Sunday, August 16, 2009

How I Rediscovered Swill Beer

Like many folks these days, I have in varying degrees incorporated red wine, coffee, tea, cocoa and even beer into my daily routine after reading about their health benefits. Concerning wine and beer, let it be said that I have never been a big drinker. I started trying to drink one beer like a porter, stout, or pale ale every day because I read that they had the most antioxidants; I did grow to actually like them, savoring them for their taste. This despite the fact that, as my daughter reminded me, I do not drink beer for the taste but for the health benefits.

My trip into porters, stouts, and pale ales led me into the fascinating world of craft brewing. Craft brewing, or micro-brewing, is a classic reaction to the kind of blandness that inflicts many mass-produced products. Mass production has always helped the common man; it also creates the opportunity for small time producers who can make custom, niche products often with "snob appeal".

To most craft brewers, mass-produced beers of Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller are "swill", unworthy of the beer connoisseur. Thus the craft brewing culture bred a new kind of beer drinker, the beer snob. The beer snob often claims to be able tell what kind of barley, hops, yeast, and adjuncts are used in a beer and render a verdict on said beer's worthiness. "Adjunct" is dirty word in the world of beer snobbery. An adjunct is some other grain, usually corn or rice, that brewers of swill use to replace some of the barley malt of the standard water, barley malt, hops, and yeast that make up beer. Use of adjuncts by craft brewers is a cardinal sin to many beer snobs.

I must admit to becoming a small time beer snob myself. I had sworn off any beer produced by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, or any huge brewer. I rationalized that these beers just did not have the taste or health benefits of the porters, stouts, and pale ales I was drinking at a rate of one bottle per day or less. However, I discovered a craft beer, Session Lager, by the small Full Sail brewery in Oregon that would become my bridge back into mass-produced swill.

American beer before Prohibition was dominated by the lagers of 19th Century German immigrants which had displaced the ales of early American times (many of the framers, like Washington and Jefferson, brewed their own ales). It was the German brewers who introduced the adjunct, usually corn, that would characterize American beer. Corn was introduced to tame the the flavor of the six-row barley available in America (German brewers had used two-row barley in Europe). American beer was always lighter in flavor and easier to drink that its European counterparts. Americans were hard-working and America has a hotter climate than Europe so this style, American lager, fit right in.

Prohibition destroyed the American lager. The beer produced after Prohibition, was even lighter. This was the "Western lager" of Coors, Anheuser-Busch, and Miller, the beer that the modern craft brewing movement reacted against and demonized as "adjunct-laden swill". Enter Session Lager.

Some craft brewers decided that pre-Prohibition American lager was not so bad and might be an interesting brew, if only to provide a nice summertime "lawnmower" beer. Session Lager is such a beer. It comes in cool 11-ounce retro stubby bottles. I picked up twelve on a lark and was enchanted. I decided that Session Lager was my new beer of choice. Ever cost-conscious, however, I began to eye the sub-premium swill at the end of the beer cooler like Busch, Milwaukee's Best, etc. with renewed interest. I remembered from my youngers days that of all the awful cheap beer I ever drank, Busch was the best. So I picked up some Busch beer. To my surprise, it wasn't much different than Session Lager. If fact, it was really just as good at two-thirds the price.

So here's my advice: reconsider the swill that you have abandoned. You may be surprised by American lagers that are perhaps more respected around the world than they are in America.

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