Tag Archives: Anchor Brewing Company

You Must Read—Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

I think about beer a lot.  If you visit here with any frequency that will come as little surprise, but I am also somewhat academic in my love of beer.  Years of formal training as a historian have led me to dive into a topic’s historical underpinnings more so than the average bear.

9780156033596When I came across Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer I was excited because here was a historical text dealing exclusively with beer.  Other good books—Daniel Okrent’s excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History of America in particular—deal with the larger issues of alcohol in American history, including beer, but fail to really focus on the golden liquid.

As it is a story about American beer it starts in the nineteenth century as German immigrants came to the U.S. and founded breweries.  The names are familiar right off the bat: Best, Pabst, and Busch.  The story of American beer is really about the titans of the industry for the first one hundred years or so.  These men and the breweries that bore their names were the shepherds of what constituted American beer into the 1970s.

It is amazing how precarious the situation was for many of these brewers as they grew from regional brands into the largest breweries in the world.  That is something to think about for a moment.  American beer before the craft beer renaissance was much maligned by every other beer culture in the world for producing pale swill that barely qualified as beer.  Yet, it was American companies who were pushing the boundaries of technology and technique more than anyone else to expand beer’s reach.  Granted, the pushing of boundaries was all about domination of markets.

Ogle is exhaustive in her look at the rise of the major brewers through the 1950s, but the book falls somewhat short in describing the rise of the craft beer movement starting in the 1970s.  It is nice to see Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company get credit for being one of the first to pioneer what meant to be a craft beer maker.  Other California craft brewers Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing Company are also profiled while Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams, gets a lot of attention.

However, this felt like a Clif Notes or highlights version of the story of the craft beer movement in the U.S.  There is so much to the story of craft beer in the U.S. that to focus on a few of the well-known examples feels like a cop out.  Again, it is American brewers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to beer whether it’s the crazy genius of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewery or the fact that it seems like every street corner of the Front Range in Colorado is home to a new brewery.  Small purveyors are revitalizing what had been a moribund industry and, in any cases, revitalizing the communities in which they choose to operate.  This is no small part of the story about craft beer in the United States.  The small purveyors are really about being part of a place.  I like to think about it like terroir, the French concept of a “sense of place,” for beer which is not something you hear of very often.  However, these brewers are producing beers that define or are defined by the places in which they are made.  It’s a result of all the factors that go into a small brewer that is not possible when scaled to something like an AB-InBev or other macro-monstrosity.

What would be interesting would be an update on the book as the major U.S. breweries have entered into ownership or partnerships with foreign breweries, leaving the craft beer makers as the only “American” brewers left standing anymore.

Regardless of my quibbles with the book’s treatment of the recent craft beer movement there is much to recommend Ambitious Brew.  To understand how we got to this moment in time, it is necessary to understand how American beer came to be.

Random Beer Thoughts

Latest Organic American Ale

My second organic American Ale turned out okay.  The hop profile was subdued with some of the aromas associated with more pungent American ales, especially the kind that predominates in the Pacific Northwest.  Here is a look:

I have not noticed a lot of difference between Wyeast 1272 American Ale II and 1056 American Ale.  My palate may not be advanced enough, but the beers taste similar.  The 1056 seems to produce a beer with more of a head and is more effervescent.  It’s about the only quantifiable difference I can pin down.  Maybe it is the preponderance of American style ales I have been drinking lately, thus I find myself…

Tired of American Style Ales

This winter my brewing has focused heavily on American style ales using Wyeast 1056 American Ale and Wyeast 1272 American Ale II with a variety of malt extract, steeping grains, and hops.  After drinking several batches and trying some brews from fellow homebrewers I can safely say that I am tired of the style right now.

With the weather turning warmer—it’s the end March and the temperature in eastern Iowa has tickled the upper 70s—I am looking forward to “spreading my wings” and brewing up something different.  The Innkeeper, an extract kit from Northern Brewer, is in bottles and should be ready in a couple of weeks.  This weekend I brewed up a California Common (a.k.a “steam” beer”) and an Irish Red Ale is coming on right after that.  I think I might try the AK47 extract kit from Northern Brewer and whatever else strikes my fancy, but it is not going to be an American Ale.

The California Common or “steam” beer is a uniquely American beer.  The key feature of this beer is that it is fermented using lager yeasts at ale temperatures.  Needless to say, this results in a style that does not conform to the dictates of either traditional category although there is so much blurring of the lines anymore that the lager versus ale debate is somewhat moot.  Besides, if it tastes good who cares what official style the beer conforms to?

Originally a beer for working class patrons, steam beer was brought back to the modern beer drinker by the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, which is also the traditional home of the steam beer style.  Compared to the other beers I have brewed the California Common was the most complex.  It involved malt extract added at two different times, hops added at four different times, and will require a secondary fermentation following primary fermentation.  It will also take approximately eight weeks from wort to glass.  Right now it is in the carboy, fully krausened, and bubbling away.

I am very partial to steam beers because it takes me back to graduate school at the University of Iowa where a friend of mine introduced me to a whole range of different beers, including Anchor Steam on tap at the Sanctuary.  Simpler times.

Taste Testing Organic Beers

The folks at Grist have decided to do a roundup of organic beers.  Apparently, New Belgium Brewery is going to be phasing out the high profile organic Mothership Wit.  The overt reason is a decline in sales, but I would say that the decline in sales is in direct correlation to the beer’s total lack of depth or complexity.  It’s a fine pale yellow beer and it’s organic, but that is all that it has going for it right now.  After one pint you sort of look at your choices and move on to something else because there is no point in drinking boring beer.

Organic beer does not have to be boring.  It’s about replacing ingredients, not necessarily cutting out the methodology that can make great tasting beer.  The past two batches of American style ale that I have made had both complexity and lots of flavor yet both were organic—the malt extract, steeping grains, and priming sugar were organic.  The hops and yeast were not.

When a Pint is Not a Pint

How much do we really think about weights and measures?  A pound is a pound, a gallon is a gallon, and a pint is a pint?  Right?

Nope.  According to Jordan Mackay the American pint is just too damned big.  The contention is that the newer ultra-hoppy beers of the U.S. craft beer movement are unsuited to being served in glasses 16 ounces and larger.  I tend to agree with this in principle because most of these beers are not quaffed with near the rapidity of a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

A pint is a somewhat arbitrary measure of beer volume because the variety of what is considered a pint varies dramatically based upon locale.  Get a pint in the U.K. and it is determined by law how much beer is included.  Note: I have a set of Imperial pint glasses from which I drink beer because the glasses can hold 16 ounces of beer with some room leftover for the head.

In the U.S. a pint is generally referring to a 16 ounce glass containing beer.  The Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams and arbiter of all things beer in the U.S., feels that there is something left to be desired in the common glasses used for beer consumption in this country. 

I do not know if I agree with the technical merits of one glass over another as I tend to enjoy beer in all its serving vessels be it pint glass, red Solo cup, das boot, or straight from the can.

Backyard Hops

This just makes me want to order some hop rhizomes from Northern Brewer, build a trellis, and get to growing my own hops in my backyard.  Keepin’ it local!

Cellar Raid

There is something strange about finding four years of a beer “vintage” in a local beer shop, let alone having the newest vintage and receiving an older vintage from a friend.  I have never been one to let a beer age for any period of time or to really enjoy the merits of beer that is aged outside of some of the sour beers being produced by craft brewers all over the U.S.

Maybe this is the next evolution in my beer education.

Waste into Something Else

WTF?  Breweries use 400 million tons of grain a year and most of it is thrown away!  I am glad the macro-beer and purveyor of thin lagers Anheuser-Busch is trying to find a use for the stuff.  I think New Belgium in Fort Collins has already beat them to the punch in using brewery waste in a bio-reactor to generate electricity, but somehow A-B will get a lot of credit for following.  Granted, the impact will be big.  It’s still a copycat.