Pabst Old Tankard Ale

There it is again, that old bugaboo word “craft.”

The marketing material for Pabst Brewing Company’s new brew Old Tankard Ale touts it as “the first craft beer offered in a can.” It was first released in the 1930s – in a can – and was the number two selling American ale behind Ballantine during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The current iteration was brewed from the recipe in a 1937 Pabst brewer’s log. Pabst’s Master Brewer Greg Deuhs waxed historical about the beer, saying, “Pabst has a rich craft brewing heritage that dates back to the 19th-century. Old Tankard Ale was the first craft brew in the Pabst brand family, and it is an honor to revive its legacy.”

But is it “craft?” Was it “craft?” Can it be “craft?” Was there even “craft” beer in 1937, not to mention the 19th-century? Certainly the brewers of the day and those that preceded them before prohibition were skilled beersmiths who took pride in the product they produced. I would be loath to deny the German brewmasters of the 1800s – the men who built American beer – the designation “craftsman.” But does that mean that the beer they made was “craft?”

Was Pabst – once the largest brewery in the world – a “craft” brewery? Can we speak of any brewery existing before the beginning of the “craft” beer movement in the late 1970s as “craft?” Is Pabst a “craft” brewery today? It isn’t really even a brewery. It’s a holding company owning heirloom brands that are brewed by others under contract. But what if the brewery that actually makes the beer can be defined as “craft” in the modern conception, as seems to be the case with Old Tankard Ale, brewed apparently at Wisconsin Brewing Company under the watchful eye of former Capital Brewery brewmaster Kirby Nelson? Does some of that “craft” caché rub off on Pabst? If the beer that they produce for Pabst is full-flavored and well-crafted, as good as most and better than many beers from so-called proper “craft” brewers, does that make it a “craft” beer? (EDIT: Old Tankard is actually brewed at City Brewing in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The video on the beer’s website was shot at Wisconsin Brewing, thus my confusion. Perhaps they did pilot batches there.)

Is Old Tankard Ale a “craft” beer? Does anyone really care? Does that term actually have any real meaning anymore?

Here’s my notes:

old tankard aleOld Tankard Ale
Pabst Brewing Company, Los Angeles, California
Style: American Amber Ale
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
5.8% ABV
35 IBU

Aroma: Very balanced between malt and hops. Hops take a slight lead with a European and English character – herbal, spicy, and low citrus. Floral. Lemon pickle. Unsweetened grapefruit juice. Low impression of sweetness. Malt is predominantly caramel with underlying toasted grain character. Low stone fruit esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, ivory foam with excellent retention. Medium amber and clear.

Flavor: Follows the aroma, but malt takes the lead over hops. Malt is creamy caramel with low toasted grain notes. Sweetness mid-palate is medium, but dries out in the finish. Bitterness is medium, but enough to give balance. Hop flavor is medium-high and similar to aroma – floral, herbal, spicy, low citrus. Low, background, stone fruit esters. Finish is just off-dry with lingering caramel and peppery hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Creamy texture gives an added sense of fullness. Low alcohol warming. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Whatever you want to say about Pabst, this is a nice beer. Very well balanced. Malty without being sticky. Hoppy – especially the nose – without being aggressive. It’s an everyday drinking beer. A brewer friend suggested that folks should try this in a blind taste test. I agree. I am betting that there will be some brand disparagement here. But give it a try when you don’t know what it is and you might be surprised by the results you get.

Does Size Matter – Contemplating the Growth of Sam Adams

A recent article in the New York Times about the growth of Sam Adams has got me thinking. What is a craft brewer? And does size matter?

As the article states, Sam Adams is on the verge of growing beyond the legal and industry definitions of “craft brewer.” The federal government defines a small brewery as one that produces less than two-million barrels annually. A lower excise tax is levied on brewers who meet this criterion. Similarly, the two-million barrel limit is part of the Brewers Association (BA) definition of “craft brewer.” Sam Adams is set to exceed this mark by 2012.

But there is much more to the Brewers Association definition than annual output volumes. Besides being small, says the BA website, a craft brewer is “traditional” and “independent.” What is meant by these labels? According to the BA, a traditional brewer is one that “has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” This is clearly an attempt to differentiate craft brewers from the large brewing concerns that use high percentages of corn and rice adjuncts in the production of light lagers. Sam Adams certainly meets this standard.

An independent brewery, the site states, has less than twenty-five percent ownership in the hands of an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.  As a publicly owned company with 71% of shares held by institutions according to Yahoo, it is conceivable to me that Sam Adams would not be considered independent. But the BA limits this ownership restriction to alcoholic beverage industry members. Sam Adams can slip by on this one. But does the recent sale of the Anchor Brewery to the Griffin Group, an investment and consulting firm focused on alcoholic beverages, defy the restriction? Is Anchor no longer independent and therefore no longer craft? And what of the other once small and independent breweries that have been bought by the big boys. I’m thinking of breweries like Red Hook. Making no claims about Red Hook beers, assuming that these breweries’ beers retains their quality, have they stopped being craft brewers?

There is more to the Brewers Association definition. The website states that a “hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” By my count, Sam Adams currently has thirty-three beers in their repertoire. These include unique interpretations of traditional styles, barrel-aged, sour, and imperialized beers. They invented the extreme beer genre in the 1990s with Triple Bock and have continued to push boundaries with Utopias. By the standard of innovation, Sam Adams is clearly craft.

The BA also says of craft brewers that they “tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events.” How does Sam Adams stack up? They sponsor the Brewing the American Dream program to provide lower income entrepreneurs with support and advice in getting fledgling business off the ground. They sponsor the annual Longshot Competition that gives homebrewers a chance to have their creations produced and sold commercially by Sam Adams. Then there is the famous story of them selling hops at cost to struggling small breweries during the recent worldwide hop shortage. Other efforts listed on the Sam Adams website include work with the Leary Firefighters Foundation, the Hands on Network, the Sean McDonough Foundation, and the Neely Foundation. I would say this shows significant community involvement. Does this make Sam Adams craft?

Perhaps the most important part of the BA definition of craft brewer is integrity. The website states that craft brewers “maintain integrity in what they brew.” Despite their size, and despite brewing in multiple locations, Sam Adams brews to high standards.  Boston Lager is the same flavorful beer it was when it was a groundbreaker in the microbrew revolution during the 1980s. With some hits and misses, their beers stand up in terms of flavor and quality to most other craft breweries, though some will dispute this. Sam Adams has been slammed by some for selling-out with Sam Adams Light, but even this beer, when tasted side-by-side with the light products of the behemoth brewers, is brewed with greater care and character. And as a publicly owned company they do have an obligation to shareholders to maintain and grow the bottom line. Does providing for shareholders rob Sam Adams of too much integrity for them to remain craft? If so shouldn’t we hold the entirety of our publicly owned corporations to the same standards?

All of this leads me to one thought. As the craft beer industry grows, our beloved small breweries will unavoidably grow with it. It’s already happening. Once tiny businesses like Sam Adams and New Belgium have expanded to become regional and even national powerhouses. Stone Brewing is actively seeking a location in Europe, making them perhaps the first multinational American craft brewer. In the face of this growth how will craft beer drinkers respond? Will be embrace and encourage it? Will we rejoice in the success of our favorite brewers and commend them for spreading great beer to ever wider audiences? Or will our desire to retain the boutique mystique of the small lead us to reject them for becoming “like the macros”, an argument that I have already heard levied against Sam Adams and New Belgium.

How do we want to define “craft?” Is it a matter of numbers of barrels produced in a year? Or does it have more to do with the quality of the product. When the macro brewers start making good beer, which they are already doing, are these well-crafted beers somehow less craft than those made by smaller brewers? In short, does size matter?

New Beer Numbers Look Good for Craft Beer

Some new beer numbers summing up 2009 were released yesterday and things are looking good for the future of the craft beer industry. The Brewers Association, a national craft beer industry advocacy group, released their report of 2009 craft brewers sales. They show that in a year of overall sales decline in the beer industry, craft beer sales increased by 7% in volume and 10.3% in dollars. Craft beer sales represented 4.3% of the total volume and 6.9% of the total dollar amount of beer sold in the US. American craft beer continues to take market share from the big three lager producers. Here’s some stats from the short fact sheet.

  • Growth of the craft brewing industry in 2009 was 7.2% by volume and 10.3% by dollars compared to growth in 2008 of 5.9% by volume and 10.1% by dollars.
  • Craft brewers sold an estimated 9,115,635 barrels* of beer in 2009, up from 8,501,713 in 2008.
  • Overall, US beer sales were down 2.2% in 2009.
  • Imported beer sales were down 9.8% in 2009, equating to a loss of 2.8 million barrels.
  • The craft brewing sales share in 2009 was 4.3% by volume and 6.9% by dollars.
  • Craft brewer retail dollar value in 2009 was an estimated $6.86 billion, up from $6.32 billion in 2008.
  • 1,585 breweries operated for some or all of 2009, the highest total since before Prohibition.

And from another source, a survey of chefs done by the National Restaurant Association puts locally produced wine and beer as the number five top trend for 2010. Locally produced beer and wine are number four in the alcohol and cocktails category with beer and food pairings coming in at number five.

Craft beer continues to rock!

Specialty Beer or Just Plain Beer?

I was nearing the end of a long, snowy drive home from Kansas City the other day. I hit a spot where I couldn’t pick up NPR and clearly needed something to occupy my brain. I passed a billboard advertising a liquor store somewhere in southern Minnesota. The sign bore the proud declaration “Specialty Beer.” At that moment this sight filled me with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was happy to see a small town store advertising and selling better beer, although I have no idea what kind of selection they might actually have. On the other hand I found myself wondering how long the craft beer industry will be saddled with labels like “specialty” and “craft.”

Think about it. When you go into a liquor store they don’t have a separate section for wines that don’t come in a box. They don’t put a special label on the single malt scotch to suggest that it is anything other than scotch. I don’t believe I have ever seen a store, even those selling small artisanal labels, advertise “specialty vodka.” Wines and spirits may be organized by type, region, or even price, but seldom is the better stuff called “special.” Contrast this with beer where it is not uncommon to see the “beer” section brimming with twelve-packs of pale lagers and a physically separate “specialty beer” section with its rows of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles. I found myself wondering if this segregation was a good thing or a bad thing for the industry.

In the short term labels like “craft” or “specialty” draw attention to better beer and let consumers know that it isn’t the same old pale, tasteless brew that they may think of as beer. In the long term, however, I think it may serve to scare people off. Segregating craft beer from the rest of the beer universe makes it easier for those who haven’t yet stepped up to say, “Oh, that’s too dark for me” or “I don’t like that strong stuff.” It serves to alienate potential craft beer drinkers from a product that they may very well like. Or it might lead some to see it as something to be consumed only on special occasions. Separating it physically in the store from other beers certainly makes it easier for the casual beer drinker to overlook. I would bet that there is a whole set of beer customers at a store like Surdyk’s or Zipp’s in Minneapolis who are totally unaware that there is a special aisle for specialty beers.

If you think about it, the majority of craft beers available today are simply beer as it was up until about World War II when resource rationing and changing palates began the slide to the corn and rice lagers of today. In other words, it’s just beer. A pilsner or Munich dunkel in Germany is just beer. A bitter in England is just beer. Bottled versions of each would sit on store shelves alongside other beers without need of special categorization. I wonder how long it will take for Americans to see domestic craft beer and better imported beer as just “beer.” How long will it take for Lagunitas Pils to take its rightful place in the cooler somewhere in the vicinity of the other light-colored lagers instead of being relegated to the short-bus ghetto of the specialty aisle? When will we normalize the consumption of quality beer in the same way that we have normalized the consumption of fine wine and spirits?

This is One of My Favorite Beers…..

The next event of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club!

This is one of my favorite beers.....When: Friday, June 26, 2009
Cost: $25
You must be a member of the club to attent. Go to the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club to join and RSVP.

“This is one of my favorite beers.” If I had a nickel for every time I have said that I would be rich. If I had a nickel for every time members of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club have laughed at me for saying it I’d be rich. Okay, I like a lot of beers. I’m not going to apologize.

Instead, I’m going to share the love.

The theme for the June meeting is simply “my favorite beers”; no style category limitations, no ingredient restrictions, no regional or color demarcations. Just eight beers that I think are phenomenal. I don’t yet know what they will be. There are so many to choose from. There could be a stout. There might be a pale ale (yes, I do like hops). There may even be a wheat beer, pilsner, or funky Belgian sour thingy. Oh, where to begin?

But you know whatever they are they will be great. Each one will be (say it with me now) one of my favorite beers.