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How Bert Grant Saved The World

Bold beers were the perfect weapon

Never before was there such a selection of beer-styles in the English-speaking world. Nor is it likely that there were ever such assertive flavors as today. The selection of beers was made possible by the pioneering work of nine or ten individuals in various countries at different times during the early 1980s, 1970s and vaguely in the 1960s.

Bert GrantIf you believed Bert Grant, it began when he was born, in 1928, in Dundee, Scotland. I imagine the midwife being greeted by a mischievously beaming Bert, raising a tweed cap: "How do you do? I am Bert Grant, Scotsman, maltster, hop expert and brewer."

He must have been a veteran all-round dissident when he grew his hair long in 1960s Toronto. We met at the beginning of the 1980s, and he was soon driving me through the Cascade mountains of Washington State in a white Rolls Royce with vanity plates announcing Real Ale. It was the first of a series of cars bearing such a rubric. On another occasion, it was Cadillac.

The word "malting" as well as "brewing" appeared in the title of his micro and pub, founded in 1982, in the town of Yakima, capital of Washington's hop-growing region. "But you are not making malt here," I observed. "We did, in a skillet in the kitchen," he beamed.

His first beer was his Scotch Ale. Again, he found my question pedantic. "Isn't this on the hoppy side for a Scotch Ale?" I asked. "Yes," he acknowledged. "All beers should be hoppier." I pursued the question. "Is it really fair to sell it as a Scotch Ale?" He took a surprising tack. "It is a Scotch Ale because I created it. I am Scottish." I had never thought of him as being Scottish, despite that dynastic name. "When did you leave?" I persisted. "When I was two years old."

"When you were brewing Canada, ales were still very popular. How many units of bitterness did they typically have?" I once asked. "I don't know. I hadn't invented the scale," he replied. He was reputed to carry a vial of hop oil, and to add it to glasses of Bud, Miller or Coors when they were the only brews available. He was said to have done this at meetings of Master Brewers in Milwaukee and St Louis, dismaying his peers. "Michael Jackson adds it to his coffee," he is alleged to have said, in his defence. Did he really say that? I think that joke was coined by beer-writer and consultant Vince Cottone.

The definitively hoppy style India Pale Ale was an obvious favorite of Bert, but there was only one made in the U.S: the old-established Ballantine's IPA. The newer Anchor Liberty could be regarded as an example of the style, but was not identified as an IPA. Bert was the first to revive the style, initially at 60 units of bitterness. Liberty and Grant's were the basis of the American style of intensely hoppy, aromatic, IPA. Grant's brought back the historic name, and made it part of our beer vocabulary again. He helped matters along with a colorful label showing the Taj Mahal.

Was there "Russian" Imperial Stout in the U.S. before Prohibition? I have not run across any mention of it. The style was surviving vestigially in Europe when I wrote about it in my 1977 World Guide to Beer. Charlie Finkel, of Merchant du Vin, helped popularise the term in the U.S., but Grant's was the first brewery to make an example (this time with an illustration of the Imperial Palace). This time, the personal twist was the addition of honey.

He brought classic styles back to life, but gave each beer its own personality. He created beers that he liked, and hoped that they would find drinkers who felt the same way. The world needs people like Bert Grant. It needs egos who can deliver: whether they are brewers, bakers, cheese-makers, charcutiers, chefs, restaurateurs, entertainers, movie-directors, writers... people who know what they like and how to produce it, without reference to jargon-bound bores in suits.

The immense experience and knowledge behind the inscrutable smile had always intimidated me. Then I made some very minor reference to one of Bert's beers having lost character. Next time I saw him, he insisted on driving me to the brewery to taste the beer in question. "Has it really changed?' he demanded. "I want to know - I respect your opinion."

In New York for an event, I had a call in my hotel. It was Bert, also in town, probably for the same event. "I have brought you a new beer. I'm bringing it up to your room." I was being interviewed in my room by a journalist for a profile. I had tried to get the journalist out to a pub, but he worried about drinking on duty. I thought that's what journalists did for a living. My interviewer was mightily impressed that a brewer from 3,000 miles away had brought his beer in person.

The beer was a Porter, with a touch of peated malt as the personal twist. The name, Perfect Porter, was a typically modest touch. For a time, Grant's beers carried a neck label explaining that brews of such quality made for very special pubs, which in turn sustained wonderful neighborhoods, creating marvellous cities, contributing to magnificent countries, adding up to a beautiful world...or words to that effect. In theory, the argument is true. I summed it up as: "How Bert Grant Saved The World".

He was tough enough to do it. I knew him through two divorces and several periods of illness. Once, he arrived in London with two younger women. One was his sister. The yet younger one, Sherry, was about to be his wife.

Perhaps I looked confused. Sherry worked for Bert. One day, she called with a question. "We met in London," she reminded me. "I'm the one who is not his sister." On another occasion in London, Bert and I and dinner, then took a cab to his hotel. The cab driver mistook Bert for a particularly craggy Scot who was a crusading journalist, an early star of British television.

Bert had star quality. Apparently, to a London cabbie, he still actually looked like a Scot, despite having left at two, and notwithstanding his North American accent.

I heard this morning that Bert had died, aged 74. To whom will we turn next time the world needs saving?

Published: AUG 3, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

Brewery Review - Beer Styles - Historical - Editorial

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