The story of beer in America is one many are unfamiliar with. Similar to my curiosity with Moxie—another drink with a rich and robust history—the narrative of beer is an intriguing one and is much different than what others commonly parrot.
Two months ago, Shaw’s ran a special on a well-known Canadian lager. I picked up the twelve-pack and enjoyed this chilled, if less than spectacular beer, for several evenings. A few weeks ago, I came across another brand of Canadian beer, this one also a lager.
Moosehead Lager is brewed by Moosehead Breweries Limited, Canada’s oldest independent brewery, located in Saint John, New Brunswick. The brewery was founded in 1867. Moosehead’s brand of lager was preferable to the other brand of Canadian brew, the Canadian equivalent to our Budweiser.
The accepted narrative about beer in America offers a variation on the following tale; local beers, brewed by artisans, using only the finest of ingredients like malt, hops, and water—this is partly true. It is true that beer as we know it today, at least the macrobrewed varieties like Budweiser, Coors, and the other large corporate brands, is nothing like the beer that was brewed back in 1844, when Phillip Best began brewing a German-style beer called lager. Thirty years later, Pabst Brewing Company would be America’s largest brewery.
Beer is often considered to be as American as baseball and apple pie. In truth, beer is something we can thank German immigrants for. Prior to the 1840s, Americans were mainly drinkers of rum and whiskey. It was Germans who introduced beer culture to America.
Interestingly, the beer gardens and brew introduced by the likes of Phillip Best, along with other German immigrants, brought old-world pleasures to America and one could argue, a bit of culture. These new ways of enjoyment ran afoul of the killjoy contingent that scorned those who made and drank alcohol. This first generation of anti-drink crusaders tarnished alcohol with a stain of disrepute that has never completely gone away in America.
Neil Dow, the mayor of Portland, declared that the only people who drank to the point of danger were “working people” like the Irish. He could have lobbied that charge against Germans, too. Dow’s words inspired the Maine Legislature to pass the nation’s first prohibition act in 1851, long before the anti-drinking crusade spread across America.
This is just the preamble to one of the most readable 400 page works of history I’ve ever undertaken, which is what I found Maureen Ogle’s, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer , to be. Ogle’s book was one of the texts I located last week at the Maine State Library, while undertaking research in order to answer my own questions about beer. Here is just one of those questions; why are there so few lagers, in the sea of ales being manufactured by craft brewers?
The simple answer, which I’ve been handed a number of times by so-called beer experts is some variation on the following; brewing lager is a more involved process than brewing ale. Hence, it’s easier and less problematic to produce ales, instead of lagers.
What I learned by reading Ogle’s meticulously researched book is that the answer to my question about lager runs counter to the accepted “wisdom” that lagers are more difficult to produce than ales. In fact, it gets to the root of many of things I dislike about the cult of craft brewing—the mindless acceptance that bitter, overly hopped beers are all one should expect from the brewing gods.
Instead of often being left with a choice between a watered-down proximity to the original German lagers my forebears brought to America, or bitter English ales, craft brewers ought to offer me something more.