A math professor prefers lager to hoppy suds.
Homepage photo via Flickr by Don Shall
I wouldn’t say I’ve developed any kind of coherent philosophy about beer. If I do have something to say to the world at large on the topic, it’s something that might be controversial and not all that well supported. And that is that a lot of microbrews stink, and nobody’s willing to say it.
The microbrew movement, after all, emerged in reaction to the commercialism and consolidation of the beer industry. Thus, it was primarily about style; it was a pose. Just like when hipsters started drinking cans of Pabst, it wasn’t about the taste of the beer.
Now, this is a gross generalization, and I don’t really intend to defend it. People enjoy drinking their microbrews, and I am not about to tell them they shouldn’t. A bunch of people across the country got excited about the idea of making beer and producing something different than people were used to, and we all benefit from that tremendous variety. Their motives are pure, and the level of interest in good beer has increased immensely in the last couple of decades.
But now we have got to stop and take a look at the product. We’re not trying to be overly critical, just a bit discerning.
Let me confess my biases: I have spent a lot of time in middle Europe; that will be very clear from what I’m about to say. In my defense, there is a great deal of scholarly opinion that would acknowledge that that is the center of the art. When Adolphus Busch and his family were building their business in St. Louis, they could choose any name they wanted, and they chose the one they knew connoted the highest level of the brewing art—a name derived from a small town in Southern Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic, widely renowned for producing some of the best beer in the world. This was Budvar, rendered in German as Budweis. (Incidentally, the Czech brewers of the original Budweiser recently scored a partial victory in their one-hundred-year-old conflict against American Budweiser in 2009, winning an EU lawsuit giving them the exclusive right to the name in Germany.)
I still remember the first time I really appreciated beer.
It is this region of Europe that exported brewing as high craft to the rest of the world, from Coors to the big Mexican brewers and so on, in the mid-nineteenth century. Refrigeration had just been invented, making superior beer exportable and raising brewing standards. That was what real beer was supposed to taste like; everybody understood this. So perhaps it is not unfair to apply those classical standards. This is not to suggest that this is the only kind of worthy beer, or that beer can only be produced by blind adherence to some arbitrary, ancient rules—only that these people have been at it for some time, so maybe they know something.
Now, what is wrong with microbrews? You will observe that the vast majority of microbrews are ales, many of them with an intensely hoppy flavor. What you may not know is that it is vastly easier to make an ale than a lager. “Lagern,” in fact, is a German verb meaning to store; to lay aside. Beer-making in a nutshell: First, you make a sort of soup of malted barley; this is called the wort. You boil it, which releases the malt sugar from the barley. While it is boiling, you immerse the hops, in a cheesecloth sachet, like dipping a tea bag. You leave them in for only a few minutes, because hops have such an overwhelming flavor.
The whole idea of hops is to counteract the sweetness of the wort. Once the wort has been hopped, you take the hops out, let it cool, and introduce the yeast. Then you “lager,” or lay it aside, for about six weeks. This is done in huge chilled vats; before the advent of refrigeration, it was done by monks in caves in chilly regions. The conditions have to be just right, or it won’t turn out. If you take a tour of the Pilsner Urquel brewery, in the Czech town of Pilsen, they take you down into what seems like miles of tunnels where they keep their vats.
Pilsen, as it happens, was the site of a major breakthrough in brewing in the eighteen forties. A new strain of bottom-dwelling yeast was discovered. This made for beer that had a clear, golden color. To this day, ales are made from top-dwelling yeast, and are generally cloudy, while lagers are made from bottom-dwelling yeast and have this beautiful golden hue.
What makes the flavor of beer is the way the rich, sweet texture of the grains is balanced with the bitterness of the hops. The major virtue of a good beer has to be that it quenches your thirst. It’s not like wine, something you sip and roll around on your tongue in small quantities. So the taste has to be balanced very, very carefully.
You can make a mediocre ale and no one will notice; with a lager, there is nowhere to hide.
I still remember the first time I really appreciated beer. I was 14 and had been horseback riding (in the mountains of Colorado) with my siblings. Somebody handed me a beer when I got off the horse, and I gulped it down all at once. The combination of my dehydration and the pure, clean flavor of the beer worked together to create a sort of magic, and that memory remains astonishingly vivid and significant in my mind. That, to me, is what beer is all about.
A good beer cannot be sickly sweet, and it also can’t be overwhelmingly bitter. That’s what I have against a lot of microbrews. You can’t gulp them down all at once. Frankly, I think microbrewed ales have been promoted and become popular mainly because they are easier to make. Ale yeasts also are more finicky—they don’t digest all of the sugars, so they leave all these sugary notes hanging around in the final product. The flavor of an ale tends to be very complicated, while a lager is cleaner and more dry. It’s easy to get bedazzled by the spectacle of a busy, full flavor. There’s a lot going on. But there is greater virtue in simplicity. You can make a mediocre ale and no one will notice; with a lager, there is nowhere to hide.
Here is where I’m coming from with all this. I grew up in Golden, Colorado, where Adolph Coors established his business in the eighteen seventies. I knew a couple of the Coors kids—they were members of our (Episcopal) parish—and my mother was good friends with Holly Coors (the wife of Adolph Coors’s grandson Joseph). During Prohibition, they survived thanks to their porcelain business, Coors Porcelain, which is now an independent entity that makes nose cones for space vehicles. (This history is all recounted extremely well in the book Citizen Coors, by Dan Baum.)
My mother’s sister, Anna Schmidt, married a man named Adolph Frauenfelder, who was known as Spike. He was my favorite uncle. Spike got a job at Coors in the nineteen twenties, so my mom moved with them to Golden and got a job at the Chevy dealership, and that’s where she met my dad. I suppose that means that without Coors beer I wouldn’t be here. Spike eventually became a brewmaster, and Old Man Coors (Adolph Coors II) would take visitors to meet him and any other brewers who had German surnames.
None of this is to excuse the darker aspects of the Coors legacy. Management reacted viciously when the workers struck in the seventies, and it tore the town apart. I despised Joe Coors’s politics, and when he became one of Ronnie Reagan’s chief donors the company became a liberal pariah. This reputation lingers today, notwithstanding various initiatives the company has undertaken to patch its public image.
Nowadays, a large proportion of every dollar you spend on Coors or Budweiser goes to advertising. But in those days the Coors name represented German quality and craft. When I was in college in the nineteen sixties, they only distributed to four states outside Colorado. It fell to the Coors heirs of my generation to nationalize the brand, to bring the company into the modern commercial age. All the local American breweries got gobbled up, and the product was made as generally palatable and inoffensive as possible. This is what the microbrew movement rose up against, beginning in the nineteen nineties, in places like my hometown, Denver.
I’ve just returned from Prague, where the beer is uniformly terrific, and it’s just everywhere. You walk down the street on a summer afternoon, past restaurants with outdoor seating, and you see people in good spirits at tables full of glasses of golden, beautiful beer. It’s wonderful stuff.
Rick Ball is a professor of mathematics at the University of Denver. Molly Ball is a reporter for Politico in Washington, D.C.
For the opposite perspective:
“A Better Brew”:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/24/081124fa_fact_bilger by Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, November 4, 2008
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