Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

A New Book About Beer History

By William Brand
Tuesday, October 24th, 2006 at 9:48 pm in Uncategorized.

There’s a new book about beer making the rounds this month: “Ambitious Brew,’’ by Maureen Ogle, (Harcourt, $25). Is it worth the $25? Here’s a hint:

Skip straight to page 259. The next 83 pages cover the craft beer revolution beginning with Anchor’s Fritz Maytag in excellent fashion. She talked to several major craft beer pioneers like John McAuliffe, who founded New Albion Brewing in Sonoma County in 1975 and Ken Grossman, who, with Paul Camusi, founded Sierra Nevada in Chico.

She’s a good interviewer and has an eye for fine detail and provides the best account in a book of craft brewing’s origins I’ve ever seen. Also, she retells the story of the Prohibition movement in an interesting way.

End of praise.

Her approach is startingly similar to that of neo-conservatives, an anti-spin, if you will. The standard craft beer tale of how “baby boomers’’ rescued American beer from the clutches of industrial brewers of a “thin, yellow concoction with no flavor and even less body’’ is flawed, she argues. There are great stories to be told about those very brewers, founders of the Pabst, Miller’s and Anheuser-Busch empires, she says. There are and they’ve been told before many times. History books are full of their stories.

Truth is, we did save beer as we know it. And our kids, the gen Xers and beyond, are taking what we saved and transmuting it into something fantastic. Here’s a 30 second history lesson:

Because of Prohibition and the temperance movement before it, the middle class no longer drank beer and by middle class I mean working people, blue collar and professional. I never saw a beer in my parents house: My mom was a teacher, my dad a veterinarian. They drank bourbon and gin and cocktails. Standard American lager and most of the “Americanized” imports were thin and tasteless.

The only people who drank beer were the drunks at the local tavern, students and people like me in the Armed Forces,.

I didn’t discover real beer until I was 18 and wandered into a German restaurant in Washington, D.C., where I was stationed in the Navy. They served me a glass of Wurzburger Amber. I was blown away. Others like me had similar experiences and it’s us who saved beer. Period. It’s not spin. It’s truth.

And furthermore: The author dispenses with the fine history of American ale brewing – the beer the Pilgrims brewed – in two sentences:

“In the early nineteenth century the only beer Americans knew was English-style ale, brewed in the states since colonial days but never as popular as either cider or spirits. The differences between British ale and
German lager were apparent to both eye and tongue. Ale sat heavy and `still’ in a tankard, brown in color and thick in body. Lager seemed nearly buoyant in contrast, thanks to its lighter body and color, and lower alcohol content…”

What else is there to say. What a hoot. There are so many errors in those statements that well, whew. By the mid-19th century, good ale was neither dark nor still. And your basic ale was 5 percent alcohol by volume or a bit more, so was lager. Oh yes, and lager never went bad, went still and foul. Sure,

Those of us who give a damn about beer – who didn’t discover it on the side of a Budweiser truck somewhere in Florida in 2004 – know a lot about the lager-ale controversy. While it’s true that lager overwhelmed the ale-drinking world and every word she writes was spoken over and over by some; there’s another whole side to the controversy, which she omits.

What she has written, she has written well. But it’s not really “The story of American Lager.” The book about American beer, all American beer still has not been written. – William Brand.

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