Surly Brewing Co. #Merica!

Two things.

American lager wasn’t always bland and insipid.

The use of corn and rice in beer is not inherently bad.

In the mid-1800s, political upheaval in Germany caused a massive burst of German immigration to this country. Among the thinkers, craftsmen, and businessmen were brewers – lots of them. Of course they started breweries to supply their compatriots with beer – the full-flavored, lager beer to which they were accustomed in the old country.

But there was a problem. American barley was not the same as that grown in Germany. American 6-row barley had a much higher protein content than the 2-row barley back home. Excessive protein makes for cloudy beer with a thick mouthfeel that is inappropriate for the refreshing lagers they were making. It had to be cut with something.

These resourceful brewers turned to another local and abundantly available commodity – corn and rice. Low in protein, these adjuncts supplied fermentable sugar while lightening the body. Their use wasn’t an attempt to cheapen the beer. It was a solution to a problem, one that improved the beer.

Through prohibition American brewers produced the full gamut of traditional, German lager styles. They made pilsner, helles, bock and doppelbock, as well as all the others. These beers were true to the style of the day, but with an American twist.

Then came prohibition. Spirits became the drink of choice, with mixers added to cover the harsh taste of bathtub booze. The new mixed drinks were light and spritzy. After thirteen years, that profile changed the American palate. The people wanted a lighter quaff.

When beer became legal again in 1933, brewers obliged with lighter brews. It didn’t happen all at once. Some surviving breweries continued in the old ways. But many reduced the alcohol, body and bitterness to satisfy the prevailing taste.

World War II furthered the trend. Faced with ingredient rationing, brewers cut their products even more. Beer in cans was shipped to troops overseas, who took a liking to the lighter brews. By the end of the war when the soldiers came home, another palate shift had occurred. Lighter adjunct lagers were now the norm.

The shift went even further in the 1970s with the mass introduction of “lite” lagers. “Tastes great! Less filling!” became the battle cry of calorie conscious beer drinkers. Thanks in part to heavy marketing, light beer picked up steam. It was lighter and it didn’t tax the taste buds. You could drink a lot of it. And you had to drink a lot of it if you wanted to catch any kind of buzz.

And so we arrived at the blasé beer landscape of the last decades of the 20th-century.

But there was a bubbling undercurrent. Emboldened by the legalization of homebrewing in 1976, regular people were pursuing bigger flavor in their basements, kitchens, and garages. Among their output was the resurrection of pre-prohibition style American lagers.

Once exclusively the realm of homebrewers, the style has recently gained popularity among commercial brewers. A few good examples have cropped up. Anchor California Lager and Coors Batch 19 are both available in the Twin Cities.

Now Surly Brewing Company has tossed its hat into the ring with #Merica! Their version is brewed with North American pilsner malt from Country Malt Group, flaked corn, and all-American Warrior and Willamette hops. It clocks in at 5% ABV. Surly doesn’t say what the IBU rating is. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 10 to 50. 50 is certainly too high. I think 10 is likely way too low. Call it somewhere in between.

Here’s my notes:

Surly #Merica!#Merica!
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Pre-Prohibition American Lager
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
5% ABV

Aroma: Bright lemon/lime citrus hops lead, followed by mellow, grainy malt and low corn. White bread. Spicy/floral hops come in later – licorice and mint.

Appearance: Pale yellow and mostly clear. Full, fluffy white foam with good to excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt and hops in balance. Malt is white bread with very light toasted grain flavor. Low corn. Bitterness is low to medium-low, but is enhanced by the high attenuation. It is balanced by a soft touch of sweetness. Spicy/floral hop flavors are medium-low with a high note of lemon zest. The finish is very dry with lingering bitterness, spice, and grain.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: A slightly more gutsy summer lager. Bitterness feels a bit higher than some others. Body is a bit fatter than others. But it still has the refreshing character that makes pale lagers so delightful.

Batch 19 Pre-Prohibition Style Lager

American lagers weren’t always the bland, flavorless brews offered today by the big breweries. For that matter, the big breweries weren’t always big. An influx of immigrants from Germany in the 1840s created a rise in the popularity of lager beers. The German brewers who were part of that wave were only too happy to oblige. Using the know-how and yeast that they had brought with them, they crafted a full range of German-style beers adapted to the ingredients available to them in their new home.

Yes, that meant using corn and rice. It’s not just the modern macros that turn to these adjuncts. They’ve been part of American brewing since the mid-19th-century. The 6-row barley commonly grown in North American was higher in protein than the 2-row varieties these brewers were accustomed to using in the old country. Corn and rice cut that protein, lessening haze and lightening body. It wasn’t until after the end of prohibition and World War II that the dumbing down of American lagers really began.

Coors Brewing Company is attempting to revive this beer-of-old with Batch 19 Pre-Prohibition Style Lager. The Coors PR propaganda for Batch 19 says that an old brewers log from 1919 was “discovered in the brewery archives.” “Discovered” may be an exaggeration. Surely they knew it was there. But the story is that they brewed this new beer according to the recipe for the last batch made before prohibition went into effect. Whether this is true or not, it’s a good story. The story is good, but what about the beer?

Here’s my notes:

batch 19Batch 19
Coors Archive Brewing, Golden, Colorado
Style: Pre-Prohibition American Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Fresh bread, lightly toasted. Hop aromas are very subtle, just the faintest hint of herbs and mint.

Appearance: Deep gold and brilliantly clear. Medium stand of creamy, white foam that is moderately persistent.

Flavor: Very balanced. Malt almost wins out with a bready/grainy sweetness. It’s lovely grainy, like chewing on barley malt but without the husks. Malty sweetness is balanced by medium-level bitterness that is enhanced by a crisp, dry, lager finish. Hop flavors are predominantly spicy licorice, but with a distinct blackberry note.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Creamy and mouthfilling. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: Say what you want about the Coors brewery, this is a really tasty beer. If this is the type of everyday beer my grand-pappy was drinking, I’m jealous. Smooth. Full-flavored. Complex if you want it to be, but easy-drinking if you don’t. This really is my kind of beer.