Things happen when you start to pay attention to beer, particularly the one in your hand. Take a sip. Subtle flavors rise, you breathe deep, you say “Aaaaaah!” Your beer satisfies your thirst and presents you with a whole host of sensory delight. That’s usually when people start noticing there’s some pretty crappy beer out there. The pity of it, the pain of it, the desire to free the world from it!
What is crap beer?
What is crap beer? It’s bland. The flavor is flat, the beer overcarbonated. It’s served very very cold – if it warmed up to cellar temperature you might actually notice how it tastes, and you’re not meant to think about that very much. It’s brewed to have a very unoffensive, completely market-neutral taste. It feels cold and wet. There are enough bubbles to be different from water. If you drink a few you get a buzz on, which is where the conversation starts and ends for some. It’s brewed for the median – median taste, median intelligence, median discernment. If you can define “median” you know how insulting that is.
When we are poor, we drink the beer we can afford. What can you do? If you already know better, you close your mind and remember you’re grateful to have a beer in your hand. That is not a perfect beer drinking experience. You do with what you have. There’s some dignity in that.
There is better out there.
How did there get to be crap beer everywhere?
How did the world become so full of crap beer? It started with post-WWII industry booms. The world was finally at peace, and had learned a whole lot about mass production while trying to wipe each other off the map. Now it turned its collective attention to mass producing one of the pleasures of peace – beer.
The U.S. had just started to come all the way out of Prohibition, when all alcohol was outlawed at the Federal level, when World War II broke out. We know, it took the U.S. a while to come into the fray, but when it did…On the one hand, you had those saying beer was counterproductive to the war effort, but brewers (who were still reviving their recipes, expertise and equipment) countered with the nutritive value of beer. Eventually the U.S. Government agreed that the benefits of the vitamin B in brewer’s yeast, alongside the taxes coming in from beer sales, were enough to justify a request that fifteen percent of beer production go to servicemen. In a patriotic fervor, from American’s entry in 1941 until the war ended in 1945, U.S. beer production increased over 40% despite the small number of active breweries at the time.
At the same time, food and fuel went to feed troops,and there weren’t so many active-age brewers left at home. Much of the grain supply was rationed, so the remaining brewers had to be creative and make do. This is when U.S. breweries began using adjuncts such as corn and rice alongside our beloved barley, and making beer with less alcohol content, which takes less grain.
The U.K. had its temperance movement as well, and like the U.S., developed lower-alcohol beers and higher taxation rates as a result. During the War, beer wasn’t rationed because of the impact that might have on morale, but grain was, resulting in much lower-alcohol beer. Cork, metal, and rubber were rationed, so capping beer bottles became tricky. Corks were sometimes replaced by cardboard covered with a layer of paper. Crown caps were recycled. As in World War I, swing tops became more popular, as they only needed a little rubber which could be recycled from auto or airplane tires.
After the War, breweries had been damaged or destroyed everywhere in Europe. After the war came rebuilding – and the incorporation of a new degree of mechanization, which allowed larger-scale production. Some breweries merged, and many turned to making non-alcoholic soft drinks in addition to beer, since it could share the same distribution system and perhaps appeal to another segment of the population. Mechanization led inexhorably to more production, and soon the brew batches were staggeringly large. Anheuser-Busch made five billion gallons of beer in 2006 (they were bought by In-Bev in 2008, a Belgian-Brazilian brewing company, so statistics are a little harder to isolate now).
Several breweries emerged as market leaders. They produced beers more remarkable for their uniformity – which, you will have to admit, is something of a feat when they’re brewing millions of gallons and shipping thousands of miles, and the product is perishable to boot, as fresh beer is. They made beer on a sort of pilsner model, with the addition of low-cost adjunct (non-barley) grains that added alcohol but not flavor or body. The U.S. came to dominate the world market, and with its economic might spread its beer to the four corners of the earth – a flaccid, overcarbonated, uninteresting but transportable standard model.
Enough of the history lesson. With mass production came mass marketing, and with mass marketing came glossing the details. There was still real lager in the world, but it wasn’t nearly as cheap to produce, so the ever-larger companies distributing millions of bottles and cans of beer didn’t make real lager. They made (and still make) an increasingly ersatz form. Of course, the longer they dominated the market, the easier it was to forget what lager could really be.
What should a lager be? They are generally golden beers, though they can be a bit darker. They are very clean, with no fruity esters complicating the flavor. They are often described as crisp. They began in Bavaria and spread across Europe, nestling particularly in the Czech Republic around Pilsn.
The Grid, a Toronto blog, had an awesome graphic about beer ingredients that I should have lifted, seeing as The Grid shut down a while ago.
Coors Lite is made from water, barley malt, corn, yeast, and hops. Miller Coors acknowledges they may include corn and wheat. CORN? RICE? CRAP BEER ALERT!
In the brewing world, you have lagers and you have ales. The difference is in the fermentation process, in the type of yeast used and how it behaves, and how the beer is handled while it is fermenting. To brewers, that difference is huge. I think of ales as warmer: IPA, pale ale, nut brown, porter, stout. Lagers are cooler, often fermented at below-cellar temps: pilsners, bocks, Oktoberfests. Which is not to say they should be served cold! Lagers are generally best served in the 40s F, ales a little warmer – mid 40s to low 50s. Stouts can be served at 55F, which is the British cellar temperature. Snifter beers like barleywines, barrel-aged stouts, and old ales can be served barely chilled or even room temperature.
Crap beer is mostly pseudo-lager, and is served at refrigerator temperature, which is generally below 40F. The colder the beer, the less carbonation is released, ergo the less aroma there is. And one’s palate does have a harder time distinguishing flavors when it’s really cold. Signs are that they’re pulling something over on us.
Now, one brewery in Scotland recently had a very entertaining, very creative way to approach the existence of crap beer in our universe, which amused me so much I started to write this post.
Brew Dog’s Crap Beer Amnesty
In their blog, Brew Dog announced that on a particular Saturday afternoon you could bring a can of crap beer to any one of their brewpubs between noon and five, and exchange it for half a pint of their newly released real lager, ironically called Fake Lager in homage to the kind of beer they hope to wipe off the face of the earth. They begged people not to go buy a crap beer to bring to the exchange, but to beg or borrow it off a friend who drinks that stuff. (It’s sad but true, we all know someone who has fake lager at home.) So Brew Dog soon had brewpubs full of happy lager lovers.
I know I’ve written about Brew Dog before, but these guys make me laugh. I so love their attitude:
“Fake Art, fake brands, fake breasts, and fake lager. There is nothing so mind numbing as ordering a drink and coming face to face with the certainty that it is a complete and utter fraud. A charlatan, faux, not real. The ugly fallout from the Lager Dream. Time to wake up and smell the hops, to rip up the rule book and stick a jackhammer in convention. We don’t do second rate, almost or maybe. It’s the real deal or nothing. Via con dios fake lagers…[They make their lager as] a craft brewed 100% malt beer with plenty of noble hops to play off the firm malt base. We make our lager the way we make our beer. The same crafted excellence. The same anarchic attitude. The same four ingredients (and when we say four, we damn well mean it). ”
To top it off, they promised to actually do something constructive with all that crap beer they got. Crap Beer Goes Boom. They cheerfully applied Chinese fireworks they’d bought on the internet to the problem. Bless me if they didn’t film it and put it on the internet. ( I for one am highly entertained. Doesn’t this look like fun?). Seriously, go watch this. This link will (should) open in a separate window for you.
In case you missed that reference to four ingredients, it’s a nod to the German beer purity law, the Rheinheitsgebot, which is almost to its five hundredth birthday. Brew Dog does not use rice or maize when they brew. Well, maybe as a side dish for curry…but I don’t want to speak for them about their dinner, I haven’t asked whether they eat rice or maize or not. They brew with barley.
(Why am I calling it maize instead of corn? Corn can be a generic term for any grain. Maize is specifically the North American stuff. Yo fella ‘Murricans, didn’t know that, didja?)