Things even peachier for US craft beer

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

At the beginning of July I posted a piece on the US craft beer industry and the healthy state it was in. I based this on data available from the Brewers Association (BA). Since then, however, new data was released by Internal Revenue Service covering breweries operating at the end of June 2014 in the US and was published by the BA. There are now 3,040 breweries across the US. This is represents a 7.7% increase in breweries since 2013 and the number of breweries operating is at the highest level since the 1870s.The BA estimates that 99% of breweries are craft and that the majority of Americans are no more than 10 miles away from a brewery. The figures aren’t fully analysed and I’m looking forward to reading them when they’re released.

In the same piece, I mentioned that the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat from Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was going to be available in limited quantities in Ireland. I had the opportunity to taste it this past weekend. You’re immediately hit by an aroma of sweet peach and vanilla oak. There’s also a nose tingling effect resulting from the bourbon warmth. With the head clinging to the side of the glass, it pours extremely pale, a light gold and is filtered clear.

You get the peach up front but the bourbon takes over, matches with the sweetness though. However, you’re hit by the aroma on each sip; similar to a tropical shampoo taking over your senses when washing your hair. It’s drinkable, dangerously so when compared with the snifter sipper that is the bourbon barrel ale. This beer has also spent six weeks in used casks.

I’m not one for cocktails (I prefer the Bellini with just the champagne) but I can see that at 8% ABV this beer is aimed at those who do. On the other hand, when you take into account the popularity of fruit wheat beers out there and in particular Sweetwater Blue (with blueberries and at 4.9%) out of Atlanta, this beer could perhaps be lower in alcohol and still achieve the same impact. Doing something like that could prove to be a big seller (even on a seasonal basis) if they wanted to re-release it on a more regular basis.

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.
Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

It would be good to see some more lower alcohol bourbon-inspired ales on the market. Take for instance BrewDog’s Bourbon Baby at 5.8% ABV. It’s a scotch ale aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. There’s rich, sweet fruits on huge nose. The beer pours dark and topped by a frothy head. There’s the expected vanilla woody notes on huge taste and sweetness continues into the finish complete with a warming sensation. According to Fraserburgh’s finest: “This is light. This is dark. This is Bourbon Baby”.

There's certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers
There’s certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers

Revolution in Red, White & Brew

The week being in it, there’s nothing more appropriate than to start with the country where the revolutionary beer war began. Ever since that lunch in the original Spaghetti Factory back in 1965 where Fritz Maytag learnt of the impending closure of his favourite brewery and purchasing a 51% shareholding the very next day, the slow re-introduction of choice and taste into the American beer market began.

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Fritz Maytag has to be viewed as one of the original authors of the declaration of independent choice. It was his original vision of “small is beautiful” along with the 1975 tax breaks then effectively defined the term of “craft” beer. The Brewers Association defines such breweries as “small, independent and traditional” and that was Anchor Steam to the core.

Aspiring brewers such as Ken Grossman, who would go onto found Sierra Nevada, paid pilgrimage to the brewery to see how it could be done, as well as searching out sage advice from another early revolutionary, Jack McAuliffe. The New Albion Brewery was the first “new” brewery to be established from the ground-up, unfortunately it was to close in 1982 but its legacy lives on. Boston Beer Company recently produced a beer dedicated to this founding father.

Jim Koch started what was to become the largest US independent brewery (along with DG Yuengling and Sons) in 1984, with Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams being brewed in Pittsburg. On the night of Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn people that the British were coming, it was to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that there were to be arrested. They were in Lexington at the time and so began the American War of Independence. Revere’s actions to warn Sam Adams and co was to be commemorated by Maytag through the special release of Liberty Ale on the the bicentennial of the event in 1975. There was no more appropriate beer to pay homage to this historic event as the beer itself was to create history in the craft beer movement. It was the first beer to be brewed using the Cascade hop, which was only developed in 1970. While the beer itself disappeared soon after and not to be released again until 1983, it changed history. Sierra Nevada took note and the Cascade hop was to be the backbone of its Pale Ale, which was released in 1981.

Tasting Liberty Ale on 4 July, I was met by what is now the familiar floral, citrus and pine aromas imparted by Cascade. What is striking is that it does also give an extremely pleasant bitterness to the beer. This is overlooked these days due to high- and super-alpha hops. We forget that this hop helped define “hoppy” beers and it became the ubiquitous hop to be used in practically all subsequent American pale ales. I can only imagine what it must have been like to taste this beer in comparison to the other beers that were available almost 40 years ago.

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Of course there were other factors at play that helped sow the seeds of the revolution. At the beginning of the 1970s on the west coast beginning in California and expanding northwards, there existed some of the key elements that contributed to growth of the of the craft beer movement. These included a young population that had experience of beers from Europe and the motivation to do something different, a spirit of bending the rules by home-brewing when it was still illegal, a sense of place and pride in locally produced food etc. Let us not forget that the American wine industry was beginning to flourish at this time and in the similar locations. The University of California – Davis employing Michael Lewis in 1970 as America’s first full time professor of brewing science. Lewis would go on to train a vast army of brewers, as well as conducting key research and sharing his wisdom amongst aspiring beer entrepreneurs. The craft beer movement became identified with a strong spirit of fraternity because brewers new the odds were stacked against them.

By 1979, there were only 89 breweries remaining in the US. Prohibition and increasing consolidation along with rapid growth in the middle class hooked on drinking light and adjunct packed lager at home had all contributed to this decline. Thankfully today there are 2,403 working craft breweries across America with another 1,528 in planning stages (May 2012). When Maytag sold his brewery to the Griffin Group (one of the backers of BrewDog) in 2010, he was safe in the knowledge that choice in the beer market has been well and truly established.