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It's Thanksgiving, so try one

American is rediscovering flavoursome beer, and putting the Germans to shame

The world of wine still remembers with a frisson the day a group of French viticultural aristocrats, tasting blindfold, discovered to their amazement that they had chosen several Californian products as the world's best cabernets.

Now, something similar is happening in the world of beer. At a blindfold tasting in Hanover recently, I was amused to see the German panelists puzzle over a beer I knew to be Samuel Adams' Boston Lager - named after the American patriot, who was also a brewer.

"It's so aromatic," exclaimed one. "Yes, really perfumey," confirmed another. "Do you know what you are smelling?" I asked. None did. I found a painful pleasure in explaining to these German beer lovers that their noses were being tickled by hop flowers.

To add insult to the tasters' sense of smell, the hops were of the Mittelfrüh variety. The Germans regard this as "noblest" (their term) of hops grown in their country.

There was more: the hops were German. Better still, they came from the "Grande Champagne" of Bavarian hop cultivation, the Hallertau region, just north of Munich. To add insult to the tasters' sense of smell, the hops were of the Mittelfrüh variety. The Germans regard this as "noblest" (their term) of hops grown in their country.

That the Germans no longer recognise the aroma of their finest hop is understandable. Their brewers scarcely use it any longer. Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops are expensive, not least because the variety is vulnerable to wilt and many farmers have ceased to grow it. Mittelfrüh represents only about 4 per cent of the crop. Many German brewers prefer cheaper varieties. "Any hops will do," I was told recently by the brewer of one of Germany's best-selling beers.

The producer of Sam Adams does not agree. "Some hops smell like flowers, others like cheap perfume," he argues. He buys a quarter of the Mittelfrüh crop, and last year persuaded more farmers to plant the variety for him. If the Germans want to experience the subtle, appetising softness and flowery dryness of a lager made with Hallertau Mittelfüh hops, they should look for "Sam Adams", made under licence in their own country.

This highly distinctive lager has just arrived in Britain, too. It is available at Savacentre among other outlets (1.29 for a 33cl bottle), not brewed under licence here but imported from the United States.

The beer is made by a man named Koch, of German-American descent. During the two world wars, Americans with this name often Anglicised it to "Cook", and that is the rendition he prefers. Four generations of Kochs had been brewers in America, but in the Fifties the family tradition appeared to die in one of the mergers that devastated the industry. The Koch who lost his job on that occasion was disillusioned. He told me he spent a year washing the aroma of hops out of his hair, and warned his son never to consider an industry that was becoming dominated by accountants and mass-marketers.

Son Jim became a management consultant instead, and was earning $250,000 a year when I first set eyes on him, sitting behind a smoked-glass desk in an executive office. He told me he planned to leave his job and return to the family craft. Did I have any advice? We spent a night drinking beer in Boston and came to no conclusions that I can remember.

That was 10 years ago. Recently, I had difficulty entering the US because the officer at passport control did not believe anyone sampled beer for a living. "I am going to give you a test question on beer knowledge," announced the uniformed officer. "Who is Jim Koch?" I gave the correct answer and was allowed into the country. These days, even the guardians of the republic's frontiers are beer buffs.

Jim Koch is a controversial figure in the American brewing industry.

Jim Koch is a controversial figure in the American brewing industry. Although he bought a defunct Victorian brewery and installed his own tiny kettle, his equipment is far too small to match his sales. Most of his "Boston" Lager is made at the breweries of other companies, in places like Pittsburgh which have excess capacity.

He is thus, understandably, seen by some of his competitors to be not a "proper" brewer, and (even in capitalist America, which can be surprisingly puritanical) this sentiment has been heightened by his aggressive and free-spending publicity campaigns.

I would say Koch is truly dedicated to beer. His purchase of the Victorian brewery is one manifestation, his dedication to Mittelfrüh hops another. He has also sought out the finest east Kent Goldings hop for another of his beers, not a lager but an ale. His Boston Stock Ale is not yet available in Britain, but perhaps will be one day. Other styles being reserved for the US include a Triple Bock at an astonishing 17.5 per cent alcohol, primed with maple syrup, fermented with champagne yeast and aged in Tennessee whiskey casks. For the moment, I shall settle for a glass of his next Thursday, Thanksgiving. Any excuse for a celebration ...

Back in Britain, Samuel Adams' Boston Lager is not the only flavoursome American beer available. There have been sightings of German-American ales from the Düsseldorfer Brewery of Indianapolis. This was established in 1989 and is run by a "reformed" Budweiser distributor.

The smooth, malty Düsseldorf approach to ale-brewing is also followed by the St Stanislaus brewery of Modesto, California. This was established in 1984 by a man who formerly worked in the defence industry. "I would rather make beer than bombs," he told me. Like many of California's liveliest wines, a majority of the new American beers are made by people with no background in the industry. Many are former home-brewers. Some turn pro after studying under Professor Michael Lewis, a Welshman who teaches beer-brewing at California's famous wine university in Davis.

Pete's Wicked Ale, similar in style to Newcastle Brown, is produced in another revived Victorian brewery, in St Paul, Minnesota, but was created by a home-brewer whose "day job" was in the computer industry in California.

Any beer-lover worth his hops knows the godfather of the American beer renaissance is Fritz Maytag, an Iowan who studied American and Japanese literature in California before acquiring Anchor Steam, a brewing company founded during the Gold Rush.

I would cross every ocean to drink this brewery's Liberty Ale, but it is now available in Britain. As from Thanksgiving, so will be its spiced "Holiday Ale", intended for Christmas and New Year. Every vintage is different. I can scarcely wait to taste this year's.

Published Online: MAR 27, 2000
Published in Print: NOV 19, 1994
In: The Independent

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