Sunday, July 25, 2010


This is the third blog entry. Look to the right side of the screen for the archives to read the previous entries.

You’d be hard-pressed to find me drinking Sam Adams nowadays. However, I do have one of their ultra-engineered glasses, which I really like, and I will always defend their place of honor in bringing good beer to the masses early on. When they hit the New Jersey liquor stores for the first time with Boston Lager, the beer world in the Garden State was turned on its ear. This beer had flavor and it was good! It hurts to admit that it still is actually. There are just so many other beers out there that I prefer and I am still trying new beers almost every day. There’s no room in the beer fridge for anything from Samuel Adams and the Boston Beer Company, which incidentally brews most of their stuff in Cincinnati.

It’s now time to go into a wee bit of a history lesson to explain why Sam Adams is so important to the East Coast beer culture. Don’t worry; there won’t be a test later. The combined effects of Prohibition and World War II destroyed beer in the United States. Prohibition bankrupted those breweries that could not adapt by selling other products to survive, like Yuengling, Budweiser and Coors. World War II followed quickly on the heels of Prohibition being repealed and rationing of grains was strictly enforced. All wheat was to be used to make food for the war effort. Breweries were forced to use ingredients that did not make for good beer, namely corn and rice. After the rationing was lifted these breweries continued to produce beer with corn and rice. Why not? Through advertising they have duped much of the American public into thinking it actually tastes good. Plus, there are the added benefits that if you drink their beer frogs will sing, scantily-clad women will party with fat, bald construction workers, dogs will have harems, trucks will turn into boom boxes and global warming will be solved by a bullet train. The sheep have spoken, leave the recipe alone and throw away the one that your grandfather developed before Prohibition. You know, the one that actually tasted good.

And that brings us to the rheinheitsgebot. Stay with me, they are linked. There is a lot of discussion as to why it came about. Some maintain it was wheat rationing for the war effort, but it was instated in 1516 and Germany wasn't at war. Actually, we're talking about Bavaria here, since Germany didn't really exist at the time as a separate sovereign entity and was just a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Others maintain that it was a way to protect and feed the populace. Anyone who believes that believes that our elected officials have our best interests at heart and that the lobbyists have little say in this country's legislature.

There is one interesting theory put forth that claims that it was a way for the Bavarians to thumb their nose at the greed of the Catholic Church. See, the Catholic Church held control over all gruit production and sales. What's gruit? It was combination of herbs and spices that helped to bitter beer and had been in use long before hops were introduced to the brewing process in the 11th century. The link below leads to an article that is one of the best I've read on the subject. Don't bother with wikipedia on this one...they've got very little to offer unless you're really willing to dig for it.

By stating that beer could only use hops for bittering rather than gruit, the rheinheitsgebot could have been a way to undermine a source of income for the Catholic Church. If you're wondering if the political climate in Bavaria was anti-Catholic at the time, consider the fact that a year and a half after the rheinheitsgebot was enacted, Martin Luther marched up to a Catholic Church in Wittenburg and tacked up his "95 Theses" on its door. That act started the Protestant Reformation. What prompted him to do this? The sale of indulgences, which were little papal-sanctioned "get out of hell free" cards. The problem was that they weren't free. They were sort of like a tax on your soul. So yeah, the Bavarians were not big fans of the Vatican and their creative and extortive means for making themselves rich.

The rheinheitsgebot underwent a few revisions and was replaced by the biersteuergesetz which lifted the restrictions on what constituted beer ingredients. But many German breweries still claim to adhere to the rheinheitsgebot of 1516. This is pretty ludicrous since the original version did not mention yeast. Well, that's because no one knew that yeast was the agent that made wort into beer until Louis Pasteur discovered the reaction in 1859, over 300 years later. So that's understandable, but what is amazing is to see this on a weizen, or wheat beer. The law was brought about the reserve wheat for baking. So claiming to adhere to the rheinheitsgebot of 1516 is really just a marketing ploy, a way to tell everyone that their beer is "pure". Putting the marketing ploy aside, the rheinheitsgebot did accomplish one thing: it gave the Germans, and others, a standard for which to strive. The ingredients list is out the window, but the feeling that the rheinheitsgebot stands for quality is still going strong and has been embraced by many other countries.

And now to bring Sam Adams back into it. The early television spots for Sam Adams depicted one of Boston Beer Company's founders touting the virtues of the rheinheitsgebot and naming the ingredients they used to brew their Boston Lager. Have you ever heard an Anheiser-Busch spokesperson extolling the virtues that rice gives to their beer? No, instead they ran a campaign on freshness dating. Honestly, I prefer beers that can last a while due to proper hopping and higher ABVs. But that's a lager versus ale debate. By invoking the reinheitsgebot in their ads, Sam Adams was saying that their beer was made from pure ingredients and the stuff the macrobreweries produced was of lesser quality. It was genius and it helped to start the reversal of the effect that Prohibition and wheat rationing had on the quality of beer in the United States.

And now to assuage the West Coast-centric beer snobs out there. Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada have been around longer and drove the craft brew movement in California which then spread up to Oregon and Washington. To this day, Portland has more breweries than any other city on the planet. You have to love that. But the East Coast was a decade or two behind. Some claim we still are, but that's an argument for another time and possibly another blog entry. This blog is about the beer scene in New Jersey and we just couldn’t get the California microbrews out here when I was in college. So as beer lovers from the East Coast, we owe Jim Koch a debt of gratitude, even if the best new beer they’ve come out with lately is Noble Pils and the rest of his stuff is starting to go the way of macrobrews. One note: Boston Beer is now the largest American-owned brewery thanks to the purchase of Anheiser-Busch by InBev.

But with the arrival of Boston Lager, we now had a beer to drink that would allow us to look down our noses at those that were still drinking the corn and rice beers. We were drinking microbrews! That word became synonymous with good beer, but the uninformed began to overuse and misuse it. Some were even heard to refer to imported beers as microbrews! Beer snobs were born, but very few of them knew how to handle these new beers and access to knowledge was in short supply, but access to good beer was about to explode.

Next Time: Microbrews and Imports

1 comment:

  1. Just a clarification based on a comment from a good friend. Sam Adams did not really start the craft beer movement...even on the East Coast. It just had the marketing budget and distribution network to stick around and give the big boys a run for their money. It just happened to make more of a splash in NJ than any other beer at the time. Other were around (Saranac, Catamount and Yuengling, as examples), but stuck to their back yards until Sam Adams paved the way.