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 Ale
Pabst Brewing Company, Los Angeles, California
Style: American Amber Ale
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
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.