Bell’s Brewery, Inc.
It’s interesting, to me at least, the relatively rapid evolution of the craft beer “boom” in the U.S. Initially, of course, it was the rage to have any sort of “microbrewed” beer, which essentially meant anything that wasn’t Bud, Miller, Coors, Molson, or Strohs. Heck, even Killians was considered fancy back then. In reality, however, many microbrews of the ’80s and early ’90s were not that great. They were just different.
Most of the small brewers were concentrating on similar beers. The first wave was primarily English style ales, usually some variety of pale ale, IPA, amber ale, porter, and stouts in the typical lineup of offerings, often using a standard American 1056 yeast strain made famous by Sierra Nevada. And this was OK. There were some good ones … and more than a few that were less than stellar, who often disappeared from the market or were forced to evolve to survive.
There were good reasons for this, of course. Ales—or rather top-fermenting / warm-fermenting beers—are cheaper and often easier to make. It’s the place where most home brewers start. They require less fermentation space and they can be brewed on a single-temperature, infusion mash system … the kind that were suddenly popping up all over the place from the sprouting generation of brewhouse manufacturers, such as DME, JV Northwest, Newlands, Pico, and a host of others. These companies generally produced relatively cheap two- or three-vessel kettle systems designed for the startup brewer, often using a combination kettle/whirlpool and lauter tank with a basic screen all piled on a rack or platform with a direct fire burner and a handful of conical fermenters to set beside them. There was nothing wrong with this, of course, as they were quick to manufacture, easy to operate, and were capable of producing a quality product, usually an ale of some sort.
There were other reasons that craft brewers shied from lagers. American brewers tend to stick with six-row barley malt, which generally has a lower protein content and produces beers with less body (although some of those differences are becoming less pronounced) than the two-row malts preferred by European brewers. Lagering space was tough to find in brewpubs and microbreweries that were often squeezed from the outset and lacked cellars. Many brewers just didn’t find lagers interesting.
Adding to the issue is the fact that many U.S. consumers actually have no idea how a good German lager should taste. Unless they’ve travelled, their exposure has been to adjunct, skunked, and light-struck versions, often in green bottles, from the likes of Heineken, Becks, Hofbrau, or Löwenbrau (which was contracted by Miller for years), among others. Good beer, of course, needs to be fresh.
Before long, the lack for variety almost made one wish that the macro brewers would produce full-flavored products. They are capable, of course, as tasteless pale lagers are NOT easy to make consistently—if you think about it, any off-flavor will be noticeable, as a drop of lemon juice in a glass of water would evidence, whereas it would go largely unnoticed in a cup of coffee. It’s no mystery why many early craft brewpubs launched with dark and bitter beers.
Over time, however, brewers were becoming better at their craft, consumers were becoming educated and the market cried out for more variety and alternative choices. Belgian style beers became more common, with the likes of New Belgium and Ommegang leading the way. And slowly, German style lagers started dotting the scene, as many small brewers upgraded equipment and techniques, to produce or replicate step mashing and enzyme conversions. Of course, many of these sucked as they were imitation Bud Lights or they were produced with poor techniques, not lagered, used corrupted yeasts or poor malts, were often full of DMS and generally made a case for sticking to funkier brews for the craft brew fan.
Eventually, a few more quality lager offerings have appeared on the market. While often not as big or extreme as the IPAs and porters of the world, many craft beer fans have found themselves coming back to appreciate the more nuanced flavors of a quality session beer after the long pursuit of “extreme” flavors.
With that exaggerated preface in mind, I’ve been sampling a few craft brew lagers lately, as I’m finding them more often. With Oktoberfest at hand, there’s no better time than the present, of course, but the Oktoberfest or Vienna style is actually one never found on Munich’s Wiesen any longer. The big six (Augustiner, Hofbrau, Löwenbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, Spaten, and Paulaner) have pretty much abandoned the heartier lager for the common helles style brews at Oktoberfest itself, which has regrettably left the style to the smaller breweries—even in Germany.
This afternoon, I enjoyed a Bell’s Oktoberfest. Pale orange in color, it has a caramel aroma and thin, quickly disappearing head, but opens up big and malty at the first sip, with a full barley mouth feel and soft, but crisp finishing hop upon the swallow. This is a beer lover’s beer, unafraid to fill the mouth with malty sweetness and a pronounced grainy flavor that is proud uncorrupted by roasting or other flavors. Although slightly over-carbonated in the bottle, it’s actually one of the few efforts that have reminded me of the Vaterland.