The Social Luxury of Beer: July / August 2015

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 By: Matt Kenevan

Most outdoor summer events feature pilseners because they are light bodied, thirst quenching and readily available. As the American craft beer movement continues to grow, you may see some summer beer styles that were not always a standard part of the county fair selection. New to the tapline does not mean it is a new invention.

The 13 years of Prohibition were not just an era of dry living.  Jobs were lost, family businesses shut down, and in the process, beer recipes and traditions were slowly forgotten. Most small to mid-sized pre-Prohibition breweries never made it back after repeal and American beer conglomerated in the following years. The varied regional recipes of Old World Europe disappeared from the local landscape in favor of homogenized mass consumer styles.  While across the pond, the two World Wars destroyed many historical breweries.

Until the late 1970s import beers in the US were scarce, and the focus was instead on regional breweries.  Pilseners and other lagers were the predominant styles for quite some while. To find a Kölsch or saison was unheard of, unless you were traveling overseas in the small regions where the styles originated.

Times have changed, and while the beer names on the shelves may be new, the styles themselves are not. India pales ales and stouts are readily known in 2015, but the more distinct regional brews of Europe are also becoming commonplace. What makes their growth significant is that they were once nearly forgotten.  Styles have changed in the process and an Old world beer is going to be different when made with local water and modern ingredients.  After all, the hallmark of American craft brewing is the innovation. It is not bad imitation, but rather evolution; an evolution that is, arguably, saving these styles from extinction.

It is no surprise that Germany – land of the Reinheitsgebot (“Beer Purity Law”) – has also permeated craft beer culture. One of the first European beers to take the craft tagline was the wheat beer called hefeweizen. This beer is traditionally unfiltered and is minimally hopped. It is a sweeter, more carbonated beer that suits well to summer. The lack of filtering creates a hazy complexion and it often carries hints of banana and clove in a delicate balance. Traditional breweries include Erdinger or Ayinger in Germany, but popular American hefeweizens are made by Capital, New Glarus, Bell’s, August Schell, and Pyramid.

Kölsch is another German beer style (by definition made in the Cologne region) that is notably light and easy drinking. The style neared extinction post-World War II when most of the region’s breweries were destroyed. Through preservation, and with a helping hand from Americans using the “Kölsch-style” label, the style made a successful comeback as a light body alternative to hoppy IPAs and citrusy pale ales. Some American versions come from Leinenkugel’s, Alaskan, and Ballast Point.

Also German in origin, gose is a divisive style of sour beer. Despite dating back to the 1500s, it was nearly extinct after World War II devastated the Leipzig area where a handful of historically minded locals kept it going over the ensuing decades. This wheat beer is not malty or defined by bitter hops, but with coriander and often sea salt. It is tart and lemony, and the salt gives a distinct and quenching character. With craft brewing ever on the lookout for something unexpected, the resurrection of gose makes sense as an alternative to overly hopped IPAs and whisky-tinged imperial stouts. Because of the surprising tartness, it is seen as a specialty beer that is hard to explain to new drinkers and even harder to market. While few year-round styles are available, it has become common in taprooms and festivals. It is sometimes infused with fruit syrups to counteract the sourness.

In Belgium, farmhouse ale is a blanket term for beers traditionally made by farmers in the southern region of the country. Made in the winter and stored until summer, they tend to be light-bodied, spicy, and often low in alcohol. Once considered exotic and hard to come by in the US, the saison beer is now readily available. Saisons are dry and peppery, with a sweet and fruity body. American versions tend to elevate the alcohol, and with the spices playing well with most foods, American saisons like Brewery Ommegang’s Hennepin (7.7% ABV) and Boulevard’s Tank 7 (8.5%) go well with a meal but are dangerous in high doses.

Craft beer is not just palate annihilating hops and high octane ABV. It is homage to flavorful beer of all sorts.   The light and peppery saison, the aromatic and refreshing Kölsch, and the tart gose are but a few examples of Old World beer brought to new life. As more people come to know the infinite possibilities in beer flavors, more styles are sure to be unearthed, new and old, celebrating past and present.  


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