Beer History 101

Posted by on Oct 22, 2013

In hindsight, I might have bitten off a bit more than I could chew with such an ambitious topic as ‘An Abridged History of Beer’. Trying to fit all that info into six bottles proved to be much more of a challenge than I expected. Even if I had cut out the first, say, eight or nine thousand years of brewing history, we’d still only have a starting point around the time of the founding of Weihenstephaner: the oldest existing brewery in the world. Whoops.

Nonetheless, I was determined to put out some quality beers and stories for those who showed up to our tasting. For fear of bogging you, the reader, down in a long description of the Sumerian brewing techniques of 4000 BCE, I’ll cut right to the beers. (If you are interested in learning about beer history I’d highly recommend Charlie Bamforth’s book Grain vs. Grape; or you could just check out Wikipedia, though I would contend that the starting dates in that article are a couple thousand years off) Even cutting out all of that, though, this is likely to be a long post so prepare yourself.

1) Weihenstephaner ‘Festbier’: I know, I know, we’ve covered this one before in our Oktoberfest tastings, and we do have other brews of theirs (check out their Vitus or their Kristall Weissbier on RateBeer), but this beer offers so much in terms of style, history, and drinkability you really can’t pass it up. Not only is it the oldest brewery still standing, but the Weihenstephaner Monastery also gives us our first record of hop cultivation in 768. Of course I’ve covered the style and history of the Oktoberfest beers in previous posts, but this Festbier is also a lager — a type of beer that only became popular around the 1860s. Lager yeast is the baby brother of ale yeast but the why and when of its mutation and makeup isn’t quite understood. Suffice it to say that lager yeast’s ability to ferment in cold conditions made it ideal for the Czechs and southern Germans who would traditionally ‘lager’ or store their beer in cool cellars and caves. With the advent of glass drinking vessels in the mid-1800s the bright, fizzy appearance of the lager made it catch on like wildfire (the same was true for pale ales in Britain, read on for more on that) and it came to displace most of the traditionally brewed ‘Alt’ beers of the time, particularly once refrigeration became relatively affordable. Now of course, lagers dominate the beer market, but the Germans and Czechs still brew them fantastically.

Tasting Notes: A great starter beer, with a light pilsner malt middle ending abruptly with a bracing lemony hop finish.

2) Anchor ‘Steam Beer’:  In 1896 the father-son duo Ernest Baruth and Otto Schinkel Jr. bought an existing brewery and renamed it ‘Anchor’ seeking to brew a traditional ‘Steam Beer’. This was a slang term given to beers brewed on the west coast under somewhat primitive, and almost exclusively unrefrigerated, conditions. Because of this lack of cooling power, brewers would often send their unfermented wort up to the roofs, where the San Francisco fog would help cool it and produce huge columns of steam. Yet another issue which San Francisco brewers had to face was the steady 15 degree temperatures which the Bay Area is famous for. This is a bit too cool for ale yeasts, but a bit too warm for lager yeasts. The resultant beer is somewhere in between, but Anchor has trademarked the name ‘steam beer’ so any beer brewed to this style outside of their premises is known as a ‘California Common’.

Like any old brewery, Anchor has seen its fair share of trials and tribulations: from the sudden and freakish deaths of its first owners (Otto got hit by a bus) to the San Francisco earthquake and fire in the early 20th century, Anchor survived through to Prohibition. Following the passage of the 21st Ammendment in 1933, however, it found itself competing with the massive breweries that had the power and capacity to fill the huge demand. For twenty-two years it barely got by, until in 1965 it seemed certain that the legendary brewery would go under. That’s when the heir to a washing machine empire and recent Stanford grad, Fritz Maytag, learned that his favorite beer could be finished for good. He bought a 51% stake in the brewery and managed to turn things around; not just for the brewery, but for American beer in general. By brewing quality beer, and supporting local startups in the 1970s and 1980s, it wouldn’t be too outrageous to say the Maytag at least grandsired the American Craft Beer Revolution. I’d drink an Anchor Steam just for that.

Tasting Notes: A very lager-like, easy-drinking beer but with a darker color and more caramel qualities than you’d find, even in an Oktoberfest.

3) Brasserie Dupont ‘Saison Dupont’: Ahhh, saisons. Fantastic beers all around, and I would maintain that you’d be hard pressed to find one that wouldn’t go well with pretty much whatever you’re eating. This style, like the Marzen, developed because temperatures were too high to brew in the summer, and so Belgian and French farmers sought to brew a beer in the spring that they could store in their farmhouse and dish it out to the thirsty farmhands, or saissons, on long, hot days. To this end, they were typically light and drinkable, but would pick up characteristic yeasts and sometimes bacteria from the buildings in which they were stored (read Brettanomyces). Brasserie Dupont hasn’t been around very long (only since 1950), but it is located on a working farm that’s existed since 1759. Whatever their history, they brew a beer that has become the definition of the style, and I’d certainly go out to thresh wheat for a few hours if I received a few bottles of this in return.

Tasting Notes: White pepper and barnyard characteristics. Hay really stands out, and despite it’s bone-dry finish there’s a savory spiced cracker and goat cheese quality that lingers.

4) Brooklyn ‘East India Pale Ale’: The history of the IPA is one that you could write books on (and indeed some have). Porters had their heyday in the 18th century, when malted barley had to be dried over fires and so  had a dark, smokey, roasted quality to it that pervaded through to the finished beer. Pale malt could only be produced through the use of coal, and though these technologies first came about in the first part of the 1700s, their expense largely precluded pale ales from being brewed for all but the most wealthy for decades. Indeed, the Bow Brewery out of East London sought to crack this nut in the 1750s when it started brewing pale ales, but it was forty years before it had any great success. This success came from export.

Since 1774 Britain had been receiving shipments of spices and silks from India and the Far East, but the ships they sent back to India were always empty, or partially loaded at best. George Hodgson of the Bow decided to take advantage of this cargo space and fill it with beer. By 1800 nine thousand barrels a year were shipped to India, almost all of it from the Bow. It wasn’t until the 1820s that other brewers such as Bass and Allsopp could really get a foot into the Bow’s market. It was at this time that they discovered that Hodgson’s ales were markedly different from other pale ales of the time: these India Pale Ales had higher hopping rates to help preserve the beer and lower gravities so there was less residual sugar to sponsor infection. Once they began brewing to these parameters it became clear that the hard water of Burton-on-Trent truly made the hops shine in the beer. As the 19th century progressed, pale malt became more accepted by brewers because of its higher extract yield and decreasing coal prices. Furthermore, and once again, glass drinking vessels became preferred around this time, favoring lighter, clearer drinks. The rest, as they say, is history.

In deciding to showcase an English-style IPA, it may seem odd to some of you that I chose an American beer. But Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn, discovered good beer in Britain and has sought to replicate this English style — with great success I feel. He uses British malts and hops to give it a very rounded character which brings me to mind everything I’ve heard about the historic IPA.

Tasting Notes: The rich biscuit and caramel Marris Otter malt characteristics meld beautifully with mild orange and spice hop qualities.

5) Liefmans ‘Goudenband’: The Belgians are masters of their craft, and this beer is no exception. Soured beers were traditionally made by pumping hot wort up to open ‘cool ships’ in the attics of the brewery where wild yeast and bacteria could then settle on the wort while it cooled. Alternatively, the beers would be put into fermentation barrels harboring similar cultures and left to age. Often the older the beer, the more powerful and acidic it would be, so brewers would often blend younger, sweeter beer with the older beer. ‘Gueze’ is one such example, where a three-year-old lambic (a beer fermented via cool ship method in the Senne River Valley of Belgium) would be blended with a one year lambic. In this way, the brewers of these beers, and of many Flemish Reds and Browns, are as much blenders as they are brewers. Since 1679 Liefmans has been doing a good job of both, and the aged component of this beer is left for four to eight months before it is deemed ready to be blended.

Tasting Notes: The rich, dark caramel and chocolate qualities of this beer give way to a delightful and gentle acidity that pulls at the corners of your mouth. A dry finish invites you to keep drinking more.

6) Abbaye de St. Remy ‘Rochefort 8′: Abbeys and monasteries have always been bastions of high quality brewing. In order to satisfy their caloric needs during fasts, and also to provide nourishment to pilgrims and those less fortunate, monks have made it their business to brew properly. Britain, Germany, and Belgium all have breweries which originated in monasteries, but Belgium in particular holds fast to these traditions and its Trappist monasteries brew some of the highest rated beers in the world. One thing which you will likely come across when viewing these beers is that their differences are only denoted by colours or numbers. While the colour denominations are usually unique to the brewery, a number such as six, eight, ten, or twelve is a historic nominal related to the original gravities of the beers. That is to say that Rochefort 6 has a lower alcohol content than Rochefort 8, and though Belgians typically turn their nose up at styles, you can make a loose approximation on what you’re getting based on the numbers as well. The lowest number in their portfolio will be similar to a Dubbel, the next one a Tripel, and depending on how many more they have, either a Belgian Dark Strong or a Quadrupel will come next.

Rochefort, founded in 1595, is the oldest of the seven Trappist breweries in the world. Six of these are in Belgium while De Koningshoven is located just over the Dutch border. They consist of groups of Cistercian monks who brew solely to provide funds to their respective monasteries or charitable bodies. Some of these breweries have sought to marginally expand to meet the demand for their beers others, such as Westvleteren are so strict about the purpose of their brewing practices that they refuse to sell their beer anywhere except out the brewery window and across the street at a single beer cafe. If ever you venture to one of these abbeys, I would highly recommend buying yourself some of their cheese to pair with the beer; you will not be disappointed.

Tasting Notes: Nutty clove aromas, with a nice toast quality fading into flavors very reminiscent of nutty cheeses. Phenomenal.

And as a finale to this abnormally long post: the results. It was decided that Saison Dupont was the favorite beer of the night with Liefman’s Goudenband taking a close second. For my vote, I liked the Rochefort.