Friday, January 25, 2013

Hand Me Downs

Since the whole 'craft vs crafty' shenanigans in December I have been mulling over some of the criteria that the Brewer's Association has for a beer factory to earn the title 'craft'. I am still of the opinion that 'craft' is a meaningless term and perhaps one that is even quite insulting to the breweries which, through the capricious whimsy of the BA, are designated non-craft in some specious good vs evil dichotomy. Admittedly cynical me will be very surprised if the BA henceforth refused to take money from non-craft breweries to be at events like the Great American Beer Festival.

I really don't have much of a problem with most of the definition of a 'craft' brewery. Making less than 6 million barrels? Sure. Independent? Whatever, I think corporate structure is irrelevant, you can't taste an LLC, PLC or S-Corp any more than you can 'passion'. The word though that I find most disturbing in the definition is 'traditional', defined as having a flagship beer from which the fermentables are 100% derived from malt, or at least 50% of sales need to come from all-malt beers.

When I was a student, back in the dim and distant dying days of the late 20th Century, I did a couple of terms studying New Testament Greek. One of my favourite Greek words is 'paradosis', which is usually translated into English as 'tradition' but for which a fuller and more meaningful translation would be 'those things which are handed down from generation to generation'. Quite why the Brewer's Association decided, when establishing the definition of 'craft' that there was only one true 'tradition' of beer in the United States is beyond me.

If you look back to the early days of brewing in the New World, the English colonists would use whatever source of fermentables they could lay their hands on in order to make a brew. As early as 1584 the Virginia colonists would supplement their malt with corn due to a shortage. In the 1620s, again in Virginia, the colonists learnt how to make beer from maize, and some preferred it to English ale. When Jefferson was looking to make beer at his plantation, just up the road from where I sit typing this, he used maize and wheat, though there are also records of him buying malt from his neighbour William Merriweather.

Jump further forward in time and, during the industralisation of the US in the middle decades of the 19th century, we find German immigrants coming over and longing for German style lager beer. To meet this demand, German immigrant brewers attempted to make beers similar to those found back home, but the local barley was simply not good enough to make a pale sparkling beer like you would drink in the bars of Munich, Dortmund and Cologne. 6 row barley is higher in protein and so these innovators looked to use an adjunct to make the beer taste more like it did in Europe. As a result corn or rice was used to enhance the flavour of the beer so it would taste as expected rather than being unacceptable to their knowledgeable German consumers. From that innovation was born a new, uniquely American beer style (you could call it the first), the Pale American Lager. The remaining family brewers from that period, the likes of August Schell and Yeungling still use corn in their beers because that is what has been handed down from generation to generation, it is their paradosis, their tradition and to deride it as some kind of phoney bad practice is arrogant in the extreme.

The Pale American Lager is probably more of an American tradition than any of the 'craft' beers being brewed from California to New England, and Oregon to Florida. I guess what we really need is to dispense with the whole 'them vs us' worldview, even though it keeps plenty of people in business I am sure, acknowledge that beer can have many paradoses none better than the others, and that there is room for everyone at the bar.


  1. Corn was used in ale production during the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, as well.

  2. I am 100% with you on the 'craft' marketing shenanigans, but that definition actually continues:

    "A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor."

    It's still silly. The next new craft brewery that tries to make a go of entering the light lager category with its flagship will be the first I've heard of, but it's not quite so straitjacketed as "all malt."

  3. I don't believe adding rice was necessarily an American innovation. Rice was a popular adjunct in North German Lagers before the Reinheitsgebot was extended to all of Germany in 1906.

    The all-malt stuff is such total bollocks. If you look at 20th-century British brewing there's barely a single beer that was 100% malt.


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