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The best selection: how it happened

Part 2 of 3

Imagine that, between the dawn of civilization and the present day. every other grape and all other methods of vinification had been largely abandoned in favor of two or three generic styles. For many American consumers, wine was either "Burgundy" or "Chablis" before the renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. That recollection is hard to credit today.

A similar fate almost befell beer, a drink at least as old as the Sumerian civilization. Instead, beer in the United States has also enjoyed a renaissance, perhaps greater than that experienced by wine, but less commonly understood.

Over the centuries, grains like wheat, rye and oatmeal had fallen from use in most brewing countries. Fruits, herbs and spices had wholly yielded to the cone of the hop vine except in Belgium. Wild yeasts were used there but nowhere else. Even ale yeasts were in retreat.

While "Chablis" is a classic style in France and a generic in the United States, the counterpart among beers is, in its various spellings, "Pilsner".

The world's first golden beer, first produced in Pilsen, in 1842, still has a delicious malt background, highlighted by a herbal hop character in its aroma and finish. The two breweries in the neighboring city of Budweis produce beers that are similar in style, but slightly lighter in body, and leaning more toward malty sweetness.

The two cities are in Bohemia, once a state in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today comprising, with Moravia, the Czech Republic. One gave its name to the most widely-known style of beer; the other to the world's biggest brand.

With only two or three exceptions, every internationally-known beer is a distant derivation of the original Pilsner, whether it is made in Germany, the U.S., Latin America or Australia. These very similar international-style, brews are the only type of beer known to many consumers.

Golden beer was made possible by malting techniques developed during the industrial revolution, at the time when steam power was massively increasing the scale of production, and mass-produced glass was highlighting the novelty of a bright brew.

Just as Italian, French and Hispanic settlers brought their wines to the New World, so the Germans, Dutch, Belgians, British and Irish introduced their beers. Older styles of beer from these countries were already established in the U.S., but Pilsener arrived with a new wave of immigrants, and with the development of railroads and refrigeration.

Earlier German styles like Dark Lagers, Bock Beers and Wheat Beers, for example, were eroded by ethnic assimilation. Ales, Porters and Stouts almost vanished. Prohibition dealt a body blow to small brewers making local types of beer.. After two World Wars, associations with the old country were not always welcome.

"Modern" beer was a relatively standardized Pilsner-type, in a can, a convenience product along with the sliced white bread and processed cheese. National network television advertising seemed to ensure its final triumph.

In the 1960s, two men anticipated a turn in the tide. In Scotland, Peter Maxwell Stuart succeeded as Laird of Traquair upon the death of his father. In a wing of the family castle, he found disused brewing equipment, and put it back into operation. In California, Fritz Maytag, of the washing machine family, was studying at Stamford, and enjoying the local Anchor Steam Beer. Anchor was the last American brewery not to produce a Pilsner-style lager. When he discovered that the company was about to cease operation, he offered assistance, and over a period of years became its owner.

These examples, and the emergence in Britain of the consumerist Campaign for Real Ale, encouraged a renaissance in the appreciation of specialty beers on both sides of the Atlantic. When I began to write about beer, in the mid 1970s, the U.S., had fewer than 50 brewing companies; today, it has more than 1,500. Many of the new breweries are in pubs or restaurants; these are known as brewpubs. Others are small, free-standing, breweries; these are described as microbreweries.

Between those two categories of brewery; about a dozen old-established regionals; specialty beers produced by the national brewers; and imports; the bigger American cities now offer a diversity of beer-styles far greater than that to be found in any single European country.

Got to Part 3

Published: JULY 15, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

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