Category Archives: Articles

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.

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.

Mumme: The Original Winter Warmer

lion and mummeWeihnachtsbier. Juleøl. Bière de Noël. Winter Warmer. No matter how you spell it, nothing says “Christmas beer” like lush sweet malt, bold spices, and lots of alcohol. And no beer has ever shouted it louder than Braunschweiger mumme (pronounced MOO-muh). The biggest, baddest beer of the late Renaissance, mumme was the Bigfoot, the Ten-FIDY, the Bourbon County Brand Stout of its age, “as strong as six horses, coach and all,” according to one 18th -century drinker.

Braunschweiger_Mumme_1900But the most remarkable feature of mumme was its viscosity. It was typically brewed from an entire quarter (nine bushels) of malt per 63-gallon hogshead, often with an additional bushel of beans and ten “new-laid eggs, not cracked or broken.” After boiling off a third of the mash, the wort reached gravities as insanely high as 1250. That’s 2½ times denser than the strongest Burton Ale more than a century later. “Mumme,” observed one 19th century wag, “had the colour and consistency of tar—a thing to be eaten with a knife and fork.”

Closely guarded, Mumme’s greatest secret was its spice bill. One recipe, preserved at the Technical Library of Freising, Germany, lists 14 ingredients, including spruce bark, birch buds, juniper berries, bay leaves, cardamom, marjoram, thyme, and St. Benedict’s thistle (Carduus benedictus). Sounds a lot like a recipe for a medieval gruit, the spice medley that preceded hops.

What mattered most, though, was mumme’s longevity: No other beer showed greater staying power. After aging in oak for two years, it could be transported to the ends of the known earth. Well before British merchants shipped stout to Russian or pale ale to India, ships from the Hanseatic League carried mumme to the East Indies, to the West Indies, and even Jerusalem. Over 300 hundred years later, renowned writer and avid drinker H.L. Menken dubbed mumme the “first export beer . . . that ushered in a golden age of beer.” Much of what we know about mumme’s heyday, though, can be traced to the first comprehensive book about brewing, published in 1573.

RENAISSANCE MAN

Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, geologist, anatomist, botanist, historian, engineer, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci may have been the original Renaissance Man. But the Germans had their guy too.

Mumme's house
Illustration of house Christian Mumme was alleged to have lived in.

Heinrich Knaust was a poet laureate, a dramatist, a composer, a linguist, a political columnist, and an authority on 16th-century secular and ecclesiastical law. But for all his scholarly brilliance, he is best remembered for his passion for beer. Four hundred years before Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer, Knaust described 133 different beer styles he had personally tasted. Just as Jackson split the beer world into top-fermenting ales and bottom-fermenting lagers, Knaust divided Renaissance beers into white wheat beers and red barley beers. He dubbed Hamburger beer the “king of wheat beers” and beer from Danzig (now part of Poland) the “king of barley beers,” but saved his greatest praise for, “Braunschweiger Mumme . . . the most celebrated [beer] of all, named for its discoverer, Christian Mumme (1492).”

Mumme’s popularity encouraged many imitators. To reinforce the drink’s provenance with the Lower Saxony town of Braunschweig, or Brunswick, credit for its invention was ascribed to a local brewer named Christian Mumme. A book written in 1736 by Franz Ernst Brückmann further burnished Mumme’s legend and cemented Braunschweig’s reputation as the home of mumme. But Braunschweig historian and chief librarian Heinrich Mack put the Mumme myth to rest when he discovered that mumme had been brewed in Braunschweig at least 67 years before Christian Mumme “discovered” it. And when Mack could find no trace of a Christian Mumme ever having lived or brewed in Braunschweig, another colorful brewing legend bit the dust.ships mumme

MUM-HOUSE

Like most beers of the era, Braunschweiger mumme came in two versions: Stadtmumme was a mild version brewed for the local citizenry; Schiffmumme, or “ship’s mumme,” was brewed extra strong and extra sweet for export. The export version became so popular in London that it was often referred to as English mumme. “Mum-houses” were all the rage during the English Restoration period. In 1664, the noted diarist Samuel Pepys describes a colleague, Mr. Norbert, getting hammered on the potent brew. But by the 18th century, thick, sweet beers like mumme had fallen out of favor, and only a non-alcoholic, malt-extract version, prescribed for medicinal purposes and as an energy drink, survived into the early 20th century.

The new millennium, however, has witnessed a new appreciation of this historic drink. Since 2006, an annual festival celebrating mumme takes place the first weekend in November in Braunschweig. Local restaurants serve dishes made from mumme, and the town brewery produces a moderately alcoholic (5.2%) version of the old stadtmumme more suited to modern tastes.Mumme_can_1

GOLDEN MEAN: A Model of Moderation

modern barbarianArchaeologists trace the beginning of civilization to a time when early humans abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a sedentary life of cultivating cereal grains. Whether the principal motivation for settling down was to bake bread or brew beer is still debated. But, for the most part, civilization began with beer, even if civilized behavior often ends with it.

In the earliest civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, a crude form of beer—a porridge-like concoction sucked through reeds—sufficed as the only widely available alcoholic beverage. Given its importance as a source of nutrition and disease-free hydration, most early beer was probably little stronger than modern light beer—though much more filling. It would get you intoxicated, but you had to work at it.

Wine was also consumed by these early civilizations, but only by the elite, who could afford the expense of transporting it from the northern mountainous areas in Armenia and northern Iran where wine-making originated. Greece’s climate and terrain, unlike Egypt’s and Mesopotamia’s, proved ideal for viticulture, and winemaking spread rapidly. By the 7th century BC, Greece had become the first civilization to produce wine on an affordable, commercial scale. Even slaves drank it.

The downside of democratizing wine is that the Greeks now had to police it. At 12% ABV, compared to around 4% for beer, wine represented a threefold increase in potency. It was now three times easier to get drunk—and three times less filling. You no longer had to consume an entire day’s worth of calories to catch a buzz.

This could be especially troubling for a society that prided itself on its civilized nature. Having conquered all of the known world and laid the foundations for modern Western politics, philosophy, science, and law, the Greeks clearly felt superior to their non-Greek speaking neighbors, whom they referred to as barbaroi, or barbarians. And only barbarians drank wine straight.images

Greek culture, having evolved with viticulture, developed societal customs to moderate the intoxicating effects of wine. They diluted it. This was accomplished at a symposium, a kind of drinking party where the topics of the day were debated in friendly but adversarial fashion by men of the privileged social classes.

In their pursuit of balance and proportion, the Greeks arrived at four ideal ratios of water to wine—2:1, 5:2, 3:1, and 4:1—which just happen to correspond to the four classic ABVs associated throughout history with beer: 6% strong beer, 5% premium beer, 4% light beer, and 3% small beer.

At the beginning of the symposium, participants would throw dice to determine who would play the role of the symposiarch, symposiuma combination of bartender, bouncer, and designated driver, who was responsible for diluting the wine in the proportion best suited to the occasion and maintaining civility at the symposium. kraterThe wine and water were mixed in a large two-handled vase known as a krater, from which pitchers were filled and then poured into individual goblets.

Crucial to the success of a symposium was how well the group balanced rational inquiry with alcohol-fueled flights of fancy and insight. Certainly, there is intellectual value in the loosening of inhibitions. “Wine reveals what is hidden,” wrote the philosopher Eratosthenes in the third century B.C. But drinking even diluted wine could lead to excess.

The Greeks could not directly measure blood alcohol levels, but they did develop quantitative guidelines for responsible consumption. In one of the works of the playwright Eubulus, Dionysus, the god of wine, recommends three kraters: one for health, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep.

“The fourth krater is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.”natural icde

Of course, the barbarians prevailed. No one drinks diluted wine today except for French and Italian children and Catholic priests. And yet what the Greeks once considered barbaric—drinking undiluted wine—is now considered civilized in comparison to the high-octane alternatives unleashed by the alchemy of distillation.

Greek culture was one of the few to view intoxication free of the moral prejudice often imposed by religious dogma. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the Greeks associated the problems with alcohol not with the use of a bad thing but with the abuse of a good thing. And though the Greeks disdained beer as much as undiluted wine, it is modern beer—not wine—that best embodies the classic Greek model of moderation.