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The new beer-drinkers

The story behind a quiet revolution and a look at 10 hop spots

I am often asked by major magazines to write articles explaining the booming interest in speciality beers. This article appeared, in a shorter form, in the international edition of Newsweek on November 15, 1999.

Just as the connoisseurship of wine has enjoyed an international boom in recent decades, so there has been a quiet revolution in the appreciation of beer. This is most dramatically evident in the United States, with tutored tastings, beer-matching dinners, 1,500 small new breweries in two decades, and "multi-tap" pubs, but it is international. Its greatest strongholds may be western cities like Seattle, Portland and Denver, but the revolution began in Britain in the 1970s as a consumerist protest against growing uniformity in beers. Today, it has found its own manifestations from Amsterdam to Tokyo.

The new beer-drinkers embrace every age and occupation, but the majority are in their 20s and 30s, college-educated and in the professions. In the post industrial age, there are no longer steel mills to build massive thirsts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Sheffield, England, but a day at the computer keyboard drives its own desires. Work still demands a rewarding refreshment, but fewer pints - and beers that are more flavorful. The notion of drinking less but tasting more accords with concerns over health, weight and the need to drive. With higher salaries, the new beer-drinkers are willing to pay for maltier, hoppier, beers.

Maltier need not mean higher in alcohol or calories, and hops contribute neither. Malt is simply grain, usually barley, that has been rendered soluble by being partially germinated then dried, toasted or roasted. It is to beer what pressed grapes are to wine. Hops are the cone-like blossoms of a vine in the cannabis family. They add aroma and dryness.

In many international brands, the malt is augmented with corn, rice or sugar, either to lighten the body of the beer or make it cheaper. In some, hops are used so sparingly as to be scarcely detectable, to appease mass-market drinkers afraid of flavor.

Just as the generic "dry white" is a much diminished derivative of the original French Chablis, so the international standard lager is a distant descendant of the world's first golden beer, made in Pilsen, Bohemia, in 1842. Golden beer was a novelty at a time when drinkers were switching from stoneware steins or pewter tankards to mass-produced glass. Its international spread followed the growth of railroads and the emigration of Central Europeans and Germans to the United States in the 1850s.

For the devotee, if it calls itself a Pilsner, it is more than just a golden lager. It should have an appetising, aromatic, dryness imparted by a hefty dose of hops, like the famous original, Pilsner Urquell, a wonderful aperitif.

Nor are the new beer-drinkers content with a Pilsner alone. The most important aspect of the quiet revolution is the new appreciation given to older styles of beer. If the beer is being served with a meal, especially chicken or pork, that might call for something maltier: the nuttiness of an amber, Vienna-style, lager, or the light toastiness of a Munich dark. Again, color has nothing to do with alcohol content. If a strong lager is required, perhaps to keep out the cold in winter or early spring, a dark or pale Bock might be chosen.

The term Lager means that a beer has cold maturation and fermentation, making for clean flavors. Wheat beers, which usually have a warmer fermentation, have more complex, often fruity, flavors. Their refreshing acidity, especially in the lactic-tasting Berlin style, makes them ideal quenchers in summer. The Belgian styles of wheat beer are often flavored with fruits. A wild-yeast variation called Lambic, dating from medieval times, sometimes employs cherries or raspberries in its fermentation.

Warm-fermenting beers made from barley-malt are known as ales. The principal British variation, the well-hopped bitter, is classically conditioned (matured) in the cask in the cellar of the pub and dran by hand-pump, with no gas pressure. Its soft carbonation and cellar temperature makes it soothing and sociable.

Similar beers made with highly-roasted malts are known as porters or stouts. While the mass-market seeks ever paler, lighter-tasting beers, the black, roasty, Guinness stout, a long established favorite, has found legions of new, younger, devotees in recent years.

Breweries big and small are making revivals of classic styles. Anheuser-Busch has experimented with a dark Munich style, a "Texas Bock" and a Porter, among others. Miller has taken a different tack, buying into small breweries like Leinenkugel (making lagers in the Midwest); Celis (Belgian-style beers in the Southwest); and Shipyard (British ales in the Northeast). In Europe, Heineken owns subsidiary breweries making everything from a Belgian-style wheat beer to Murphy's Stout. In Australia, Foster's range includes Dogbolter dark lager and Matilda Bay wheat beer.

The new interest in classic styles has highlighted old-established local producers from Anchor in San Francisco, to Fuller's in London, Chimay (a Trappist abbey) in Belgium, the Schneider wheat beer brewery in Bavaria, and the Adelaide company Cooper's making a sparkling ale among a sea of lagers.

The yet smaller micro-breweries and brewpubs that have developed in the U.S. since the late 1970s have made the biggest impact of all. They represent a return to the scale of brewing before the industrial age.

Few of their founders began in the brewing industry. Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi had been home-brewers before they set up the Sierra Nevada micro in 1979, in the unlikely locale of Chico, California. Today, its flowery Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a world classic. In Cleveland, Ohio, a Jungian academic was one of the founders of the Great Lakes brewery. It began in a pub, but now sells its specialities far and wide. In New York, journalist Steve Hindy was one of the founders of an enterprise that has brought brewing back to Brooklyn, once a great beer-making city.

Like many American micro products, the beers from these breweries are more assertive in character than the European styles upon which they were modelled.

The beer revolution has spread to Asia, too. The biggest Munich brewery, Paulaner, has been setting up brewpubs offering unfiltered brews in cities such as Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing and Manila. In Japan, where the law made it impossible to set up small breweries before the mid 1990s, there are now about 200. Some even make fruity-tasting beers with saké yeasts.


"The Wild Man" is a inappropriately rumbustious name for the 1690s gin distillery that is the best beer bar in The Netherlands, and one of the world's finest. If you thought Dutch beer began and ended with Heineken or Grolsch, look out for micro-brewed classics like Christoffel among 20 draughts and 150-200 bottles. "In De Wildeman" (the full name in Dutch) is very central, extremely well hidden, but eminently worth finding. From the Central Railway Station, walk along the main street, called the Damrak. Take the third alley on the right, Oude Brugsteeg; walk straight across the pedestrianised shopping street Nieuwendijk, into Kolksteeg. "In De Wildeman" is on the left (3 Kolksteeg).

For dishes cooked with, and accompanied by, an astonishing selection of Belgian beers, in the centre of Brussels, head for the Saint Catherine's food-market area. At 1 Place Jardin Aux Fleurs is Spinnekopke ("Spider's Head"). Have a beer at the bar, which serves light meals. Or reservations (02-511-8695) for a white tablecloth dinner. Have a hoppy Orval or Duvel as an aperitif; a winey Cantillon Lambic with your meal; a port-like Chimay Grande Réserve as a digestif.

You have already tasted the Guinness in Doheny and Nesbitt's, Mulligan's or the Palace Bar, now experience some variety. The Porter House (16-18 Parliament Street, near Temple Bar) offers more classics and dares to pitch them against beers made on the premises: Plain Porter, a style celebrated in verse by Flann O'Brien; an Oyster Stout brewed with the salty bivalves; and the robust, oily, Wrassler's, named after the favorite brew of the republican leader Michael Collins.

From fashion, music and media people to locals and Dčsseldorf characters, everyone loves Zum Uerige, though each has his favorite room in this rambling pub. From the central bar, the copper brew-kettle can be seen. Zum Uerige specialises in the classic example of Altbier, the style of German ale that is local to Düsseldorf. Zum Uerige's example of this tawny brew has a teasing balance between firm, smooth, maltiness and slowly unrolling hop bitterness. Zum Uerige (1 Berger Strasse) is in the old town and by the Rhine.

For the local brews in central London, two classic pubs, in hidden streets: The Guinea (Bruton Place, off Berkeley Square) for Young's; the Star (6 Belgrave Mews West) for Fuller's. Head beyond King's Road, Chelsea, to Parson's Green for The White Horse, with London's best Draught Bass; a festival of wintry, dark, old ales in late November; and Belgian and American selections.

When winter ends and spring begins in March, locals venture outdoors at the Salvator Keller beer garden (popularly known as Nockherberg; 77 Hoch St) warmed by a dark, strong, pre-Lenten, Doppelbock. There will still be Germans among the tourists at the Hofbräuhaus (9 Platzl) in late April, when the May Bock is launched. In summer, real beer-lovers take a cab to the suburb of Perlach to sample the superlative Pilsissimus and stronger Blonder Bock at the tiny Forschungs brewery (76 Unterhachinger Strasse).

New York
The best beer selection in Midtown Manhattan is at The Gingerman, 11 East 36 St, between 5th and Madison. It is a newish pub, but feels as though it has been there for decades. Look out for seasonal specials from Brooklyn Brewery, including their Abbey Ale, Black Chocolate Stout and Monster Barley Wine. Yet more serious beer-freaks go to the East Village for d.b.a. ("doing business as"), 41 1st Ave, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. In either place, pick up the free Ale Street News for more local suggestions.

The world's most famous outlet for Pilsner beer is a literary tavern called The Golden Tiger (U Zlatého Tygra, 17 Husova). This is where Presidents Havel and Clinton clinked glasses. For Budvar, brewed in the town of Budweis, the place is The Bears (U Medvidku, at 7 Na Perstyne. Both are in the Old Town. In the city-centre is the world's oldest brewpub, dating from 199 (U Fleku,11 Kremencova). It produces its own dark lager. Touristy, but a "must" for beer-lovers.

Local micro-brews, cask-conditioned ales from Britain, and an astonishing selection of single malt Scotches are the stock in trade of an outstanding pub called Akkurat, at 18 Hornsgatan. This is a newish spot, but has become a meeting place for beer-lovers.

The new cosmopolitanism of beer is illustrated perfectly by the production of a "Prague Dark" lager, inspired by U Fleku (above) at a brewpub in the former ticket hall at Tokyo's Ryogoku railway station. Ryogoku's other beers include a lightly dry Pilsner and a fruity-tasting wheat beer in the South German style Ryogoku ("Beer Station", 1-3-20 Yokozuna, Sumida-ku). The sushi is good, too. Round the corner is the Popeye pub, specialising in Japanese micros. (2-18-7 Ryogoku).

Published: JAN 18, 2000

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