Can Tradition Be Saved?
Article By: Lew Bryson
Why do I think about a dated eco-drama when I look at the great beers racked on the shelves?
Because Europe's small brewers used to be the sheltered habitats for unique beers, serenely floating along in their tiny markets, but now market pressures are driving a consolidation whichhas brewers tossing beers overboard in a rush to profitability which overlooks differentiation and, well, art and beauty. Baltic porters, milds, doublebocks, cask ales, dunklesbiers, hellerbocks . . . It's raining pilsner in Europe as brewers slash costs, and other beers are drowning in the rising tide of golden conformity.
Some of them are being saved, and we're living in the ark. America's small brewers may soon be the only ones in the world making some types of beer. That's been their mission since the beginning, brewing variety. The question is how long it can last.
European brewers are in the grip of a consolidation frenzy right now, have been for five years, and probably will be until there are three or four large brewers left. It looks a lot like America in the 1950s and '60s, as every brewery tries to grow large enough to have a market presence - to attain the size needed to spend worthwhile marketing Euros in a united Europe.
The natural consequence of a drive to fund significant spends is to focus that spending on a single beer - to get the most use for the Euro. That means European breweries are not only getting bigger (and fewer) through mergers, it means they are focusing their efforts on a single brand, which is almost always the house (loosely-defined) pilsner. For more and more European breweries, it is no longer about the beer - it's about the brand.
"The corporate brewery buyouts (in Europe) are focusing on the heritage of the brand," said Bill Covaleski, of Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA. "It doesn't really matter what the liquid in the bottle is. These companies are more marketing-driven, rather than product-driven, and in the marketer's mind everyone is open to change, even apt to change. They'll take on a brand figuring it has a certain lifespan. Then when that brand's done, they can get people to buy something else."
Covaleski admits that it's only natural that marketing-driven companies don't stick with older types of beer. "Marketers don't like stasis," he said, "because stasis doesn't allow them to have any fun. Making and selling the same thing all the time doesn't appeal to them. It's great for a brewer to be able to take one recipe and hone it over years. But marketers don't get paid to do the same thing over and over again, they get paid to be new and exciting and different."
The depressing part of this kind of direction is thinking of the brewery employees who don't realize what's happened when their brewery gets bought. "There are still people in the breweries that still try to make those beers," said Covaleski, "but they're making it for corporate bigwigs who don't give a damn about what it tastes like. Their employers, the owners and top management, have already been gutted and sold. The Teutonic fat lady has cleared her throat. It's not over yet, but it's coming."
Things are still possible here in America. "We're fortunate here at Victory," Covaleski said by way of example. "We're beer geeks, we run the company, and we're still able to call the shots." It works for them, too - Victory continues to grow in double-digits and maintains gargantuan buzz in beer enthusiast circles across the country.
They're also doing their bit to save the world's beer heritage. Victory Festbier is an homage to the classic marzen beers of Munich - amber, medium-bodied and full of the dry malt flavor of those beers. "I'd guess the first festbier I had was a Spaten," Covaleski recalled. "I remember a great party in 1986 when a buddy actually got a keg of Spaten. It was a great day. We feel strongly about wanting to have a beer like that around to drink. It's personal motivation. We make beers that we like to drink, and figure that someone else will probably want to drink them as well." But after regular trips to Germany, and frequent sampling of imported beer, Covaleski feels that Victory's Festbier is perhaps closer to that 1986 Spaten than most German festbiers are today. "When we discovering beer back in the 1980s. . . " he said, then paused. "What we make as Festbier is in line with the beers we were enjoying at that time. We're brewing to satisfy our passion for a beer that's lost, really."
The new brewer at Paper City Brewing of Holyoke, MA, Ben Anhalt, feels the same way. "I don't think they're the traditional Oktoberfest beers anymore," he said of German imports. "The small breweries and brewpubs in Germany still do it. There are a few places that still brew a spring beer and lager it longer. But it's going away. It doesn't matter anymore, anyway. You can make a pilsner and put "Oktoberfest" on it, and your sales will be higher. It's all marketing now."
Everyone knows about the training program IPA got put on by American brewers. This originally robust and hoppy beer had become anemic in its home territory of England, under 5% ABV and barely hopped enough to punch its way out of a wet paper sack. Now IPAs are great, strapping things with bulging malt muscles and billowing clouds of hop aroma.
The man who started them on that path was Fritz Maytag, who went to England back in the early 1970s to learn how to brew true ales and bring that knowledge back to beer at Anchor Brewing. He was in for quite a shock. "I thought I'd learn about ale brewing," he said. "But I found that the ales were not traditional - not all malt, not dry-hopped. They've been using sugar since the 1800s. They invented light beer, if you would - sugar is more fermentable. The beers had no hop aroma to speak of, the color, I was confident, was from added caramel color. I was shocked."
Maytag went on. "English beer had gone through the same thing American beer has gone through," he said. "It became very standardized, very bland, except for a bitter quality, but very little flavor, or aroma, or body, or any real character. Of course, it was brewed with sugar so really it was light beer. In effect they made light beer before we did. There was a loss of richness and tradition in ale brewing, even in Britain, which we all think of as the home of real ale. But the real ale wasn't very real."
Maytag would brew up a beer called Liberty Ale, which has become a perennial, a touchstone of the movement that holds up remarkably well to current standards. He calls it "a product that time has caught up with. It's still pretty hoppy, but there are a bunch of other ales that are that hoppy and that malty and that bitter. But believe me, it wasn't the case 25 years ago."
Liberty and the beers it inspired would succeed to such a degree that they were reintroduced to their natural habitat - strongly hopped IPAs have appeared in England, brewed by English brewers like Freeminer (Trafalgar) and Hopback (Summer Lightning).
Porter was even further gone - it had completely disappeared in the UK by the 1970s. Old signs in pubs still told of its existence, but it had been completely supplanted by stouts and brown ales. Porter survived only in lager-brewed forms in the US (Yuengling and The Lion each continued to brew a porter) and in eastern Europe - the massive porters of the Baltic that are more like imperial stouts.
Once again, it fell to the Americans to rescue the beer. One of the original rescuers was Dave Geary, of Geary Brewing in Portland, ME. He went right to the source to make his porter. "When I was living in London," he said, "I struck up a friendship with a bookseller. We corresponded after I came back to the US. He sent me a treatise from 1802, called "Every Man His Own Brewer", and it was about porter, written by a disgruntled employee of a Shoreditch brewery. It describes porter in great detail, what it was, how it was made, who drank it, and what it was like. We used that as the basis for our porter. You hear a lot of bullshit about finding old recipes in the family Bible written by dwarves . . . this one just happens to be true."
Porter has turned out to be a small but steady staple of the craft brewing industry. One brewery, Deschutes, has successfully turned the beer into their flagship in the porter-hungry Pacific Northwest. And porter, too, has been "released in the wild". A number of small breweries and brewpubs in the British Isles make a porter these days.
I've had a personal hand in one of these rescue projects, and I can say that it's deeply satisfying. Heavyweight Brewing, of Ocean Township, NJ, is a one-man operation that brews big beers in small batches. Tom Baker is the one man. When I found out about his brewery opening a few years ago, I immediately sent him an e-mail urging him to make one of his big beers a Baltic porter, a type of beer that I'd developed a strong liking for.
The Baltics were largely preserved by the inertia of communism in eastern Europe, but now they are being phased out at a growing number of breweries, including two of the best examples from Okocim and Pripps. Carlsberg owns a majority share of both brewers, and also owns Sinebrychoff, a Finnish brewer which also makes a Baltic porter. I'm sure the thought at headquarters ran something like, "Why make three great, different Baltic porters when you can make one?" Of course, it didn't hurt to cut the competition for Carlsberg's own porter.
This is a prime example of how fantastic beers are being casually wiped out by consolidation, like the recent merger of German brewers EKU and Reichelbrau. Each made an exquisite huge bock beer - EKU had its massive Kulminator Urtyp Hell, Reichelbrau the ice-brewed Bayerisch G'frorns. When the breweries merged, the decision was made that the consolidated brewery really only needed one huge beer, and the G'frorns got the axe. Never mind that it was a classic beer, a unique original.
Beers like that inspire the kind of passion Tom Baker and I poured into the Baltic porter project. Tom had read my e-mail, but it wasn't until he chanced to have a Sinebrychoff two months later that he caught the fire. "Koff was the only Baltic I'd ever had," Baker said. "Then it was easy to know I had to make that beer." I pulled together every bit of information I had on the Baltics, grabbed a bottle each of Okocim, Dojlidy and Zywiec porter, and went to visit Tom at the brewery. We had a great morning sampling and talking beer, and Tom started to formulate.
What we came up with was a beer we named Perkuno's Hammer. Originally meant to be a one-shot, the beer generated enough buzz for Tom to make more. "It's my best-selling beer now," he told me recently. The Hammer comes into its own in these cold winter months, and Tom will be busy, bottling, making special cask versions, and promoting.
And he has become a Baltic porter fan just like me. "I buy 'em anywhere I can find 'em," Tom said. That means, unfortunately, that he's subject to the same vicissitudes. "When I was out at a beer festival at Penn State," he told me, "I ran into the people from Stawski importers, and they said, 'Isn't that a shame about Okocim Porter.' What?! I started calling around on my cellphone to places in New York City to try and find someone with a stash, but no one had any. I cried a little."
That's the downside of the story of the ark. Even though Americans are catching the styles, the originals are disappearing, never to be seen again. "What do we have to wait," asked Tom Baker, "maybe 50 years before Europe realizes they made a mistake, the same mistake we did?"
Chris Frashier is a brewer at Old Dominion, where they recently released a Baltic porter as their winter specialty brew. He's amazed at how Europeans are rejecting their own beer heritage. "I was just reading that in Germany," he said, "the young kids are influenced by TV to the point that kids in Cologne don't want kolsch! 'That's what the old guys drink!' They want a Bud, that's what the chicks drink on TV. It's shocking to me, when they could have Kolsch, or bitter in London, and they drink a Bud. Your priorities are wrong!"
Americans' beer heritage is one of tweaking the classics, and that's true even when they're saving them. "American Belgian-style ales are unlike Belgians," said Baker, who makes a Belgian-style golden ale called Lunacy. "They're inspired by the Belgians, but it's different. Maybe that's how the Belgians started out. It's the same thing for us - we're reviving styles, but we're doing it our way. You know, I wouldn't want to make Okocim Porter, I just want to make my own interpretation. Why make something that's already great?"
Okay, so it's an ark with a genetic engineering lab on board. At least they're still afloat. It's a blessing to save these beers in the face of the yellow tide of pilsners that's sweeping Europe. Hold what you've got, Europe, the ark's coming.