Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Golden Age of American Beer

I decided to check out a new-at-the-time bar and meet Riss after work. I went early, got a seat at the massive horseshoe bar and had a few beers while I was reading Under the Volcano. (Yeah, that guy.) In the quiet couple of hours between about 3 and about 5 it was a pretty nice experience. Not much to distinguish it, but the beer was good, the bar had enough light to read by, and it had the quiet atmosphere of people grabbing a couple of early beers.

As soon as 5 o'clock hit, it was like the Army Corps of Engineers ignored the disrepair the levies had suffered and Hurricane Yuppie washed my peaceful city away. All bars have multiple personalities, so that shouldn't speak too much one way or the other for the bar in question, but ultimately, I ended up not being too fond of this particular bar. But that's not the point of this post, the point is that I found myself assessing the bar in question, thus, “It just seems like they have the same hundred beers as everybody else.” That's right. We have reached a level of beer in this country, and in the Boston area that having 100 plus artisan, craft beers on tap, does not necessarily distinguish a public house. To me, that sounds like a golden age.

The roots of the Golden Age of American Beer lie several decades in the past when a President of this great land, in an act of governmental restraint and deregulation, freed brewing beer from the tyranny of Federal oversight. And that president was Jimmy Carter. (In direct contrast to Reagan, who raised taxes, and spent shmillions on a complete science fiction of a defense system, while negotiating with terrorists, which I guess is how you get an airport named after you.)

Home brewing eventually lead to a cottage industry, that lead to the early successful small brewers like Sam Adams, Magic Hat, and Sierra Nevada. Add in some politics of sustainability, the growth in the importance of local products and production, and the fact that many Americans now have a decade or more between graduation from college and having children, and you've got the Golden Age of Beer. Though we can never be certain, the argument could be made that America is the greatest beer nation on earth right now. But rather than making some kind of big argument about beer in America and the world, or playing out the idea of a “Golden Age,” (why gold and not platinum and how really gets to decided?) I'm going to highlight some of my favorite things happening in beer right now.

Harpoon Hundred Barrel Series. Not unlike a movie studio that churns out a rom-com every six months in order to fund its art films, many bigger brewers do special series along with their more popular beers. Harpoon now brews 100 barrels of some different, experimental, interesting beer every few months or so. I've tried just about every one and they have all been fantastic. Sometimes they're takes on less common styles of beer. Other times, they add an atypical flavor. Sometimes it's a twist on something traditional. Whatever the stated goal, they've all been interesting, delicious, creative express of beer.

Pretty Things. If you're into beer in the metro-Cambridge area, you've heard of Pretty Things. You've probably heard a lot about Pretty Things. You might even be sick of hearing about Pretty Things. But every one of their beers is good. Some of their beers are fantastic. And their English India Porter “December 6, 1855 EIP,” a historical beer not unlike the kind of stuff that made Dogfish Head famous, was the best beer I've ever had. But more importantly, I like the fact that they are tenant brewers, renting spaces in other brewers to make their beer. It means there is a system in place, in brewing, for people with great ideas and great recipes, to start a business without necessarily needing a ton of capital.

Mayflower. My favorite even newer brewery, their seasonal Summer Rye Ale, might be the most convincing proof that American beer is in a special place right now, because it is a high quality porch beer. You know what generally passes for porch beer and though I have a special place in my heart for High Life and PBR, the Summer Rye Ale, hits all the taste expectations you have for cracking a cold one on the porch, but at, like 11, without being “at 11.” All their other beers are great too and if the only “craft” beer you've tried in your life is Sam Adams, Mayflower would be a great next step.

Bombers. $5-$14, 16-24oz bottles give you the chance to try a lot of different beers without filling up your fridge with six-packs of stuff you might not end up liking. Some of them might seem a little pricey but so are high quality steaks, or wines, or bourbons, or, well, really anything that people put a lot of work into. In fact, the bomber itself might be a driving force in the Golden Age of American beer, because it gives small brewers an economically sustainable, marketable product.

You Probably Have a Friend Who Makes Beer. In a lot of ways, the renewed quality of American beer, has lead to a re-resurgence of the home brewing that started this age in the first place. As with well, everything, from baking bread to making clothes, there's a kind of extra flavor with home made beer. Sure, sometimes you or your friend mess it up, but it's still yours and that means something. Furthermore, whatever is produced, is something no one else will have ever had. Which I think is really cool.

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