Sunday, May 03, 2009

Budwesier American Ale

Let's go back in time, shall we?

It's 1919 and everyone's sittin' pretty. America has had two centuries of quality small-production local brewing, wine making, and distilling. We're kickin' it, enjoying a brew or three--and a lot of whiskey and gin--and well on our way to becoming the biggest swingingest dicks on the planet. And then.... WHAM-O! Prohibition and the Vosltead Act come right out of the blue and end boozing as we know it in America.

(It should be noted at this point that Prohibition as a movement had existed in America since its founding and many states had already enacted alcohol restrictions and outright exclusions at the time the Eighteenth Amendment had passed. And the passing of the Volstead Act did in no way end the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages in America. -ed.)

The greatest casualties of Prohibition weren't American Law & Order or the scores of deaths from organized crime bootlegging or Joseph Kennedy's acquisition of massive wealth. Hardly. The greatest casualty was America's boutique winemaking and, especially, its tradition of (for the lack of a better term) microbrewing.

Brewing is an intimate endeavor. Unlike winemaking, which can be done essentially spontaneously, even the crudest, crappiest beer requires a significant level of human involvement. Brewing requires cooking. Beer is nowhere near as shelf-stable as wine or spirits. Brewing requires fires and cauldrons. Brewing is best done where it had always been done until the late 1800's: small, local breweries. Every tavern brewed its own beer, kept in casks in the cellar for the consumption of guests and villagers. Monasteries brewed beer. And even when beer production began to be industrialized, the cost of transport kept beer an, at best, regional endeavor.

Finally, a few American entrepreneurs, perhaps Adolph Coors most notably, took advantage of a few technological innovations (primarily refrigerated rail) to begin distributing beer super-regionally, just in time for the banishment of alcohol production in America.

Prohibition killed every small brewery in America. Big breweries which were backed by larger holding companies could stay in business producing near-beer or malted milk, putting a handful of well-heeled giants in prime position to expand once the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.

(Wine was spared such a fate because many wineries could stay afloat making sacramental wine and by selling grapes to home winemakers. Smaller production winemaking was able to recover more quickly than brewing, though it did take several decades.)

When Prohibition was repealed it wasn't a magic switch that Roosevelt flipped to send all the booze flowing again: individual states, counties, and cities reallowed booze at their respective pace (Kansas didn't allow on-premise liquor sales until 1987), creating a situation that only large brewers could exploit. Advanced refrigeration and transportation techniques created a national distribution network and, in the grand Cold War American tradition, beer became as homogenous as the nation we pretended to be.

But pretend homogeneity is just that. As the long tail of America grew and grew, shrewd innovators began to capture the lucrative market of the disaffected and craft brewing came back strong. In 1977 Jimmy Carter formally legalized homebrewing and American beer lovers began reproducing the beers they had drunk and loved in Britain, Germany, Belgium, and beyond. Some of these homebrewers had enough success to make the foolish decision to go commercial and, even more foolishly, succeed at that as well.

So full and complete was the craft brew revolution that the big American brewers belatedly tried to jump back into the game, like Chrysler attempting a hybrid a half-decade into the post-Prius world. First, macrobreweries half-heartedly made some of their own niche beers (remember Red Dog? No? Good). When that failed, macrobreweries began partnering in distribution deals with successful smaller brewers. Have you ever noticed that Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen is almost ineveitably lined up next to Anheuser-Busch beers at bigger bars? That's why.

Instead of opening the doors for smaller brewers, these partnerships succeeded in macro-izing formerly niche producers like Sierra Nevada, Pyramid, Sam Adams, and Red Hook--to the detriment of all (based on my purely empirical evaluation).

Eventually the American macro-breweries gave-up, quit, and let themselves be bought-out by bigger, more diversified European beverage companies.

So where are we now?

Budweiser has released a malty, dry-hopped "American Ale." And it's not bad at all. It tastes significantly like Newcastle, but with a bit more hoppy bite on the finish. Good structure, but a bit lean on the mid-palate. Actually, I'd call it a dead-ringer for Newcastle, if not a slight improvement thanks to the added edge of hops on the finish.

Couple this with Michelob's pleasant Amber Bock and maybe we're seeing macrobreweries returning to their roots. Because if you can't beat them (or buy them out) you might as well join them.

Maybe Budweiser can capitalize on the hipster anti-elaborate backlash and chisel themselves a Pabst-like niche with craft brew-lovers who've become disenchanted with the douche-y developments in the last decade or so of American microbrewing (how many neo-Belgian beers do we need? Seriously!); a mainstream punk rock volley against the eighteenth note nonuplets of late 70's prog.

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