Tuesday, October 25, 2011


That word and everything it entails meant that at one time, all was well in the world, at least in Germany. It was the law stipulating that in order to produce something and call it beer, (yes I'm writing about beer again, just a warning), you could only use four ingredients, water, barley, hops and yeast. The law was repealed in the 1990s when Germany became part of the E.U. and the laws of all the member nations were consolidated. German beers sold domestically continue to adhere to the law. But it is now possible for German brewers to export something they call beer that is something well, just a little less than beer.

What's the world coming to?

A wise man once said:
As goes beer, so goes the world.

I don't remember who said it, maybe it was Abraham Lincoln. Anyway, in this topsy turvy economy with our manic-depressive stock market and the country on the verge of class warfare, the world of beer in many ways parallels the bigger picture.
After all, if you can't trust beer from a place that takes beer as seriously as Germany, what can you trust?

Yes friends, I'm saying that beer is a metaphor for life.

OK for those few of you who have continued reading after that last line, I offer my thanks for sticking with me.

The beer world is essentially divided in two camps, the macros and the micros. The macro breweries, Big Beer, represent the one percent of the population who control most of the wealth. As such they represent all that is evil with corporations, greed, capitalism, you name it. Their product is a watered down version of real beer, filled with adjunct ingredients like corn and rice that dilute the product, designed to increase the profit margin for the sole purposes of making the rich CEOs of the multi-national corporations who control them, even richer. Why do people drink their ghastly swill? Because the multi-nationals have brainwashed the unsuspecting public through their marketing campaigns, into believing that using their product will make them hipper, sexier, manlier, more attractive, more honest, and less pretentious than drinking the beer of the smaller, less visible, independent companies, the micro breweries who represent the other 99 percent, aka, the rest of us.

Instead of occupying Wall Street and Chicago, maybe today's protesters of corporate greed gone amok should be at the doorsteps of Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis and Miller in Milwaukee, both subsidiaries of the evil global corporations based in South Africa, or Europe or God only knows where. After all, Big Beer in all its incarnations, controls about 95 percent of the beer market in America, and one of its products, an appalling concoction known as "Bud Lite" has a 28 percent market share all to itself. The insatiable appetite of Big Beer will not rest until its opposition is thoroughly crushed, mangled, and wiped off the face of the map, or short of that, absorbed into Big Beer.

It's not like the old days when the hard working immigrant brewers who brought their recipes from the old country and founded thousands of small breweries in this country, all made wonderful beers and happily co-existed with each other in blissful utopia when the world was less cruel.

Well that's the story as told by the most strident beeristas, the real story isn't quite as salacious. It is true that brewing in America resembles the overall economy in its complexities, and its inscrutable system of hierarchies, ownerships and distribution. But the history of beer making in this country is also a fascinating tale of struggle, innovation, survival, and ultimately for the lucky ones, tremendous success and fortune.

Beer was brewed in the New World before the arrival of the Mayflower. But if you consider beer a genuine part of American culture, as anyone who watches TV commercials during sporting events does, the real dawn of the brewing industry in America came during the great influx of German immigration in the nineteenth century. The thirst of all those new arrivals needed to be quenched and one of the most valued professions among their ranks was that of brewer. Hundreds of breweries were founded in the cities with large Teutonic settlements such as New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis and of course, Milwaukee.

In America, the brewers did the best they could to replicate the beer they made back home, but found that the barley available to them on this side of the ocean resulted in a cloudy brew. They discovered that the addition of corn or rice (ingredients that would have been prohibited in Germany), provided the clarity their customers demanded. The beer those customers wanted was a type of beer known as lager, which was the prevalent, but certainly not the only style of beer found in Central Europe at the time. The descendants of those German brewers would create an entirely new style of beer known as American Pale Lager, which would become virtually the only style this country would produce for a very long time.

The names of a handful of those immigrant brewers are immortalized to this day on the bottles and cans of the products that represent the companies they founded. The names include Frederick Miller, Adolph Coor, Captain Fred Pabst, Joseph Schlitz, and Adolphus Busch. The fact that we still know those names and not the others, testifies to the fact that these men, all of whom came from humble backgrounds, were businessmen first, and brewers second. In each case, they bought their way into existing breweries, and ended up with success far beyond their wildest dreams.

Joseph Schlitz's brilliant marketing skills were helped along by tragedy, the Great Chicago Fire. Five local breweries were destroyed in the fire and almost as serious, the city's water system was contaminated. Relief came from Milwaukee in the form of hundreds of barrels of beer, courtesy of Herr Schlitz. That bit of altruism not only solidified the company's reputation around the country but also that of its hometown. In fact the slogan: "The beer that made Milwaukee famous" was inspired by Schlitz's act of generosity back in 1871. For his part, Schlitz gained a foothold in the lucrative Chicago market which enabled him to open up several saloons serving of course, exclusively Schlitz beer. You can see evidence of this today as the familiar logo of the Schlitz company, (the earth wrapped by a banner displaying the name of company), still graces the facades of many surviving buildings that once housed Schlitz owned saloons.

Beer plays an important part in Chicago's history. Back in 1855, the city fathers enacted a law banning the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Since it was the tradition of Germans to congregate in beer gardens on their one day of rest, the law was seen as an affront to that community. This resulted in the Lager Beer Riot on April 21st of that year. The ban was soon lifted. The labor movement that rocked the city in the 1870s and 80s was made up mostly of Germans and Bohemains, and the resentment towrd those folks and their drink of choice, fueled the fire of the temperance movement, as did the intense anti-German sentiment during WWI.

Well into the twentieth century, most beer was sold in saloons. If you wanted to enjoy your beer at home, you'd have to go to the local watering hole and fill up a vessel of one kind or other to bring home. Part of my family's lore is the story of how my great-grandfather Robert Houlihan became a teetotaler. One Sunday morning, Robert had a taste for a beer and asked his wife Margaret to head out to the tavern to fetch him some. Margaret wasn't in the mood for a Sunday morning jaunt to the
neighborhood tap so she did what any sensible parent would do, she sent her child. Apparently, Robert's reaction to the sight of his favorite daughter Marie, my grandmother, returning from the saloon struggling to carry home a bucket of beer, sent him into a tizzy. Such was the disgust from the sight that from that day forward my great grandfather vowed, not to fetch the beer himself, but to give up drink. He would become an ardent and vocal supporter of temperance and Prohibition. Fortunately his beliefs did not rub off on most of his progeny.

The "noble experiment" of Prohibition sent a tidal wave of change throughout the land, little of it having to do with the expressed purpose of eliminating the evils of drink.

A good number of breweries had the wherewithal to survive the thirteen years of Prohibition, mostly by selling legal near beer, malt extract or yeast products. What the consumers did with those products was apparently their own business, so long as they didn't make beer, wink wink.

One unintended consequence was that Prohibition created a whole new market for beer. Old time saloons were primarily the domain of men, whereas the illegal speakeasies of Prohibition were filled with men, women and even children. When the repeal of the 18th amendment came in 1933, the breweries, anxious to recoup their losses, were eager to expand their market well beyond the traditional Central European, male core. The heavily malted, intensely hopped beverage that Bohemians and Germans preferred, was shall we say an acquired taste, not necessarily popular among this new group. So the brewers adapted their recipes to create a beer that was less intense, easier to drink, and had a greatly reduced mouth feel and aftertaste. They did this by adding more corn or rice, depending on the location of the brewery. This was the beginning of the aforementioned American Pale Lager, which became so dominant in the American market.

Many in the beer world call
American Pale Lager an inferior product, but that's not really true. The lack of taste and distinction (at least compared to other styles), is certainly the chief characteristic of APL, but that's exactly the point. While making a boatload of money is certainly their goal as with any business, big brewers do not skimp on effort or the quality of their materials. In fact, the opposite is true for the most part. The breweries spend a great deal of money to procure ingredients of the highest quality and to maintain the highest standards of quality control in their facilities. A brewmaster's most important job at a commercial brewery, especially a big one, is not creativity or experimentation, but quality control, making sure his beer tastes exactly the same, one insipid sip after another. That's not an easy job in the notoriously fickle art of brewing.

When a brand of beer becomes inconsistent, trouble follows, as the makers of Schiltz found out not too long ago. Schlitz was the leading brewer in America for most of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, the company seeking to improve its profit margin, tried to cut corners by experimenting with new techniques that would shorten the aging process and enable them to use a higher percentage of corn, which is cheaper than barley. The change of recipe changed the product, and resulted in a beer than was inconsistent from batch to batch, causing loyal drinkers to switch brands in droves. In about ten years, the great Downtown Milwaukee brewery closed for good, and Schlitz was absorbed into the Pabst company. The Schlitz label exists today, still owned by the Pabst Company, and contract brewed by Miller, as a boutique brand, brewed using the old recipe. Better yes, but don't expect it to taste like Pilsner Urquell.

If innovation, creativity and experimentation are not a part of the brewmaster's job description, that is certainly not the case for the marketers of beer. Early beer ads testify to the beer companies' desire to convince non beer drinkers to drink beer. They typically describe the healthful attributes of beer as well as other benefits. The following is the copy of an ad from around 1900: *

There is no beverage more healthful than the right kind of beer. Barley malt and hops - a food and a tonic. Only 3 1/2 percent of alcohol - just right for digestion.

Rhine wine is 12 percent alcohol; champagne, 20 percent; whiskey, 40 percent.

There are no germs in pure beer, while the sweet drinks you give you children are full of them.

Pure beer is a tonic which all physicians favor. They prescribe it to the weak, the run-down, the convalescent. And they recommend it to well people who want to keep well.
Of course you have to drink the right beer:

But get the right beer, for some beer is not healthful. Schlitz is the pure beer, the clean beer, the filtered and sterilized beer. No bacilli in it - nothing but health.
And now for the coup de gras:

And Schlitz is the aged beer that never causes biliousness.
Of course not.

As the advertising world became more sophisticated, a product's image became the selling point for everything from soup to nuts. Beer was certainly no exception. For more or less the first two thirds of the twentieth century, beer ads typically made an effort to present the image of their product and its users as urbane and sophisticated, in marked contrast to the public image that beer was the drink of working class men. The Miller Company for example, famously advertised its signature product, Miller High Life as the "Champagne of Beers"

Here is a TV spot featuring the suave and debonair Ray Milland in character as private detective Roy Markham from around 1960. Note the non-discreet product placement during the closing credits of the program:

A few things happened to beer advertising in the sixties. TV commercials became more epic and cinematic. Gone were the days of on screen talent simply explaining the merits of a product as they did on radio. Imported beer started making real inroads in the American market and the bland, less expensive, American beers could no longer with a straight face claim to be more sophisticated than a beer from say Holland or Germany. So American beer companies reacted by turning to their old reliable consumers as you can see in this ad from 1971:

This commercial was made in the era when the slogans; "Miller Time" and "For all you do, this Bud's for you" were introduced. Their message was; after a hard day at work, sit back, relax, and pour yourself a cold one, you deserve it. The aggressive, over-the-top manly, men doing über-manly things campaign of Schlitz didn't go over as well as its creators had hoped, maybe because viewers found it hard to relate to say, tuna fishermen. But it was part of the trend that continues to this day to market American beer primarily to the working man.

In the seventies and the eighties, the marketers and brewmasters got together to create an entirely new style of brew, light beer. Influenced by the diet soft drink, light beer was probably intended to be marketed toward beer drinking women who wanted to watch their waste lines. The Chicago brand Meister Braü was the first to market the stuff but went nowhere with it. The Meister Braü label was purchased by Miller, who was at the time owned by cigarette giant Phillip Morris Company. "Meister Braü Lite" became "Lite Beer from Miller", and the target audience was changed to thirsty men. The new angle was that you could drink a whole lot of this stuff and get drunk (ok not in so many words), but not get bloated. They also claimed it tasted good which I guess is a matter of opinion. Miller produced several commercials showing some of the manliest of men, mostly sports stars who wouldn't be caught dead drinking diet beer, but were happy to drink two cans of beer that had the same effect of one normal beer. It was brilliant. Not only did the beer companies have a successful new product on their hands, but they could sell twice as much of it. Every major brand jumped on the light beer bandwagon and today about 45 percent of all the malt beverages sold in the U.S. is "Lite" beer of one brand or another.

At the same time, another revolution was taking place in the beer world. No one agrees exactly how or where it all began, but the micro/craft brewing movement brought a whole new world of beer to this country. The author and renowned beer authority Michael Jackson, categorized beers from around the world and identified dozens of different styles in his groundbreaking book; The World Guide to Beer, first published in 1977. Another author, Fred Eckhardt, elaborated on the various styles is his book; The Essentials of Beer Style. Small, independent breweries and brew pubs began creating brews in every conceivable style. In the meantime, home brewing became legal for the first time in the United States since Prohibition, and all over the country people read Charlie Papazian's book, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, and learned how to make their own Oatmeal Stout, English Bitters, Belgian Ales, India Pale Ales, German Kölsches, Weißbiers and Bocks, barley wines, heck even American lagers if they chose to do so. The end result was that in America, people who never knew they liked beer because all they ever drank was the tasteless product of Big Beer, became connoisseurs. It was a great awakening. New breweries sprung up all over the States after a steady decline for decades. Today there are almost 1,800 breweries in this country, and all but about 100 of them are either micro-breweries or brewpubs.

Big Beer of course is taking notice, not that craft breweries are really a threat to them. Boston Brewing Company, the largest craft brewery in the United States, shipped 2,259,000 barrels of beer in 2010 and ranked as the eighth top brewing company in the country according to Newsweek Magazine. That's a lot of beer. But its market share is 1.1% compared to 47.9% for Anheuser-Busch InBev, and 28.9% for MillerCoors. Boston's market share is even less than one half that of Pabst Company which doesn't even brew its own beer. Still those numbers would put the Boston Brewing Company in the ranks of Big Beer, even though there is world of difference between its flagship product, Sam Adams Boston Lager, and your standard American Lager from those other companies.

This year it was announced that Chicago's own Goose Island Brewery was to become part of the Anheuser-Busch InBev portfolio. In other words (to mix a couple metaphors), they went over to the Dark Side by selling out to the Evil Empire. Of course no one has a clue how this will all play out over the next several years, but it's unlikely that the giant multi-national corporation is interested in the brewery simply to destroy it. Here is some evidence to that effect. I seriously doubt if Goose Island will be cranking out Bud and Bud Lite anytime soon.

The craft beer movement has separated beer drinkers into people who either drink beer because of the taste, or because of the label. Big Beer is still the big player in the industry and far more people drink their product than any other beer. I'll admit that there are lots of folks out there who drink American Pale Lager simply because they like the taste of it better than anything else. But I'm willing to bet that far more people drink Big Beer more because of the label.

Again, there's that ever fascinating subject, marketing, and its ability to elevate one product over another even though there is absolutely no difference between the two. Take Pabst Blue Ribbon, an old time brew that was once best known as the beer preferred by red necks. PBR has recently gained a new life as the hip beer of the indie rock set. How that happened was a combination of dumb luck and shear brilliance. In the mid-eighties, Pabst was a near moribund company whose future was in the hands of a hostile takeover. The new owner concentrated on selling all the real estate holdings of the company and all but eliminating the advertising budget. The label became essentially invisible for a decade, until young, anti-establishment types, "re-discovered" it
as a cheaper alternative to the familiar, more "commercial" brands like Miller and Bud that their fathers were drinking. Without any effort at all from the company, Pabst became big again, and while keeping away from main stream advertising, the new owners, the Metropoulos family have nudged the brand along by sponsoring alternative events such as concerts at indie rock venues, bike messenger contests and artists who work on Pabst related projects.

In the meantime, the good folks at Miller, in a sense bucking the trend themselves, began to emphasize their "macro-beer" image, featuring the High Life brand that we hadn't heard from for a while, though it never went away. A recent ad campaign has featured a likable Miller High Life deliveryman who actually takes his beer away from people whom he deems pretentious and therefore unworthy of "living the high life." This is a message obviously directed at the "everyman" but in a way has made MHL hipper than hip as a counter-counter culture product. In other words, drinkers of MHL reject the faux coolness of PBR and view its drinkers as poseurs. They drink what is in their opinion, a more honest, therefore hipper product.

The irony of all this is that Pabst Blue Ribbon is contract brewed by Miller. While the two are brewed using slightly different recipes, they are both made in the same brewery and are essentially the same beer. I'm guessing that if the workers at the Miller bottling plant accidentally switched the labels on a batch of PBR and a batch of MHL, nobody would notice.

These are pretty good times for beer lovers in America. For those of us who love beer for the taste, never before has there been more selection of styles of beer available to drink fresh, at a local brewpub, or to pick up at a retail establishment, even the local supermarket. For those drawn to the label, many of the old, forgotten brands will be coming back as a sort of niche for drinkers interested in nostalgia. Of course they'll all be brewed up at Miller's, but what's the difference, label lovers only care about the label after all.

For those folks who feel bilious about big business, there are still independent brewers out there without any corporate affiliation, you're job is to find them.

And if the idea of anyone at all profiting off of the making of beer sends you into a tizzy, you can always brew your own.

It is after all a free country. Let's drink to that, while we still can.

* reprinted from an advertisement for Schlitz Beer, c. 1900 as found in:
Breweries of Wisconsin, Jerry Apps, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992

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