American Beer, Before it was American
According to Maureen Ogle, American beer started in the middle of the nineteenth century. German’s with names like Busch, Anheuser, and Schlitz started breweries the breweries that would within decades dominate and define beer for millions of Americans.
Yes, the pilgrims brought porter with them to the new world. Yes, Brooklyn and Boston ran deep with beer well before the Midwest opened it’s cellars. But German lager was different and new. They quickly grew into the largest breweries in the country and the world.
Today lager is considered a cheap, chintzy beer, pumped out of factories like industrial sludge. In reality, lager brewing was always more expensive and more complicated than making ale, especially in the days before artificial refrigeration.
I decided to relive the evolution of American brewing, from it’s German roots to modern “lite” beer. And in those first few decades, Milwaukee and St. Louis were pumping out knockoffs of classic Bavarian brews — like Weihenstephaner Helles. Crisp, malty brews with rich flavors of honey and a distinctive, clean finish, but a little sweet for modern tastes.
How do you get from something so rich to the bland flavors of the 1970s? Good question.
If you are interested in reading more — everything from Philip Best and Pabst Blue Ribbon to Jim Koch and Boston Lager— check out Ambitious Brew.
I put together a little tasting for some friends last night: Learn to Love Lagers.
Korbinian Doppelbock is the crown jewel of the oldest brewery in the world. Weihenstephan was once a monastery founded by Benedictine monks in 1021. The brothers opened a brewery in 1040, and Weihenstephan has been brewing ever since. Korbinian is a doppelbock full of cola and chocolate – a beer of unusually light body. The bottle features a little man dressed in the full regalia of an abbot, the head of a monastery.
The brothers in most monasteries follow an interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Along with regulations regarding daily prayers and managing dormitories, Benedict suggested that abbeys need to be self sustaining and that monks should live by the works of their hands. This meant that a monastery had to grow its own grain, livestock, and vegetables and trade for other things they needed. This tradition continues throughout the world. Monks still make cheese, coffins, fudge, in addition to beer and wine.
Monasteries in the middle ages were major warehouses of information. Bored monks copied books by hand, collecting massive libraries of all European knowledge. From monasteries come some of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the medieval age – heliocentricity, the scientific method, basic revolutionary stuff. They also started the process of brewing science.
Monks also devoured beer. Water in the middle ages was more than just unpalatable; water was dangerous. Brewing beer not only cleansed the questionable water supplies, it provided vitamins and minerals to supplement the monks’ vegetarian diet. While most brewing was done by women in the home in small quantities, the monks brewed on a large scale. They brewed enough to quench dozens, even hundreds of people. Still, beer need sometimes exceeded their output, and abbey’s bought beer from nearby producers. When they had to drink outsider beer, the monks demanded consistency and higher quality. By the thirteenth century local breweries began outstripping the abbeys. They continued to compete until the industrial revolution made brewing into a truly commercial enterprise.
In 1803, the abbey at Weihenstephan was closed and the Bavarian state opened an agricultural and brewing college, continuing the tradition of brewing science started in monasteries across Europe. The school continues today with multiple research breweries and the world’s largest yeast bank, as well as the Bavarian state brewery where Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen is still brewed today.
Next week we bring you Chimay and the modern history of Trappist breweries.
Weihenstephan only seems to make wheat beers. I am sure they brew plenty, but I’ve only ever had their hefeweizen and now the dunkelweizen. It’s got the bananas of the hefeweizen, but with less cough medicine and spice. Instead of cloves the dunkel has toasted wheat bread. The feel is full but not heavy, clean but not quite crisp. It’s a pretty good beer.
Look at that head! Eventually, it settle down to a manageable size, but I drank a lot of bubbles. Vitus is Weihenstephan’s weizenbock or a strong hefeweizen or wheat beer. It’s like their Hefeweissbier with some more alcohol. Vitus smells like bananas after they’ve been soaking in banana liqueur, and tastes like bread and vodka. This is not what I was expecting, but it’s a good preparation for going to Germany in April.
Bananas! Cloves? All sorts of spices!
I had a couple pints of this German elixir tonight at the Bye & Bye. I’m preparing for my trip to Germany in April. Weihenstephan claims to be the oldest brewery in Europe. They’ve been brewing beer continually since 1040. That’s a long time considering that every brewery in America was shuttered during prohibition. All the oldest breweries in Portland were started in the 80s, so this shit has pedigree.