The Story of Beer

So many beers, so little time.

So many beers, so little time.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Story of Beer

  1. Personally, I must ask the author, what of cider? This country lived on cider before beer, until the German immigration. While cider is strong in British Isles and French traditions, it is not in German tradition. Cider and ale both serve the purposes of providing “safe” drink, not likely to carry the ailments that can be found in fresh water, and so were the most common drinks. Ale, too, may never reach the heights of a good lager, but it will never reach the depths of a bad one, either. The ease of making ale with consistency is its own value.

    If you ever can, you must travel to Germany and Bohemia. In the early days of the Global War on Terrorism when the military stores were stocked with our allies’ products to encourage their participation, I used to find an utterly amazing Lithuanian porter (porter, mind you, speaking of “low grade” beer), with layers upon layers of tastes, shades and subtleties. Like a fine Scotch you could just let it lie on the tongue and continue revealing something new. In Germany one normally buys beer from a small warehouse. You can buy a case (24 one liter bottles) of one kind, or pick up an empty case and mix-and-match all the different beers. You return the empties in the same case. This is so eye-wateringly simple, everything gets re-used over and over again. Why not in America?

    But the beers themselves are in a league of their own. Despite the explosion of craft brewers in the America, and that is all good, I have never tasted anything here that approached average in Germany. You can walk into the local supermarket in the hills of Bohemia, and walk out with liters of inexpensive brews that simply will never be tasted here, the best I’ve ever had. The grains are different, the weather is different, the soils are different, and the skills in making them are different. The reality is that lagers are indeed harder to make, especially to make consistently, and that is why so few American craft breweries attempt them. There may be small brewers in places like Colorado who are making a go at it, but they aren’t distributed this direction.

    Which points out the other reality of German or Bohemian or Lithuanian beers, that they are all local, and that they are rarely distributed more than a few hundred miles away. If your beer doesn’t have to meet “consumer safety” regulations or be brewed with the expectation that it will live in a truck for a few weeks while it gets shipped all around the country, one can craft it quite differently. The Brits criticise the Germans for having opaque mugs with tall foamy heads, the Germans knock the Brits for having warm, bitter ales, and in both cases they regularly produce better fare than we find here because they never have to ship very far at all (not to mention that their drinkers know better than ours). So maybe your best hope is to cultivate and encourage your own local brewers whenever you can.

  2. No mention of cider, LP. I’m guessing it’s due to Ms. Ogle picking 1844 and the German “invasion” and wanting to detail the period of American history that gave us beer as we currently know it, and the large-scale predecessors that led to the craft beer movement that is now so popular. There’s much more to the book than that, but I’m summarizing.

    I can’t speak for the author, but I know from my own writing about history, sometimes you have to pick a date and work from there. Since her interest was in writing “the history of beer in America,” as she states in the book’s introduction, she began with Phillip Best, and his arrival in Milwaukee.

    I hope to get to Europe at some point before I die. I’d love to visit Gernman and Bavaria, where my Opa and Nana are from.

    I agree about the local nature of products and not having to ship them long distances. Maine is fortunate to have many local brewers, and Portland especially has experienced a boom in smaller, micro-breweries and distillers. Of course that’s Portland, which has a culture that has a predilection towards all things local, and an economy that will support paying a premium for local. Out in the hinterlands, the roadsides are littered with the empties of the cheapest macrobrews available, like the ironically-named, Milwaukee’s Best.

  3. Your points about lager are interesting. It is actually one of the two major styles of beer (along with ales). It is bottom fermented, meaning the yeast settles at the bottom of the fermenter rather than floats on top. It requires cold fermentation, ideally below 50 degrees. It is stored or “lagered” for several weeks or even months, before it’s ready to drink.

    A bit more work and not something a brewer can “bang out” but like you, I’m not sure why the ratio of ales to lagers is so lopsided.

    Portland Lager was a great local beer; sorry to see the brewery that produced it no longer around.

    I think craft beer is another one of those things that allow people to lord their knowledge (or lack of) over others.

    • Appreciate your perspective, LagerGuy. I keep hearing about Portland Lager, which was brewed by Bull Jagger Brewing, in Portland. They were a short-lived enterprise, a blip in Maine’s craft brewing history. Too bad. Perhaps the brewer, Tom Bull, will land somewhere and produce another similar-styled lager? Here’s a link announcing the closing in 2013.

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