchers at Oregon State University. (The short-lived New Albion brewery, in 1976, was the first to use Cascades commercially.) Sierra founder Ken Grossman felt his new beer needed a greater percentage of malt—and higher ABV—to balance the exuberance of these homegrown hops. Five-point-six percent seemed about right, establishing a new benchmark for everyday beer in the U.S. that is still the standard for American pale ales.

libertyFive years earlier, the Anchor Brewing Co. had showcased the Cascade hop with an even bigger malt base when it introduced Liberty Ale at 5.9% ABV. The first modern IPA since Prohibition, Liberty Ale set the standard for IPAs until 1994, when Vinnie Cilurzo brewed an Inaugural Ale at the Blind Pig brewery in Temecula, CA, that weighed in somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0% ABV, ushering in the age of double IPAs. Today, 7.5% is generally viewed as the dividing line between single and double IPAs.

The slash line of our current era closely resembles that of the last golden age in brewing, in Victorian England. Thanks to the widespread application of new brewing tools such as the thermometer, hydrometer, and steam engine—as well as beer-friendly tax rates and government policies—English ale was the most consistent, potent, and affordable in the world, the envy of all brewing nations (much as American craft beer is today). Most of the beer consumed in working class Victorian pubs was called “X” or four-ale (because it cost four pence a quart), later known as mild. More affluent patrons in the upstairs saloon drank “XX,” a predecessor of pale ale, or bitter. Strong beer, typically aged for a year or more, was known as “XXXX” or stock ale. At its peak, around mid-century, the slash line for X, XX, and XXXX was 6.5/8.2/10.4, according to brewing records compiled by Ronald Pattinson. By the time Congress passed the Volstead Act in the U.S., increased taxes, temperance sentiment, and a world war had reduced Britain’s slash line to 2.3/3.6/6.1. Four-ale, which by the 1910s cost four pence a pint, was not even remotely intoxicating, and Burton and stock ales were less potent than mild had once been. The strength of English ales recovered somewhat during the 1920s, but would never come close to the ABVs of the 19th century.

A higher alcohol content doesn’t necessarily make beer better—malt liquor proved that in the 1980s and 90s—but it does present the brewer with a broader canvas on which to create more vivid flavors, more dramatic contrasts, and more complex blends of flavors. During a golden age such as this one, every batch of beer has the potential to be a work of art.

No Brewgods. No Brewmasters.

Congress St-2 (2)There’s something happening here,

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

—Stephen Stills

You can usually tell that a particular brewing trend has peaked when Samuel Adams brews its version. Such was the case when the Boston-based brewer released Rebel “West Coast Style” IPA in 2013. By then it had been nine years since Green Flash trademarked the term “West Coast IPA”; 13 years since Russian River brewed the definitive version (Pliny the Elder); 16 years since Stone began pushing stylistic boundaries with ever stronger, ever hoppier versions; and nearly two decades since Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo “invented” the style with his Blind Pig Inaugural Ale—widely recognized as the first double IPA.

For 20 years I’ve watched while Californians—especially those living in San Diego County—had all the fun. In the past half dozen years, though, the epicenter of brewing innovation has shifted to the East Coast. Bubbling up from the brewkettles of Vermont, a softer, gentler breed of IPA has spread throughout New England and is now trickling down into the Mid-Atlantic—close enough for a central Maryland geek like myself to taste history firsthand.

Early this spring, my friend Mike told me that Hill Farmstead taps were popping up at bars in Brooklyn and the Village. This was the closest that any Vermont beer, outside of bootlegs, had gotten to central Maryland. A road trip to the Green Mountain State would be time-consuming and expensive, but by staying with Mike in New Jersey, I could drink Vermont beer on the cheap in New York City. A pub crawl began to take shape.

TURBID TIMES

Whether you call them Vermont-, New England-, or Northeastern-style IPAs, all of these beers are intensely hoppy and juicy but without the bitterness associated with many West Coast styles. Most are brewed with a percentage of wheat or oats, and nearly all of them are unfiltered and hazy—some as turbid as a milk shake.

Used to be, hazy, cloudy beer was a sign of sloppy brewing technique. Nowadays, it suggests a genius in the making such as John Kimmich, Shaun Hill, Jean Brouillet, and a growing cadre of brewers who are turning this former beer flaw into a mark of excellence. Currently, each of the top ten–rated IPAs on BeerAdvocate (all but one brewed in New England) is hazy or even turbid.

Skeptics persist, including Jason Alström, co-founder of the popular online website. In a review of Tired Hands’ murky flagship brew HopHands, he described the beer as “a muddled mess,” railing that “Milkshake beers are not a trend or acceptable with traditional or even modern styles.” He scored the beer “poor” with a rating of 64.

DSC00499The BeerAdvocate community tends to disagree, rating HopHands “outstanding” with a score of 91. “Stupid delicious,” declared Beer Advocate cavedave. “Juicy as all Hell with a very low bitterness. I could drink [it] all day long,” wrote justintcoons. And from BA Kadonny, “Yes, it is super cloudy but I’m not sure why that would detract from the beer itself, I guess I don’t understand. I go mostly on taste, and this beer tasted fantastic.”

I could hardly wait to form my own opinions.

TOPPER THIS

Our original plan was to meet on a Wednesday at Tired Hands in suburban Philadelphia, then, on the following day, troll the Village and Brooklyn for New England-style IPAs. But when the Blind Tiger announced a Brooklyn Brewery tap takeover for that Wednesday, we agreed to begin the pub crawl at the venerable craft beer pub and save Tired Hands for the end of the crawl.

I make the four-hour, 253-mile drive to Mike’s place in Bloomfield on the morning of April 13, 2016, leaving us enough time to catch the 1:50 pm bus to the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan. At $7.50, the bus ride is quicker—just 45 minutes—and half the cost of the Lincoln Tunnel toll for cars, and it eliminates the hassle of parking. We then take the A Train to the western edge of Greenwich Village and walk a few blocks down Bleecker Street to the pub.

Our crawl begins during the waning days of the New York presidential primary: there is electricity in the air and Bernie Sanders bumper stickers on many cars. While I marvel at the entrepreneurial hodgepodge along Bleecker Street (an artisanal butcher shop next to a women’s shoe boutique next to a café that served both lattes and craft beer), Mike spots a Heady Topper decal on the bumper of a Volkswagen Golf. Vermont’s outspoken senator seemingly locked up the beer geek vote the previous summer when he tweeted a picture of himself holding a can of Heady Topper.sanders (Clinton had enjoyed a photo op at the little-known Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Trump is a teetotaler.)

Heady Topper (8.0% ABV), of course, is the original New England-style IPA, first brewed in 2003 in Waterbury, VT, by John Kimmich of the Alchemist. For eight years Heady was Vermont’s little secret, only available at the Alchemist brewpub. But after Kimmich started canning his brew in 2011, Heady’s reputation began to grow, eventually topping Pliny the Younger on online beer sites as the world’s highest rated IPA. Since the beer can only be purchased from a handful of outlets within 35 miles of the brewery, craft beer enthusiasts from throughout New England and the Northeast have trekked to Waterbury to wait in line, buy their quota, and take some home to share with friends. One of Mike’s Jersey buds had shared a can with him a few years ago. I was still a Heady virgin.blind tiger

WAITING FOR GARRETT

We enter the Blind Tiger at 3:30, early enough to nab a couple of stools at the bar. The pub is filling up fast in anticipation of an appearance sometime after 4 pm by Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn’s head brewer, author, and editor of the James Beard Award-winning Oxford Companion to Beer.

Blind Tiger’s reputation as New York’s premier beer bar seems well earned. Hill Farmstead had made its New York debut here in late 2012, and only Tørst in Brooklyn enjoys a higher rating on BeerAdvocate. The pub is small and intimate with just 15 stools at the bar and 27 table seats. DSC00446The feeling of warmth and intimacy is reinforced by a Z-shaped bar that juts into the main room, allowing patrons to make eye contact with virtually anybody in the pub. Mike nods to three or four brewers, sales reps and beer writers he recognizes. It would be hard to miss Garrett Oliver in this setting.

Of the pub’s 32 taps, nearly half offer Brooklyn beers. A half dozen beers from Jack’s Abbey, the lager specialist from Framingham, MA, were still on tap from the previous week’s tap takeover. But my attention is focused on the two faucets pouring the Hill Farmstead beers Edward and Susan.DSC00444

With the possible exception of the Alchemist, perhaps no Northeastern brewery is held in higher esteem among beer enthusiasts than Hill Farmstead. Every week, fans trek up to the Hill family farm in Greensboro Bend, VT, to fill growlers with whatever beer brewer Shaun Hill has been tinkering with. Production is extremely limited, and distribution, until recently, has been restricted to Vermont.

Hill, as well as fellow Vermont brewer Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, were early fans of the Alchemist and received valuable insight and advice (and possibly their house yeast) from the Alchemist’s John Kimmich. For his part, Kimmich was trained and mentored by the late brewing legend and author Greg Noonan, who founded the pioneering Vermont Pub and Brewery in 1988. The Alchemist’s distinctive house yeast, nicknamed “Conan,” was originally brought to the U.S. from England by Noonan. Low flocculating and less attenuating than typical American strains, Conan also contributes distinctive peachy esters lacking in the flavor-neutral yeasts commonly used by West Coast brewers.

While my palate is at its freshest, I order a half-pint of Edward (5.2%), Hill Farmstead’s flagship pale ale, named after Shaun’s grandfather. As expected, I am served a rather hazy, almost turbid, beer, apricot in color. I smell lots of grapefruit and tangerine plus some distinctive tropical notes. Five varietals are used to hop Edward, and their complexity seems to grow with every sniff. This beer has traveled 325 miles from the brewery, so I’m not too surprised that the aroma doesn’t leap out at me.

Bittering a relatively slender 5.2% beer with 85 IBUs of hops sounds like madness. Until you take a sip. Bitterness, where art thou? Somehow, those 85 IBUs had been channeled into hop flavor rather than hop bitterness. This is partially a result of “hop bursting”: saving the preponderance of hops for the end of boil, the whirlpool, the hopback, and the fermentation tank. But New England brewers have added some new twists including hopping with a higher percentage of low-alpha hops. To paraphrase Miller Lite: “Great hop taste. Less bitterness.”

Edward is so hop-forward that I could have sworn I was drinking an IPA and not a 5.2% pale ale. With its low alcohol and a lush palate softened by some wheat or oats, this beer redefined sessionable for me. I could have ordered pint after pint, but Susan was calling me.

Named after Edward’s sister, Susan is a modest 6.2% IPA hopped with Citra, Simcoe, and Riwaka, a New Zealand strain. Like Edward, Susan has a fluffy, soft body and cloudy appearance. Fruity tropical flavors, especially mango, seemed more pronounced, and the overall hop intensity was bumped up a level—again without the bitterness. I had always been skeptical of Susan’s near-perfect 99 rating on BeerAdvocate. What does a near-perfect beer really taste like? Something like this, I think, draining my pint glass.

DSC00443As much as I desire a refill, it is time to dive into the assortment of fine beers from Brooklyn’s oldest craft brewery. Sorachi Ace (7.2%) was my introduction to the unique lemony hop varietal from Japan. Here I have an opportunity to compare it with Brooklyn’s other Sorachi-hopped saisons: Lord Sorachi Ace (9.5%) and the just-released 1,001 Nights (5.7%). More alcohol usually translates into more flavor, but this delicate hop seems to express itself most memorably in the lower-gravity 1,001 Nights.

It is now 5 pm and still no sign of Garrett Oliver. I haven’t seen him since he won the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing at the annual Brewers Association convention in 1998, and I wonde if I will still recognize him. That would seem to be an easy task, considering that Oliver is an African-American in an industry in which people of color are hugely underrepresented. (An examination of the paucity of black brewers and consumers of craft beer recently earned New York journalist Dave Infante a 2016 James Beard Award for his article on the website Thrillist.) So when the first black guy to enter the pub all day is eagerly greeted by a group of friends, we automatically assume it is Oliver.

“Wait,” Mike cautions, “that’s not him. He looks too young.”

Besides, Oliver knows how to make an entrance. Wearing a black cape with red lining, he looked more like a magician that a brewing wizard when he strode into the tasting room of the late Manhattan Brewery in 1989. I was there for a mid-Atlantic brewery tour organized by Charlie Papazian and the Brewers Association, and Oliver had just inherited the burden of reviving the short-lived SoHo brewery on Thompson Street. The brewery failed, but Oliver soon got the chance to work his magic when he joined Brooklyn Brewery in 1994.

It’s now 5:30, and the crowd is growing restless. A brewery rep buys Mike and me a round of Brooklyn Black OPS, a tasty 10.5% Russian imperial stout on cask. We finish the afternoon big and strong with half-pints of the brewery’s Intensified Coffee Porter (11.8%) and Improved Old Fashioned, a monstrous rye beer of 12.8%. Between us, we have sampled 17 beers. It’s time to catch the bus back to New Jersey. As we walk up Bleecker Street to the subway station, we are swarmed by packs of mostly young people walking the other way.

“Maybe Garrett showed up after all,” Mike jokes.

wash sqLittle did we know, but 27,000 people were converging on Washington Square Park, just a few blocks from the Blind Tiger, to hear Bernie Sanders denounce Wall Street and call for a political revolution. When Obama spoke there in 2007, he attracted just 20,000. Sadly for the Sanders campaign, many of those 27,000 are not registered Democrats and ineligible to vote in the state primary. Clinton would beat Sanders the following Tuesday by a whopping 16 points.arch

LOOKING FOR VITO

The next morning finds Mike and me riding the C train toward Bedford-Stuyvesant. During the 1990s, this section of Brooklyn was synonymous with urban decay, but the past decade has brought a wave of gentrification, chic eateries, $5 lattes, and $8 pints of craft beer. Our specific destination is a gourmet grocery named Mekelburgs in the Clinton Hill neighborhood just west of Bed-Stuy. It is here that Vito Forte, former proprietor of the legendary Copper Mine Pub, is rumored to have resurfaced as a cheesemonger.

coppermine2For nearly a decade, the Copper Mine Pub in North Arlington, New Jersey, had served as ground zero for Jersey beer geeks, including Mike, who was fortunate enough to live just 10 minutes away. An impeccably curated beer list and the biting wit of bartender/owner Vito Forte earned the pub the only perfect 100 score in the mid-Atlantic from BeerAdvocate. But a dispute with his landlord forced Vito to shut down the watering hole last spring, leaving loyal customers such as Mike to wonder where Vito might pop up next.

DSC00454Like an old-school delicatessen, Mekelburgs beckons modestly from a sub-street level space on Grand Avenue, promising “fine foods and craft beer.” A chalkboard advertises “25% off all frozen meat.” Upon entering, we encounter an impressive cured-meats counter that features such sebaceous delicacies as goat salami, duck speck, and lardo. Even more impressive is the expansive display of cheeses.DSC00459 I ring the service bell, hoping to summon Vito from some unseen larder. Alas, the cashier explains that Vito resigned two weeks ago and was headed to Galax, in southwestern Virginia, to study cheese-making.

Disappointed, but still very hungry and thirsty, we proceed to the bar and small dining area at the back of the store. Twenty years ago, I might have ordered an egg salad sandwich; today I must settle for a chive egg frittata “sammie” with crème fraîche on a Mazzola’s brioche roll. Mike orders a large, single-handled bowl of lentil soup, into which a smoked chubb crostino has been artfully plunged. DSC00458Both “small plates” were quite tasty and surprisingly affordable at $3.75 and $9.00, respectively.

Mekelburg’s 16 taps are as arresting as anything Vito ever poured at Copper Mine, including two more selections from Hill Farmstead: Legitimacy Pale Ale (6.0%), an intensively hoppy beer for its weight, and Shirley Mae, a chuggable 4.0% porter that packs the flavor of a 5 or 6% beer. But the biggest surprise are two brews from the Brooklyn-based gypsy brewery Grimm Artisanal Ales. Liquid Crystal (6.2%), a collaboration with Staten Island’s Flagship Brewing Co., evinces a vivid floral character I’d not tasted in a saison before. Grimm’s juicy double IPA, Tesseract (8.0%), is a tropical hop bomb that punches with a velvet glove. DSC00456Both beers exhibit the same saturated flavors as Hill Farmstead and share the soft, creamy mouthfeel that characterizes Northeastern style beer.

vito-again
Vito Forte, pre-cheesemonger

Vito’s influence, if not in body then in spirit, still lingers at Mekelburg’s. A message chalked on the blackboard in the men’s room says it all: “Love you, Vito”—Town Donkey. On our way out, our knowledgeable bartender, Jeremy, recommends we visit the newly opened Cardiff Giant before leaving Clinton Hill.

NEW YORK MADE

Barely two weeks old, Cardiff Giant is located just three blocks away in the commercial heart of Clinton Hill. This is the same predominantly black neighborhood in which Dave Infante searched in vain for African Americans drinking craft beer in his award-winning Thrillist article. We are hardly surprised to find that Cardiff Giant’s staff and clientele are 100% white.

DSC00461The pub is named for one of the most celebrated hoaxes of the 19th century, which engendered the huckster credo, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Shortly after the end of the Civil War, a New York tobacconist named George Hull commissioned a sculptor to carve the likeness of a man from a 10½-foot tall block of gypsum, which he subsequently buried on his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, New York. After two workers hired to dig a well on the site discovered the petrified giant, Hull began charging people 25 cents to view it. Presented as tangible proof of the Genesis passage that giants once walked the earth, the artifact became so popular that P.T Barnum offered to buy it for his circus. When Hull spurned his offer, Barnum had a replica made. Asked by a reporter about the existence of a second Cardiff Giant, one of Hull’s financial backers, David Hannum, uttered the oft-repeated quote about gullible rubes, which was eventually attributed to Barnum himself.

Brooklyn’s Cardiff Giant is the real deal, however, “dedicated to bringing you interesting, small-batch, craft-made New York State alcohol.” DSC00462Twenty taps dispense 12 beers, 5 ciders, and 3 wines from throughout the Empire State. A three-tiered price scheme allows patrons to order a small pour (8 oz.), large pour (12 or 16 oz. depending on ABV), or a “share” (one liter). Mike and I take a tour of the state with beers from breweries in Greenpoint (Cuzette), Gowanus (Threes), and Park Slope (Other Half) in Brooklyn; Queens (Finback); Oceanside (Barrier); Glen Cove (Garvies); and Long Island City (Transmitter).

After describing our itinerary, our bartender volunteers that she lives on the same street as Other Half and is frequently awakened after late shifts at the bar by beer geeks queuing up early mornings on can-release days. Despite the inconvenience, she confirms my suspicion that Other Half brews the most sought-after beer in the city. The brewery tap doesn’t open for a couple of hours, but I argue that we should get there as close to its 5 pm opening time as possible. That left just enough time to visit Tørst first.

DUELING DANES

Before Brooklyn’s Lauren and Joe Grimm or Baltimore’s Brian Strumke began producing small batches of beer at other people’s breweries, Mikkel Borg Bjergso pioneered the concept of phantom, or gypsy, brewing in his native Copenhagen. During the early years of the current decade, such Mikkeller brews as 1000 IBU IPA (9.6%) and Beer Geek Brunch Weasel (an imperial oatmeal stout [10.9%] brewed with coffee beans that have passed through the digestive track of the Asian palm civet) gave new meaning to the term “extreme beer.” In the early days, Mikkel focused on brewing the beer, while his identical twin, Jeppe, handled sales. Their partnership dissolved, however, when Mikkel opened his own bar (Mikkeller) in Copenhagen in 2010. This prompted Jeppe to leave Denmark, start Evil Twin Brewing, and move to Brooklyn where he opened his own craft beer bar, Tørst (pronounced tersht).

DSC00466
Mike poses with a Danish pastry to let you know you have arrived at Tørst

Flanked by a Polish grocery and a shabby beauty salon, Tørst squats anonymously behind a white brick and wood facade in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. A menu case mounted next to the entrance is the only indication that you’ve arrived at the most celebrated beer geek bar in the five boroughs.

Tørst’s interior is the epitome of rustic Danish modernism. Old barn wood covers the walls, and a slab of white marble forms the bar. Twenty-one plain steel-and-wood taps protrude from another marble surface behind the bar, above which the day’s beer list is scrawled in white marker along a room-length mirror. Patrons sip their beers, seated in Børge Mogensen chairs. It’s a brilliant bit of design that feels as cold as January in Denmark.

DSC00468Despite the presence of nearly a dozen hard-to-find guest beers, I focus on Evil Twin brews. Indeed, there is no better place to sample them. A $16,000 draft system known as a flux capacitor allows each beer to be served at its ideal temperature and pressure. A half-pint of Citra Sunshine Slacker (4.5%) arrives in an elegant stemmed glass, chilled to a classic cellar temperature of 55 degrees and carbonated just enough to focus the pungent citrusy character of the hops on the back of my tongue. DSC00467Even More Jesus (12%), the brewery’s definitive imperial stout, is so massive and so full of roasty, chocolate, coffee, dark fruit, and woody flavors that I begin to doubt my ability to finish the modest six-ounce serving. I persevere and we stagger out into the daylight and board a train that will take us to Other Half Brewing.

LAST TRAIN TO BROOKLYN

Our bartender at Cardiff Giant had warned us that finding the Other Half could be tricky. It got even trickier when Mike’s smart phone died after boarding the G train at the Metropolitan Ave. stop. (A flip-top–toting Neanderthal, I could offer no backup.) Cut off from the Internet and lacking paper maps or even a street address for the brewery, we are riding blind. We get off the train at the 7th Ave. station in Park Slope so I can take a leak. An enlarged prostate like mine can easily derail a pub crawl, but on this occasion it stops us from going too far south into Brooklyn. I enter the closest coffee shop/cafe and bolt for the restroom—derelict behavior that is all the more conspicuous and embarrassing in this upscale neighborhood. An angry look from the cashier prompts Mike to purchase a croissant “to go” while I relieve myself. Two beer-quaffing locals, big fans of Other Half beer, are happy to give us detailed directions to the brewery.

This time, we ride the F train and get off at the elevated Smith and 9th Sts. Station, overlooking the infamous Gowanus Canal. A century ago, this urban waterway brought prosperity to the adjoining neighborhoods of Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Sunset Park, and Park Slope. Today it is a toxic eyesore, once reputed to be a dumping ground for Mafia hitmen, and designated as a Superfund cleanup site in 2009.

DSC00470
Despite Mike’s dead phone, we eventually find Other Half Brewing Co.

We wend our way past a quarry, fuel depot, scrap metal facility, and many defunct warehouses until we come upon a McDonalds (“Look for the McDonalds. The brewery is just across the street.”) Thank god for Micky D’s. Without this landmark, you could easily walk past the brewery. Graffiti covers the exterior of what might formerly have been an automotive repair shop. The brewery’s only signage is a logo etched on the tasting room door, which, on this warm day, is propped opened and hidden from street view. I can’t imagine coming here after dark.

The entire space is barely larger than a Jiffy Lube waiting room. DSC00479Seating is limited to a pair of rough tables and benches, while most patrons lean against elbow-high railings along either wall. DSC00474There is no bar, per se, just an employee pouring beer from behind a service counter. A brewery cat is purring contentedly atop one of the tables as we enter.

The draft lineup is a hop lover’s dream. Nine of the 11 beers on tap are hop-centric, ranging from a Moteuka single-hop session ale (4.5%) to an 8.5% imperial IPA hopped with El Dorado, Citra, and Mosaic hops. Hop varietals are listed for each. The only two malt-accented beers are an 11% imperial stout and a 12% wheat wine. As we work our way through five small-pours (4 oz), I begin to wish this was the beginning of the crawl and not the end of it.DSC00476 All of the beers taste intensely hoppy but not bitter—regardless of ABV—and, despite my fatigued palate, I can still perceive each beer’s distinctive the hop profile. The lower-gravity beers impress me more than the hop bombs, but all are first rate and share many traits—haziness, soft mouthfeel, saturated hop flavor—with the Hill Farmstead beers I’d tried earlier.DSC00471

Between us, we’ve tasted 27 beers on the day. The train and bus ride back to New Jersey is long but thankfully uneventful.

NOT SO TIRED

Forty-four beers over two days has taken the edge off our thirst. Mike understandably bails on Tired Hands, our Day Three destination, but since the Philly-area brewery in on my route home, I decide to soldier on.

No doubt, a good deal of the fan-boy popularity of such hop-centric breweries as Other Half is perversely related to their limited accessibility, scarcity of product, and lack of amenities. Overcoming so many obstacles makes the reward seem so much sweeter. Tired Hands, however, suffers from none of these drawbacks.DSC00496

The brewery maintains two comfortable, easy-to-find tasting rooms in the Main Line town of Ardmore with easy access to the educated palates at nearby Villanova, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford colleges. The Brew Café doesn’t open till 4 pm, but serves cheese, charcuterie, and simple sandwiches at the original brewing site which opened in 2011. The Fermentaria, Tired Hands’ main production facility, features a full kitchen serving tasty victuals all day. I arrive just as lunch is being served.

DSC00495Occupying the hollowed-out shell of an 85-year-old trolley repair building, the Fermentaria is aptly named. A variety of fermentation vessels—stainless steel, large vertical French oak foudres, and racks of smaller horizontal wooden barrels—surround the dining area. DSC00486The brewery’s inventive graphic theme—human hands attached to undulating, snake-like arms—is integrated throughout, from an exterior pub sign to tap handles to glassware to imaginative wall art.

A dozen beers are offered in five different serving sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, pint, quart growler, half-gallon growler—the most options I’ve ever been offered. I start with a half pint of the brewery’s signature pale ale, HopHands (originally brewed to 4.8%, but according to the menu, recently boosted to 5.5%). The beer is extremely pale (4-5 SRM) and at least as hazy as the Hill Farmstead brews I’d had in New York. Tired Hands’ owner and brewer, Jean Broillet, has said he acquired the brewery’s house yeast from a “friend [Shaun Hill? Sean Lawson?] in Vermont.” Whether or not the strain is a descendant of Conan, it exhibits the same low-flocculating properties.

DSC00487The flavor is amazingly bright and juicy, “intensely hopped with Simcoe, Centennial, and Amarillo,” the menu informs me. Homebrewers have a number of theories to explain the hop-saturated character of New England-style ales: extravagant dry-hopping, interaction between suspended yeast particles and hop oil, and water treatment with more chloride salts. Judging by his beers, Broillet seems to have learned a lot from his friends in Vermont.

But it’s the texture—soft and silky smooth—that makes the experience of drinking these beers so novel. “Brewed with oats,” says the menu. In fact, all seven of the hop-forward ales I would sample are brewed with oats. Secret Poncho (9.0%), an intensely dank DIPA, is brewed with “an excessive amount of oats.” (A HopHands clone recipe, popular among homebrewers, recommends a grain bill of 20% flaked oats.)

NO BREWGODS

After seven short pours and one half-pint, I calculate my blood alcohol content to be approximately .06. Time to drive home. But as I finish my final sample of Alien Church IPA (7.0%), I notice a rather non-descript guy without boots, apron, or any other protective gear walking freely throughout the brewing area, consulting with numerous employees and engaging in a longer conversation with a guy who appears to be the managing brewer. I observe no swagger, but plenty of quiet respect. Though I’ve never met the guy, I’ve seen pictures of him: It’s Jean Brouillet.

He walks over to the tap tower next to where I’m sitting and pours a few ounces of beer into a glass. While tasting the beer, a server arrives to fill an order. DSC00491The server is wearing a T-shirt that reads: “No Brewgods, No Brewmasters.” The juxtaposition of server and owner illustrates the meritocracy that has driven the North American brewing renaissance to such heights. Nobody cares about your credentials; just brew good beer.

So many craft brewing pioneers—Jim Koch, Garrett Oliver, Sam Calagione, Greg Koch—often seem to be showmen first, brewers second. The industry needed guys like that. Now that craft beer has gone mainstream, however, we’ll need the passion and imagination of the Brouillets, Hills, Lawsons, and Kimmiches more than ever to make the next decade as exciting and innovative as the one we’re currently enjoying.DSC00489

In Part Two of this pub crawl I travel to Massachusetts, ground zero for the most extreme manifestations of New England-style IPA.

Nine Thousand Years of Beer Culture

Jackson photo 3In spite of—or perhaps because of—a ludicrous regulation that forces drinkers to buy package beer by the case or pay through the nose for six-packs from a bar, Philadelphia has developed one of the richest beer cultures in the nation. You can experience it at great beer bars such as Monk’s Café and Memphis Taproom; you can taste it in the beers of Victory and Yards; and you can celebrate it during one of the longest-running and most successful Beer Weeks in the nation. Maybe Philly’s greatest beer treasures, though, are anthropologists Solomon Katz and Patrick McGovern of U-Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Much of what we know about the genesis of brewing was pieced together by these guys.

Philly Beer Week grew out of a 10-day festival known as “The Book and the Cook,” which despite its emphasis on food and wine, maintained its popularity through beer-oriented events such as an annual tutored beer tasting hosted by Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—an event I first attended in March 1992. Jackson photo 4Flanked by mummies, sarchophagi, and a sphinx, Jackson compared classic Old World beers like Guinness Stout and Pilsner Urquel with such New World alternatives as Anchor Liberty Ale and Stoudt’s Doppelbock. The Beer Hunter was at his most compelling best as his insights and observations echoed off the antiquities of the Lower Egyptian Gallery. And yet the most profound and groundbreaking remarks uttered that day came from two guys I’d never heard of.

Dr. Solomon H. Katz, a homebrewer, had famously hypothesized that early humans who abandoned hunting and gathering to farm barley and wheat were motivated by a desire to brew beer rather than to bake bread. Both brewing and baking are multistage operations: To make bread, grains must be ground into flour, mixed with water, and heated by fire—all requiring human participation and specialized tools; but two critical aspects of brewing—sprouting grain to make malt and fermenting malt to produce alcohol—can occur spontaneously. Katz argued that mankind’s first beer was produced accidentally when a bowl of gruel containing sprouted barley or wheat was exposed to wild yeasts. Fermented gruel not only tasted better (it was sweeter), but was more nutritious, with a higher percentage of B-vitamins and amino acids—a “super food,” Katz called it. The combination of mood-altering and nutritional properties, he concluded, would have been incentive enough to cause hunter-gatherers to settle down and begin cultivating grains full time.

Katz later collaborated with Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing to re-create an ancient beer based on a 4,000-year old text known as the Hymn to Ninkasi, a minor beer goddess in Sumerian mythology. ninkasi-tabletMore of a drinking song than a recipe, the Hymn, nevertheless, provided a key insight: Sumerian brewers added loaves of twice-baked bread, or bappir, to amp up the fermentables in the mash. I had the opportunity to taste this concoction at the 1989 Microbrewers Conference in San Francisco, sipping the porridge-like beverage through an azure-colored paper straw that resembled the lapis lazuli–encrusted reeds found in the tombs of Egyptian royalty. It tasted more like spoiled oatmeal than beer, but at 3.5% ABV, it was as buzz-worthy as light beer and twice as filling.

McGovernUnlike Katz’s scholarly speculation about the origins of beer, archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern offered hard facts. He had just returned from the Zagros Mountains in Iran where he discovered chemical evidence of the earliest wine, dating back to 5400 BC—3½ centuries before the Hymn to Ninkasi was etched onto a stone tablet. In 2003, he would recount his archaeological adventures in Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viticulture, earning him the sobriquet of the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.” But his best work was yet to come.

uncorkIn 2004, McGovern analyzed a 9,000-year-old ceramic jar unearthed Jiahu, China, containing the chemical residue of the oldest alcoholic beverage yet discovered. He found evidence of fermented rice, grapes, hawthorn berries, and honey—a mixture of beer, wine, and mead, he dubbed “Neolithic grog.” Since then, several ancient sites along the Silk Road connecting the Middle East and China have yielded evidence of similar mixed drinks, often spiked with cannabis, ephedra (ecstasy), artemisia (absinthe), ergot (LSD), or poppies. The earliest alcoholic beverage makers—most likely shamans—could ill afford to err on the side of moderation and apparently threw a bit of everything into the brew pot to guarantee a mind-altering religious experience. JiahuModern beverage-maker Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head has collaborated with McGovern on several historical recreations of Neolithic grog, and they’ll be serving up samples this May at the National Craft Brewers Conference in Philly. For devout beer geeks, a religious experience is guaranteed.