Liquid Punk Rock
For years I've been involved in a debate with countless different people. The debate has been over the beaten to death question, "What is Punk Rock?" One of the easiest definitions that I've came up was, "It's music produced by people for themselves." The idea that regardless if one person understands or appreciates it, the art needed to be made and nothing was going to stop them from doing it. Now the side effect to producing art for one's own enjoyment is often without even considering it, you began to challenge the powers at be, convert others to your way of thinking and learned to be self sufficient. These wonderful oddballs, tend to buck establishment, focus on quality over profit, embrace the ideal of DIY because that is the only way it will get done and in the end introduce the world to something completely new. If Punk Rock was in Liquid form it would be Craft Beer.
I need to set the stage of the introduction of Craft Beer in America and I could simply say that the lowest common denominator was completely out of control. The watered down, light and almost completely tasteless or at least not good tasting American Pilsner that still controls around 96% of the beer market is a completely American invention. In the land of the Free time we took a seasonal Pilsner born in Czechoslovakia and turned it into something that contains not an ounce of its ordinal soul. This was accomplished by marketing, branding and adapting the taste to appeal to the broadest group of the general public. This has been done so well that many of these beloved brands are considered as American as the right to bare arms, eating too much trans fat and watching the super bowl.
Pilsner was not the beer of choice for most Americans in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th. In fact, the available malts in the U.S. didn't not create the quality of the Pilsners in Europe. It wasn't until they began to use a cheap and easy to find grain that the product began to resemble the Lager that we know today. These cheap grains would be corn and rice. Along with the industrial advances in refrigeration and transportation, it set the stage of it over taking the US market because this watery lager could was more durable and could be bottled and shipped over long distances.
By the late 19th century, most of the breweries were regional or local. Each had their own unique taste and style and serviced small areas. As the 20th century dawned this began to change as larger breweries could now ship to much larger areas and gained market control on a level that would have been impossible in the past. These larger breweries began to move their focus toward products that would appeal to a broader audience. The result was smaller regional and neighborhood breweries began to fall off and with them the variety of beer styles available. While larger brewers slowly reduced the bitterness of their beers to appeal to more and more of the public. The temperance movement and Prohibition would thin out even more of the smaller breweries as nearly half fail to reopen when Prohibition is repealed.
So the market thinner then before, national media and transportation in place, larger breweries not only adjusted their product to make it more appealing to a larger audience but were able to ship and market on a level unseen before. Hitting it's high point in the late 70s and early 80s with only 41 breweries operating in the country. Currently there are only two major brewers Budwiser and Miller/Coors and they control roughly 96% of the market. This was aided by one of the provision of the repeal of prohibition that introduced a three tier system by the Federal Government. At it's heart it created a system where breweries were required to sell through a distributor instead directly to taverns and stores. The idea was that it would allow the government to control alcohol sales but would create a more open free market. The problem was that it allowed large breweries to work the system by only dealing with distributors that distributed their product. This only added more pressure on smaller breweries.
Lucky for us, the breweries of Europe continued to produce crafted Ales, Stouts and other styles of beer. For me my introduction to different styles and tastes would come out of the sub culture I belonged to and the desire to purchase underage. Without those two factors, I wouldn't have been exposed to what beer could taste like. For me it was a local restaurant that offered countless imported beers and would sell to just about anyone tall enough to reach the counter. It had at one point been a sort of social center to the local scene, so when I asked where to buy I was pointed in their direction.
The choices there were over whelming at first with countless beers from Belgian, the UK, Asia, Germany and countless other regions of the world. It would be through this period that I would taste and fall deep in love with Stout, Hefeweizen and real live ales. It made it even harder to choke down those pilsners in the years to come. I remember the first time I tried Miller and complained about the taste, the person I was drinking with said something to the degree that Miller was a inferior product and handed me a Bud. I swallowed it down and really couldn't tell the difference. When I expressed that both tasted awful, I was told that it was an acquired taste. What I took away from this discursion was that if I was going to drink American beer, I would have to settle. Then after seeing Blue Velvet, I settled on Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I wasn't alone in my disillusionment of the lack of choices when it came to American beer nor was I the first. Little did I know that many had traveled this route long before me. When you limit the options for people, they tend to rebel and some of these free thinking fellows or gals begin to crowd together and before you know it there is a completely new subculture. With beer this started in two important places in the American Craft Beer revolution, Colorado and San Francisco.
The first would be the Home Brewing movement. The reality is that home brewing is not a new hobbies. The fact is that before it was outlawed with prohibition, making your own beer at home was in some families was a tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. This was in part because of the issues surrounding drinking water in Europe but it wasn't unusually with some cultures for the family recipe being passed along grandma's apple pie recipe or that three bean salad recipe. American's have been home brewing since the first European settlers landed here. In fact one of the reasons the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock instead of continuing to Jamestown was because they were out of beer. Granted the beers that they brewed were not as high in alcohol as most of the beers we drink today but it was part of the diet of everyone in the family.
Step ahead to the 1970s and in walks the first in a long line of outlaws, Charlie Papazian. He is credited with starting the American Homebrewing movement but even he learned about it from a fellow student while he was studying Nuclear Engineering at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA in 1970. So he wasn't the first but what he did do is begin offering classes for others on home brewing and founded the American Homebrewers Association all before homebrewing was made legal in 1979. In fact, as the story goes, he was investigated by the FBI and not only was he not arrested but the Federal Agents enrolled in his class and began homebrewing themselves. His book The Complete Joys of Homebrewing published in 1984 would go on to spread homebrewing around the world.
The next maverick in our story is a Iowa Native by the name of Fritz Maytag. Yes, he is from that Maytag family famous for their washing machines and Blue Cheese. As a grad student at Standford in 1965 he learned that his favorite brewery Anchor Brewing Co. was closing and rushed to buy 51% interest and invested additional funds to keep it open. Which from the outside wouldn't have seemed like a solid investment. The brewery had been on a steady decline since the late 50s, equipment was outdated and was being squeezed out of the market by the larger breweries. This was largely do to the breweries earned reputation for producing sour beers caused by the state of operation under the former owners.
Mr. Maytag would eventually buy the brewery out right and move the location of the brewery to it's current location. However the years between buying the brewery and the first batch of Anchor Steam, would require more than capitol to turn the brewery around. It would involve learning the art of brewing, retooling the brewery and taking the radical and dangerous route of producing something unheard of for its time, a traditional American ale in the form of a California common ale based off a recipe from Anchor's history. Producing a beer that hadn't been produced since prohibition would be a direct attack against the wall of American Pilsner that controlled the market. Not only did it turn the brewery around but it paved the road for the 2000 plus Microbreweries that exist today.
My first exposure to Anchor Steam would have been at a restaurant in downtown Des Moines call Caplin's. They claimed to have been one of the first places to buy Steam outside of California. I don't know if that is true but I know they were the first in the state and this would have been the early 90s. At the time I was deeply in my PBR phase though when the opportunity came around I would quickly jump to the few imports that were available at the time. It's hard to really understand how entrenched the large breweries were until you consider that when I started going to bars your average bar would have 5 or 6 taps and maybe 10 or 12 bottled beers. All of them would be domestic pilsner with maybe a Michelob or other safe over priced "import" for the big spender and they all tasted almost the same.
By the early to mid 90s Microbrewed beers began to enter Iowa but even then there were restriction on what could be sold here based on the post prohibition 3% ABV laws. The state first lifted this for Imports which greatly increased the amount of Imports that began showing up at bars and the liquor store. Now purest wouldn't consider Guinness a craft beer. However I have to beg the question, wasn't it once a microbrewery with limited small batch production of a dry stout that is consistently high quality? I think the whole industry is struggling with the definition as more and more small breweries gain national attention or are bought out by one of the big two.
My progression from PBR to Microbrews to Guinness came out of a desire. The reality is that even though there were a number of brewpubs and microbrews available in Des Moines by the mid 90s, due to the restriction on alcohol pre volume, many of the beers were not fully developed and bland. IPAs, Dubbels and Triples were not available because of the alcohol content. So styles and the taste that is obtained from longer fermentation weren't available. The other issue was what was available to purchase, the fact was that most bar even today do not offer much beyond the basic domestics.
The after party, I'm sad to admit, was one of the reasons that Guinness was one of the reasons that it became my drink of choice. It started because there was a time when you could bring a six pack of PBR to a party and not one of the other party goers would touch it. It was seen as a cheap beer and one that no respecting Bud drinker would touch. Somewhere along the line, they noticed that it tasted like Bud and thus became a target of after party beer theft. Nothing is worst than being the one that had the forethought to buy beer and then find yourself digging through a strange refrigerator for your missing beer only to find that you have been supplying the whole party.
This greatly effected my after party supply purchases in the future. The first adjustment was to Grolsch which for a skunky beer isn't bad but as it's Dutch cousin Heineken began to get popular even the skunk couldn't prohibit the thieves. Guinness and especially Guinness Extra Stout was the solution. I quickly found that no one would touch the stuff and would quickly turn their collective pale pilsner soaked noses up at even the thought of this dark and wonderful thing of beauty. It also helped that the club that I found myself in on most nights, Safari Nite Club was a Rasta bar. While most would think that Red Stripe would be the main Import that you would find in a Iowa Rasta bar but the reality is that Guinness especially the Foreign Brewed Extra Stout found in Jamaica is the Rude Boys' beer of choice.
Over the next decade or so that I spent in that bar also known as Hairy Mary's, I and my core group of friends lived on Guinness. We all have the Guinness stained white t-shirts to prove it. Though there might have been a lot more choices at the time on the liquor store shelves, the reality is that other than Sam Adams, still a majority of taverns only stocked beers from Bud, Miller and Coors. Guinness along with Boston Brewing Co. were the first to gain ground on a national level and expose for the first time, Americans to different beer styles. However even until recent years, you would be hard pressed to find either in your neighborhood dive.
Americans have a tendency to look to Europe and the past to be reminded of what could be and what was. Many of the traditional beers being imported in the US where a trigger for the reclaiming of American beer. A reminder of what beer was meant to be but from that foundation, American Craft Brewers began to expand the possibilities of what beer is. The Indian Pale Ale is a prime example. A beer originally produced as a seasonal light ale called October Beer that was well hopped then aged for two years. The added hops was found to help keep it's freshness during the boat ride to India. In the mid 90s a number of American Breweries began to increase the Hops in their beers and increase the fermentation period to increase not only the flavor but the alcohol level. The results was a much more bitter, herbal and cirtic taste that became to be known as American IPA.
Also the idea of what tastes, flavors and ingredients could be added expanded. The use of fruits, alternative grains and other ingredients is not uncommon in Europe and other areas outside of America but not to the extreme that it is done here. I think the first new flavor I encountered would have been 1995 or so with Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale. This was completely unlike anything I'd experienced in a beer before and it would lead to a great number of other non-traditional flavors finding themselves in beers. Everything from coffee and chocolate to tomatoes and Ghost Peppers have become standard flavors for beer today. In turn creating complex and surprising results.
Still up until 2010 domestically brewed with high alcohol levels could not be found in Iowa. While the rest of the country was enjoying the Bomber boom and the every increasingly changing tastes, we were still under the same rules put forth at the end of prohibition. Most of what was available locally was the same as had been since the 1990s. Sure there were a few new brewpubs here and there but to be honest I really didn't pay attention. Content with my Guinness with a Cider or Milk Stout here and there. Still with my focus on Imports.
I did begin to notice when I picked up my beer of choice the sudden appearance in the cooler of a number of wine size bottles with increasingly strange and odd names. Bombers a 22oz or 750ML began to be used by breweries in the Northwest for special or limited brews. Though now even breweries common brews can be found in Bombers. I think the first of these I saw was when New Belgian began selling in Iowa in 2007. I was working at DuBay's at the time as a Bar Tender/Manager and the first 4 or 5 cases of Fat Tire came this way until they started selling the 6 packs. At the time it didn't really sink in that using the size bottle was in a way placing beer in the same playing field as wine.
It would take a phone call from an old friend to get me to start buying a few of those bombers at the local shop. At the time I wasn't aware that Iowa had lifted the ABV but most certainly felt the effect both in the buzz and the flavor. I quickly fell in love with everything coming out of the Stone Brewery and Ommegang. Also I began revisiting Samuel Smith and Boston Brewing with their barrel series. I've always drank beer for the taste, well maybe not always but returning to the craft beers has reminded me of why I was never satisfied with Bud.
Like everything I'm attracted to, I started immersing myself in the culture of craft brewing. I began to pick up on familiar values and ideas from Punk. Reading interviews with brewers when asked why they brewed a strange or unusual beer, answered, "We made it cause we liked it. I don't think we expected anyone else would and that didn't matter." There is also a national and international network of people producing a product, sharing information and doing it themselves often on shoe string budget fueled by their love and desire of their art. There is the fight against the established and powerful large companies, in a Goliath vs David battle for distribution, market and shelf space. Craft brewing is at it's heart about bucking the system that has had a strangle hold on the market for the last 80s years and it's gaining ground.
This is beer made by rebels, for rebels and at times can be conformational. Whether it's the bitterness of an American IPA or the spicy burn of peppery brew, it is here to challenge what you have been told beer was meant to be. Embrace it, savor it and share it.