BY WILLIAM LEAST HEAT MOON
JACK KEROUAC, OR MAYBE IT WAS HIS CHARACTER SAL Paradise, once went in search of an ideal American bar—a quest that I have furthered, with results steadily diminishing, mostly because of the closing of many regional American breweries. Today only six companies brew 92 percent of American beer; Anheuser-Busch and Miller control more than half of the output, and by 1990, I read, they will have two thirds of domestic brewage. Now, if you consider Lite a beer—rather than, say, a beverage— or if Budweiser satisfies you, then you have no reason for concern. But if you desire beers regional and traditional, in these statistics you will see alarm. How can an ideal bar exist without genuine brews? Drinking Lite in a fine bar is like watching donkeyball at Wrigley Field.
A grand friend, a man of Scotch and Ojibway ancestry, whom I call The Venerable Tashmoo, had recently heard that an authentic traditional brew was available in Albany, New York, a city once notable for its ales. (While all ales are beer, the difference is that ale is made with a yeast that floats to the surface of the fermentation tank, whereas a lager yeast works on the bottom. Top-fermenting yeasts produce a fruity, even vinous, beer; lager, although aged longer than ale, has a more watery taste.) Our quest for a glass of good handmade began there, began in the industrial district not far from the Hudson River; in an old warehouse, a fellow, William Newman, had opened a tiny brewery in 1981, after learning the craft in England. He makes Newman’s Amber, Winter, and Pale ales in the traditional way, using only barley, water, hops, yeast. His annual production being fewer than 10,000 barrels (at thirtyone gallons each), Newman’s operation is a boutique, or micro-, brewery. Last year he hand-made some 4,600 barrels of beer, about what (by my figures) Anheuser-Busch pumps out in thirty minutes. One September afternoon The Venerable and I watched Bill Newman work; we gnawed grains of his various malted barleys; we helped him stir the mash; we tasted the sweet wort, the hopped wort, the green beer, and the finished ale fresh from the maturing tank. Young Newman (to be a micro-brewer is to be under forty) wanted to give his city a choice of flavors, to fill a cranny that the industrial breweries left as they bought up regional companies. He wanted a beer distinctively local and good, worth the price of a visit, and he wanted to make everything himself rather than resorting to contract brewing, whereby a larger brewery turns out a beer according to a recipe provided. Pennsylvania Pilsner, of Philadelphia, and Samuel Adams, of Boston, are contract brews, not micros. Newman also produces a contract lager, his Albany Amber Beer.
From Newman’s old warehouse The Venerable and I broadened our search for a good beer—beer of another time, we were coming to believe—to Rochester, New York, where the California Brew Haus serves more than 150 kinds of beer. We refreshed memories of domestic brews we hadn’t poured in months, like Yuengling’s Porter and Ballantine India Pale Ale, and imports we’d never poured, from Norwegian Aass to Polish Zywiec. “Years ago,” The Venerable said over an Old Peculier, “I ordered a corned-beef sandwich and a beer. ‘What flavor?’ the waitress asked. That was the time when a brand was synonymous with an individual flavor.”
In October we learned of a bar in Washington, D.C., in the basement of a hotel. The Brickskeller offered some 500 beers. Twice that winter we visited. Late on the second evening (Pfungstädter, Stingo, Gorilla, Leopard Deluxe, Bombardier, Double Dragon, Damm, and Zipfer Urtyp behind us) The Venerable had just finished a Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter from England and I a Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. The drying foam made strata inside our glasses. Looking across the table at the other empty glasses, still splendidly layered, I said, “There’s the archaeology of the evening.”
The Venerable, raising his glass as if hunting a small shard, added, “And impossible to accomplish with a night of insipid American brewage.”
At the next table a man pointed to his Cable Car Classic, and said, “Then you don’t know this one. Meet the West Coast. Meet the future of American brewing.” That was the sentence that offered us a knowledge, like some people’s salvation, that forever brings joy and sorrow—the one when you have it, the other when you don’t.
Still, the quest might have turned out differently had I not misjudged the climate of southeast Alaska and overloaded my backpack with downy apparel. I was on my way north to write a story about fishing and logging among the Tlingit and Haida Indians, and had stopped over in Seattle for an interview. Walking, bent under my pack, down Madison Street toward the Alaska ferry slip, and needing to get from beneath my miscalculations, I passed the Mark Tobey Pub at dusk. With time to spare, I went in. It was what they call well appointed, right to the blackboard menu: Scotch eggs, smoked salmon, mushroom canapés, brandied bread pudding. On the tap handles shone brands I’d never seen: Redhook, Pyramid Pale, Bridgeport, Hale’s Pale American, Grant’s Imperial Stout. Because I liked the name, I ordered a Redhook and drank, dimly aware that a fellow next to me was watching. The beer rolled and jumped in my mouth, my head; it made me drink with palate, tongue, cheeks, nose, throat, and—according to the fellow next to me, Brian Milbrath—with my eyes.
“Well?” he said.
“An American brewed this?”
“Brewed in Seattle.” He understood my need to taste, to fight guzzling, to keep silent for the concentration. “I see you’re not a Wet Air or a Green Death man.” “Wet Air” is the American light beer with an orthographic cuteness that, Milbrath believes, is its single claim to distinction. “Green Death” is the local term for a large-selling ale named after the grand Seattle volcano.
Milbrath told me that he was a “keg specialist,” a man who installs and maintains beer-tap systems. While I sampled my way down the draft line, Milbrath listed the micro-breweries of the Northwest: Redhook, Kemper, Yakima, Hart, Hale’s, Kufnerbrau, all in Washington; Columbia River, Hillsdale, and Widmer, in Oregon; Sierra Nevada, Stanislaus, and Thousand Oaks, in northern California. Along the northern coast more were appearing. Throughout the region also were brewery pubs, and in San Francisco the micro-brewery that outgrew the term but retained its quality, Anchor Brewing Company. In Seattle, Cooper’s tavern had twenty-two taps, nineteen of them micro-brews; another, Jake O’Shaugnessey’s, had a shelf of more than a hundred bourbons and fifty single-malt scotches; a Seattle Safeway, of all places, sold more than forty roasts of coffee. Milbrath was explaining how Seattle, with its openness to new things, has become the city in America for serious beer explorations; the citizens like to taste what they pay for. Because even the vapors of the northwest coast, I concluded, have more color, flavor, and aroma than Wet Air, light beers do not sell as well here as in, say, Las Vegas. In Seattle it is hard to peddle a beer with the lone attribute of wetness.
The conversation drew a circle around us as if we were rolling dice. Everybody, including one brewing chemist, had a charge to make against big beer companies. The group hooted down the patently loony ones, but on three there was a consensus: Industrial brewers are turning more and more to “heavy,” or high-gravity, brewing, whereby beer is made with a strong alcoholic content, only to be watered down before bottling. The “beechwood aging” advertised by Budweiser does not mean beer stored in wooden casks; rather, it refers to strips of wood thrown into the steel maturing tanks. Miller uses a seaweed extract, propylene glycol alginate, in Lite to try to provide something like taste; the extract leaves a residue on the tongue to hold a bit longer what little flavor there is. That last charge I could check, the chemist said, in a book called Chemical Additives in Booze, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
I got a copy later and found these compounds listed for Miller Lite: the alginate (as a foam stabilizer, not as a taste enhancer), corn syrup, chemically modified hop extracts, amyloglucosidase, papain enzyme, liquid sugar, potassium metabisulfite. I called the company. A spokesman, Bob Bertini, said, “We have no additives in our beers.” I read the list to him. He said, “I won’t get into the items one by one, but there’s no way that list is factual. Beyond corn syrup, yeasts, hop extracts, and water, we don’t discuss our recipe for competitive reasons. We re advertising purity now, because we saw a growing concern regarding any products with preservatives or additives. We haven’t changed our beers—we’ve changed our labels.” I called the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They were no longer standing by their lists of ingredients, but they did send along an undated copy of a flyer from AnheuserBusch that listed all of the ingredients supposedly in Miller Lite. This flyer was the basis for the Center’s list. Of three brewing chemists that I talked with, two believed most big brewers were no longer using additives. Where was the truth? I don’t know, but it was plain that the corporate warfare between the two largest American brewers had helped move some beer drinkers not away from one big brewer to another but rather away from industrial brewing altogether and toward an openness to try the beers of handcrafters who are working with only the four basic ingredients.
Before I got under my pack again to leave for Alaska, I wrote a postcard to The Venerable: THE QUEST: NEXT STOP, PUGET SOUND.
A FEW MONTHS LATER THE VENERABLE AND I ARRIVED in Seattle on an English spring day, dim and damp—just the kind of weather for a small taphouse in the late afternoon. Cooper’s, although not the ideal bar, nevertheless has the feel of a fine old neighborhood place; it’s a tabernacle of handmade brews and sideorder food. Despite the meathook softball teams that meet here to swill pitchers of Industrial Strength, the customers, even though young, generally know what should and should not be in a glass of beer. Zymurgy is a serious topic. We had just sat down when over the television came boomdiddyboomboom . . . “Made the American way. . . No preservatives, no additives . . . purity you can see, quality you can taste.” Someone called out a term for male bovine scat. To answer my stare, he said, repeating a common (but unproven) claim, “Clarity is not purity. You going to trust a company that manipulates its beer so that it can put it in clear bottles?”
While the city dripped, The Venerable and I sat snug and judged northwest handmade. He considered Bridgeport the best; we both deemed Pyramid Pale Ale, with its high hoppiness, a splendid thing; but I chose the whole line from the Redhook Ale Brewery: Redhook, Blackhook Porter, Winterhook Ale, Ballard Bitter. I liked moving from one to another.
A man trying to save money—micro-beers are about half-again higher—ordered a Bud Light. The Venerable said, “Want to save money? Order a seltzer with lemon.” The fellow did. Later my friend lectured a dieting woman: “Look, a Bud Light has three quarters the calories of a regular Bud. Forty calories less is all. You know what forty calories is? Half a cup of soybean sprouts. Light beers are jokes as beer and hoaxes as dietetics.”
I told the bartender what I’d seen at lunch in a café downtown: a man—fifties, blue blazer, penny loafers, USA Today under his arm—ordered a Hale’s Pale American Ale, took a single sip, and handed it back to the bartender, who dumped it and then passed across a bottle of Heineken. The bartender said, “I don’t see many conversions of middle-aged people. The beer a man’s drinking when he’s thirty is the one he tends to believe in the rest of his life.”
The Venerable, just beyond the half-century mark, said, “Then I should still be on old Wooden Shoe, of Minster, Ohio.”
Over the course of the evening this notion emerged: The micro-brewers confront a generation of Second World War servicemen who learned beer from the 3.2 percent stuff in olive-drab cans. The GI came to believe that taste in beer, like taste in water, was to be feared. Now the small brewers face a younger generation brain-stunned by television advertising that has made the public want—even demand—just what the corporation wants to sell. They confront an American public that considers dieting to be a Pepsi Free with the french fries. And then there’s the higher cost of handmade over factory beer. Yet in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, even in Boulder and Dallas, microbrewers, if not nipping at the heels of the industrials, are at least growling low in the corner. The next day The Venerable and I went off to a growler.
THE REDHOOK BREWERY IS IN A FORMER TRANSMISsion-repair shop in Ballard, an old waterfront neighborhood of Seattle. Although the district is still kind of a seagoing place, it now also has galvanizing companies and genetic-engineering labs. It stands with one leg in the past, one in the future—about the same position as the Redhook Brewing Company.
Paul Shipman, the president of the company, grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from Bucknell in English literature, received an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, learned winemaking in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and, in the seventies, sold wine door to door as if it were so many Bibles. When he moved to Seattle, he worked first for a winery, even though he had long been passionate about beers of full flavor. He never gave any thought to improving wine, but he knew that American beers were open territory. Trips to England confirmed how far Americans had strayed from their earlier tradition, but, he told us, he “just couldn’t see any kind of business in beer.” Then, in 1981, his friend Gordon Bowker, the chairman of Starbucks Coffee Company gave him “a pitch” about opening a small brewery. Shipman said, “The brewing industry showed signs of being ripe for a small entrepreneur.” The mega-brewers, growing huge by acquiring smaller breweries or opening new plants, had such a lust for profit that they moved all of their beers toward the middle of public taste as they perceived it or wanted to perceive it. They made their lager-style beers even less flavorful when they saw they could sell slightly alcoholic soda water, a solution one micro-brewer calls “lawn-mower beer.” The brewing process changed as zymurgy developed and a drive to lower the per-barrel cost began. Brewers found ways to control the highly erratic nature of beer, some of which involved chemical inducements. Shipman said, “The bigger the scale of operation, the safer a corporation wants to be. It moves toward the middle to avoid risk.”
With the repeal of the Volstead Act, in 1933, only about half of the roughly 1,500 breweries that had existed previously resumed operation; by 1980 just twenty-two brewers remained. Even these numbers deceive: of the few, imperiled regional breweries hanging on, virtually all now imitate the industrial brewers by turning out Velveeta beer. The result? Budweiser, Miller, Stroh (the third largest brewer), have been able to wipe them up like so many wet spots on the bar. In the final step the industrials, as if using the science-fiction novel The Space Merchants as a guide, have manipulated the public taste, primarily through commercials, and made it serve their ends. But for one brewery in the mid-1970s, Schlitz, cutting costs and abbreviating brewing caused sales to drop by almost half in the five years before the Stroh Brewery Company bought it.
By the late 1970s retailers began to notice increasing requests for imported beer—never mind that imports are rarely the same here as they are in their native lands. Some people, their tastes awakened and maybe even informed by the various new American wines, looked unsuccessfully for variety in domestic beers. Others bought imports to strike back at corporations that tried, by controlling a retail shelf, to determine how the rest of us should live.
Shipman and Bowker noticed all this, and in August of 1982 they brewed their first batch of Redhook. Shipman says, “We wanted an individually crafted, top-fermented brew—a real ale, not a lager—and we wanted to use only the traditional ingredients of malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. We started with Redhook because we wanted a bold statement, an ale people would not confuse with something already available. If our brew had to be more expensive, then we had to give them a reason to change. We got that in Redhook. It’s the most radical beer in America.”
Excluding some explosive accident that a home brewer might bring forth in his basement, Redhook is certainly the most radical-tasting beer in America. Joseph Owades, the brewing chemist who invented light beer, agrees. Beer drinkers who love it (“It’s why I drink beer”) and those who hate it (“Right out of the cowshed”) agree. “With Redhook,” Bowker told me, “we polarized the market. Our success began with that.” When Shipman and Bowker introduced the ale to Seattle, in the fall of 1982, the mayor publicly, grandly, tasted a glass, looked about, his eyes staggering, and said, “This is no quiche-eater’s beer.”
No eater of quiche is Rod Mason, six foot four, two hundred and fifty pounds, a former trooper in Britain’s Royal Horse Guards, Household Cavalry Regiment (the Queen’s guard). In that first Redhook autumn Mason owned the Guardsman Tavern, just north of the Redhook brewery, and he was a critic of the ale—that is, he considered it one of the few brews in America worth criticism. His grandfather, who once ran a pub in Gloucestershire, was a cellarman who knew how to treat beer: how to store it, tap it, serve it from clean taps. He taught Mason that special knowledge, and the grandson learned, he says, “from the cellar up.” A brewer can make the finest beer in the land, but if the pub owner is careless, the customer might as well buy slumgullion. At the Guardsman, Mason saw that Americans, tiring of industrial beers, were ready: “I knew the number of people who were happy with their beer was small, but they didn’t know where to turn. Then came Redhook. It was alarmingly inconsistent in those days of working out the crinkles.” Now the brewery employs Mason as a kind of ambassador of its new world of old-style beers. “The ales are finally perfected,” he says. “They’re what we want them to be. If we get a bad batch now, we sewer the whole lot.”
Inconsistency is both bane and boon to the micro-brewer; Americans, Mason thinks, want strict consistency in a brew, while Englishmen realize that small variations are proof of handcrafting, something more valuable than assembly-line sameness. Shipman says, “Redhook is going to be a slightly different taste every time you drink it. It doesn’t pretend to be consistent—I mean, precisely the same. That’s the real nature of an ale brewed in the traditional way.”
Americans once drank top-fermented, English-style ales, full of color, flavor, aroma, and variation. In the midnineteenth century, newly arriving Middle Europeans (Busch, Schaefer, Schlitz, Pabst) brought along the German technique for making bottom-fermented lager. In the face of a newer method and aggressive salesmanship, older American brewing methods disappeared. Now microbrewers find themselves educating Americans to that earlier tradition. Mason says, “Six years ago this country didn’t have any reference point for tasting a real ale, and even today Americans are still edgy about the very word ale. The color of some ales intimidates them. Few people realize that the so-called ales produced by the large regional breweries are not true ales. The word has been terribly abused in this country.”
I asked Shipman, “If George Washington, who was a lover of beer, were in Seattle today, which beer would he recognize?”
“I’d guess Redhook. It’s traditional—almost a barley wine, which Washington would know.”
“Is the past the future here?”
“I believe we’re going to leave the lager age. It’s had its time, or at least its dominance. What we’ll see is both industrial beers and post-industrial products that are, because of the traditional brewing, actually pre-industrial brews. We’ll be here along with Budweiser, but I don’t believe that Anheuser-Busch will begin making anything resembling a true ale. The economics are against it; the demand is still limited. But what you see with us is one more sign that smokestack America is dying. People aren’t in love with mass production any longer. We’re brand new, five years old, and already we’re brewing seven thousand barrels a year. In 1985 we grew by fifty percent and in 1986 by fifty-five percent. In 1990 we can be up to twenty-five thousand barrels. Anchor Brewing was an inspiration to us, and we can grow the way they have. We can get as big as our ability to stand the stress.”
The stress lies in the touchy nature of ale brewing. When the top-fermenting yeasts go to work on the hopped wort, when they begin to shape the character of the brew, so to speak, it all happens rapidly—within a day or two. The critical time for a bottom-fermented lager may last two weeks. The brewmaster must decide quickly what to do with the fermentation, and on his decision company profits ride. The success of Redhook comes from good decisions in several places, none more critical than in the brewhouse; after all, a barrel of Winterhook is not a washing machine that can be sent back up the assembly line to have a gear replaced. It’s more like a jump shot in basketball: once the ball is off the fingertips, the character of its flight is decided.
It took nine thousand dollars and thirty-two days to clean the Redhook brewhouse of its transmission crud, but that once-oily floor became the point of departure for brews that helped change the way people perceive and drink beer in Seattle. Their building clean, the partners brought from Germany a stacked copper brew kettle so fine that it’s almost sculpture; all the equipage cost more than half a million dollars. Of the seven traditional steps in brewing—malting, milling, mashing, boiling, fermenting, maturing, racking—Redhook does all but the first. Their entirely American malts—they use no extracts, as do some micros that start with the boiling—come from a maltster. Redhook adheres to a modern form of the Reinheitsgebot, the sixteenth-century Bavarian purity law—also observed in Germany—that said a brewer may use only barley, water, and hops; the part played by yeast, then unknown, has been recognized. No adjuncts of corn (grits, flakes, starch), rice, sorghum, milo, or syrups, and no additives (chemical compounds). In this country it is legal for a brewery to introduce forty-eight additives and four adjuncts and still call its beer “pure.” Several of the additives—foaming agents, head stabilizers, taste enhancers, colorings, antioxidants, emulsions—perhaps give industrial brewers reason not to list complete ingredients on their labels.
During our yeasty, malty explorations over the last months of our quest, The Venerable and I noticed an absence of hangovers, although on a couple of evenings we had edged, in the interest of complete reporting, toward immoderation. Although Rick Buchanan, the Redhook brewmaster, knows that not everyone agrees, he believes that “true ales tend to be less toxic (for lack of a better word) than lager yeasts that are fermented at improperly high temperatures to create an ale-like taste. The symptoms of alcohol poisoning come from fusel oil, and fermenting yeasts at higher temperatures than they are meant to be fermented, the way some industrial brewers might do, increases the oil.”Maybe fusel-oil levels explain how a maid of honor in the court of Henry VIII withstood a three-gallon daily ale allowance.
When we went from the brewhouse into the conference room, Rod Mason pulled glasses of Winterhook for us. We appraised it; we sniffed and sipped, even tapped the firm head, composed of almost microscopic bubbles. The composition and durability of the froth are such useful indicators of quality that a Guinness patent on a beer tap has one single-spaced, legal-size page description of a proper head: it should be persistent from first sip to last, and its bubbles should be uniform, without randomness, and “possessed of minuteness.”
At noon we drove to the Pacific Inn, a small eatery serving good grill food, to see what can happen between the racked keg and the tapped beer. Mason said, “Most taverns, even in Seattle, set their refrigeration for Miller or Rainier, because those beers won’t pour warm. They turn to foam. But you won’t be able to taste a good ale at that temperature.”
I remembered a combination gas station and bar in Georgia where a swagbellied fellow came to buy a bottle of beer. The proprietor asked what kind. “The kind that’s froze to the coils.”
“Drinkers abuse what they can’t taste,” Shipman said. “They drink too much to compensate.”
Mason said, “Our ales lend themselves to moderation because they’re flavorful. We gain customers by improving our beers. A big brewer can’t do that without raising costs, and that means losing customers. Factory beer gets locked into mediocrity.”
While a good micro can take sales from industrial brewers with the individual character of its beers, it has to struggle for distribution. Because bottling is expensive and retail shelf space can be hard to get, Redhook waited two and a half years before beginning to bottle a small percentage of its brews as a first step toward reaching buyers beyond Seattle. Paul Shipman sees three courses for a microbrewery: it can remain small and sell only locally (bottles or kegs), it can serve its beer only at the brewery, piping it directly from the maturation tank to the tap (the brew pub), or it can grow into a middle-sized regional brewery, as the Anchor Brewing Company has done.
IN SAN FRANCISCO THE ANCHOR BREWERY, ON POTRERO Hill, looks onto old warehouses—one of them recently made into a mall—and tennis courts and the backs of half-century-old houses. As in Ballard, the past is cheek by jowl with the future. The Anchor building, a Depression piece, was once a Chase and Sanborn instant-coffee and pudding factory. Fritz Maytag, whose grandfather founded the Iowa washing-machine company, bought the old and foundering brewing company in 1965, and when he later moved it to these larger quarters, he had to sandblast the interior to get out the smell of roasted coffee. Now the brewhouse—its German kettles looking like great coppery onions, the brass fittings and knobs gleaming, the air full of hops and ferment—may be the most handsome in the country.
Maytag, a former literature student (a major he shares with newer brewers), reader of Thoreau, now a company president and brewmaster, told me, “I’m in the business of making beer that most people don’t like. They say when they taste it, ‘What the hell is this?'” Indigenous to San Francisco, steam brewing is a cross between English and German methods: a lager yeast is fermented at higher, ale temperatures. The “steam" appears when the pressurized maturation tanks are opened and carbon dioxide hisses out. The company that Maytag bought brewed only draft beer, and that poorly. He began by improving its quality— using the best ingredients, taking more care, reviving traditional ways. Then he started bottling. Later he added a porter (he wrote the recipe himself), then an ale and a Christmas brew, and, recently, a barley wine and a wheat beer. Eighty percent of the annual production of 38,000 barrels is Steam Beer, with Liberty Ale and the porter making up almost all of the other 20 percent.
Maytag brews the three newest, in tiny quantities, for several reasons, all of which come down to his love of beer. He says, “The Christmas ale is a brewer’s midwinter custom. It’s also a present to the people who support us, and it’s a way of reconnecting with the roots of a Christmas tradition. This year all the barley in our Christmas beer comes from one farm near Tule Lake, California. Our employees went up there for the harvest to see the source of what we make and to see our connections with nature— the risks in nature. As for barley wine, I make it because I believe in it. I came to love it when I studied brewing in England. Our Old Foghorn requires twice as much grain for half as much brew as an ordinary beer, it’s a nuisance to bottle, and it’s expensive to make. But barley wine is one of the most interesting drinks on earth, although it’s poorly understood and not much appreciated. It’s something to sip by the hearth. A contemplative drink. It’ll never have wide popularity, but I own the place and I can do what I like. A brewery should have a hallmark—a drink of absolute distinction. Old Foghorn will become ours. Wheat beer? I’ve said for years that it could have a big audience, and ours will. In a way, it’s the opposite of Old Foghorn—it’s a hot-day, light drink. It’s our lawn-mower beer.”
Today only 10 percent of production is draft beer, all steam, and available only locally. But Anchor and Liberty are crossing the country in bottles. Last fall they even reached my town, in the middle of Missouri. Maytag says, “If micro means production under ten thousand barrels a year, then we were a micro for a decade. We’ve grown because what we make is true, traditional, honest, and good. We celebrate the materials for what they are.”By that he means at least 80 percent of the mash is two-row barley in all of the brews, because, he believes, the cheaper, six-row variety used by the industrials gives a coarser beer. Maytag adds whole hop flowers—no hop pellets—at three different times and is willing to dump any batch that goes a bit awry. For the Liberty he uses a dry hopping that gives superb aroma and splendid taste. Nowhere an additive or adjunct. Anchor observes the Reinheitsgebot.
Mayrag’s change to quality brought recognition, and the move to bottling brought a following. Today Anchor is the fastest-growing old-name brewery in the country, but, Maytag told us when The Venerable and I toured the brewhouse, the growth will stop at 50,000 barrels. “I won’t swear I’ll stop there, but one should have guidelines, a controlling principle. I like a business that’s small enough for the employees to see our interdependency.”
Mark Carpenter, Anchor’s production manager, his white overalls turned to camouflage by yeast stains and penciled brewing times, said, “One of my fears is that Anheuser-Busch will start making a real ale. I’m afraid our growth will catch their eye. Maybe keeping our customers was easier when people laughed at something called steam beer.” The anxiety is whimsical. Makers of traditional brews know that the market for wet-air beers will remain large.
When we came out of the Anchor brewhouse and headed toward the tasting room, Joseph Owades stepped around the corner. Incredibly, here he stood—the father of Wet Air, the arch-Satan, Old Scratch incarnate. The Venerable alleges that once my surprise passed, I began tapping about my belt, as if feeling for a sidearm. Within reach stood the man who did in American beer. I asked why he did it.
Owades—suited and vested without flaw, a trim man with a clipped moustache—was there because he had just finished teaching his seminar “All About Beer” there. The biochemist was the first Ph.D. in the American brewing industry, writing his dissertation on cholesterol; he went to work for Fleischmann’s Yeast. where he became interested in the microbial action of yeasts. Later he joined the Rheingold Brewery, in New York City, and became fascinated with taking out “calories that beer doesn’t need.” He believed that people resisted drinking beer for two reasons, taste and fear of weight gain. So, after much research, he wrote a recipe that reduced calories and “lightened” even further the mild taste of lager. Owades told me, “Lowering carbohydrates—calories—also lowers the mouth feel. The analogy’s not exact, but a regular beer stays on the tongue like ice cream; a light slides off like a sherbet. That changes taste.”
Rheingold produced the first light recipe, under the name of Gablinger. Soon the secret to a low-calorie beer— the enzyme arnyloglucosidase—was out. After Philip Morris Companies took over Miller Brewing, the corporation bought the rights to the name Lite from the MeisterBrau Brewing Company and let go with the advertising. American beer drinking hasn’t been the same since. “What can you expect,” The Venerable said, “when a tobacco company gets into brewing?”
I asked Owades what beer he drinks. “Since I live in San Francisco now, I usually drink Anchor Steam.” I asked if his research had made him wealthy. “I got my usual monthly salary.”
Not to atone for light beer but because he was hired, Owades wrote the generally respected recipe for the East Coast brew New Amsterdam Amber.
“Tell me,” The Venerable asked, “can you tell the difference between, say, a Budweiser and a Coors?”
“All major American beers are structurally very similar. No, after two beers I won’t be able to tell the difference between a Budweiser and a Coors, but with an Anchor Steam and a Redhook, I could distinguish them after a half dozen. It’s true that micro-brewers are broadening the spectrum, but you’ll see a lot of them fail, because brewing’s hard work, and what they produce just isn’t good. But for the best ones, a metropolitan area will support them.”
MICRO-BREWERY FAILURES SO FAR HAVE COME more from undercapitalization than from poor brew. The New Albion Brewing Company, of Sonoma, California, the first true American micro, went under because it began bottling before it was financially able to produce beer in quantity. In distribution Jonah must face the leviathan. An industrial brewer can make distribution very difficult for a small brewer (sometimes by illegal means). One solution: eliminate distribution altogether by running beer from the maturation tank to the customer’s glass, or, as The Venerable said, “Put the cat under the milk cow.” In this country brew pubs are still scarce, but in colonial America a traveler could find tavern after tavern serving its own beer.
The brew pub also provides the owner with complete control over his ales and lagers, an important consideration when excellence is the aim. No other alcoholic beverage is so sensitive, so perishable, as beer. It will change from towel lint in the glass, from a refrigerator five degrees off, from sitting in a glass on a waiter’s tray an extra two minutes, on and on. Virtually everything that is not beer is its enemy.
In Hayward, California, on the lower east side of San Francisco Bay, The Venerable and I went to Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub, where Bill Owens, the owner, said, “The wave is the brew pub, and I’m on the crest.” His influential book of photographs tided Suburbia brought him a Guggenheim fellowship in 1976. Then he published Our Kind of People and, later, Working: Or I Do It for the Money. The books earned him little more than respect. Owens said, “Photojournalism had peaked. I got in on the dying days, the back end. Now I’m in on the front end of something. Now I can write checks faster than they bounce. In ten years there’ll be a hundred brew pubs in the United States, and you’ll see me in Fortune. Instead of shooting assignments on colored popcorn for them, I’ll be the subject. That’s the difference between back ends and front ends.”
Owens began brewing a few gallons at home in the early seventies. At his fortieth-birthday party, in 1978, a friend said, “Let’s open a brewery.” They looked at a couple of micros and decided that a bottling line was too expensive and too complex, and so they abandoned the idea. (They do, however, bottle for takeout.) Then, the next year, they heard about brew pubs, revolting against the Americanization of British beer-making, that were opening all across Britain. In 1983, when the brew pub became legal in California, Owens set up a limited partnership, sold twentyseven shares, and raised $110,000. “A good idea sells much easier and for more money than a good photograph.” He rented an old downtown building, once a camera store, gutted it, and built a tiny brew house in the back with a picture window to allow the customer to sit, sip, and see his brew made. He tore up the floor and laid sixty-two feet of pipe from the brewroom to the bar with the help of an investor who works on nuclear bombs. That sixty-two feet is his distribution system; it, as much as anything else, allows him to compete with the industrials. By scrounging equipment from a candy company, a food manufacturer, and a dairy, he assembled his brewing apparatus for $35,000. On September 9, 1983, he opened the third brew pub in the United States. The first batch of Buffalo Bill he made went on sale, and today he’s unsure whether he’s ever dumped anything even if he should have. A customer told me, “That early stuff was out of the buffalo’s posterior. It had hoofs and horns in it. Now he’s about perfected it. I’m a fixture here, part of the pipeline.”
Owens brews six barrels every Monday, about three hundred barrels a year. “For a hundred and thirty dollars’ worth of ingredients I can make a twenty-five-hundred-dollar profit. A glass of lager—that’s all I brew now—costs seven cents. I sell it for a dollar and a half. Compare my profit on a bottle of commercial beer—forty cents.” Last year half of his $200,000 gross income came from Buffalo Bill Beer, the rest from sandwiches and other beers.
He wrote a book titled How to Build a Small Brewery, which he sells over the bar and by mail, and he bought up two home-brewing magazines and consolidated them into a quarterly, American Brewer. Owens told The Venerable and me, “It doesn’t bring in money so much as it puts me on the map as a pioneer. It keeps me in touch with people in the industry.”
With plans to open two more places in 1988, he’s trademarked the term Brewpub in California. He wants a half dozen pubs, some in malls, with the brewhouse in the front window to lure in strollers. He wants to franchise. “My fun is promoting. If the television camera is here, I get out my big paddle and stir the mash. It’s not necessary to stir. It’s just graphic. Look, everybody wants to be an entrepreneur now. I’m on the edge of the revolution—the making-money-and-enjoying-it revolution. A lot of microbrewers are purists. Ale is the Holy Grail. I’m not interested in that. You find chemists and chefs—I’m a chef. I know my truth is best. I do it the easy way. I boil for an hour because my timer runs for an hour. I use pellet hops, but I don’t use malt extracts and I don’t filter. My water is snowmelt from the mountains, just like Anchor’s. But I don’t care if Americans don’t know what ale is. I don’t care if they’re afraid of it. I know that light rum outsells dark rum three to one, and I know that Americans want their beer cold, clarified, and carbonated. I don’t make an ale, and I can’t waste my time educating Americans about ale. It’s not my job. I’m interested in making my own kind of beer. This isn’t Burger King. You can’t have it your way. You get it my way. I work by one rule: Don’t get complicated. Don’t build a Rolls-Royce factory to make a go-cart. There’s one other rule: Take the profit off the top.”
The Venerable, always ready to play advocate for the devil, asked, “Would you say that you emphasize the style of dispensing over the product?”
“The style brings a customer in, but it’s the beer that has to bring him back.”
South of Sacramento, near Interstate 5, we stopped in a bar overhung with ferns, stained glass, old-time signs. We went in looking not for the perfect bar but only for a working phone. We knew that men who discuss the bubbles in a head of beer, who read patterns in the Irish lace—those men do not come into bars like this. Yet we had a small hope that some bottle of an untried oddity might be tucked away. The offerings, of course, were Hobson’s choice. Maybe the wish to put a touchstone to these last days of golden glasses urged us, I don’t know, but we ordered our Hobson’s, our industrial. The Venerable lifted his glass, drank, and set it down. He turned to me blankly and said, “Did I miss my mouth?”