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A Pitcher Is Worth a Thousand Words

Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer by Maureen Ogle

Reviewed by Doug Brown

"There is a myth among us beer snobs about the history of beer in America. It goes something like this: everyone used to drink full-bodied beers up until prohibition. After prohibition, the big brewers took over the industry, flooding the market with weak beer made more from rice than barley, because rice is cheaper. They aggressively drove everyone else out of business, and so now Americans drink this limpid swill because they don't have a choice. It makes a great story, particularly for fans of hearty ales and microbrews. The only problem is, as Ogle lays out in this fascinating history, the ..." Read the entire Review.

10 Responses to "A Pitcher Is Worth a Thousand Words"

    S. Perkner October 7th, 2006 at 8:50 am

    To: Doug Brown:
    1/ Czechoslovakia does not exist (see the Czech Republic and Slovakia).
    2. The name of the Czech city known for it beer is Plzen.

    Jay Brass October 7th, 2006 at 8:52 am

    I would like someone to review Jose Builds a Woman by Jan Baross. Its an exciting new book.

    Fred October 7th, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    There is very little snobbery in beer, but it is true that hundreds, if not thousands, of breweries were deleted as a result of the effects of prohibition. Beer is a living thing, much like bread.
    Europe has several hundred years head-start on brewing - what is the point of the article if not to say prohibiton was a good thing for U.S. Beer?

    David Lewinnek October 8th, 2006 at 9:16 am

    Here are my top ten factual errors in this review. I don't know if these are errors by the reviewer or by the author.

    1. The first brewers in America brewed ales in the English style, not lagers in the German style.

    2. Plenty of people other than Germans liked flavorful, calory rich beers. The Irish enjoyed Guinness stout, the English enjoyed IPAs and bitters, and the list goes on.

    3. By the 1870s, there was plenty of 2-row barley being grown in the US, and Adophus Bush didn't have to use 6-row, especially if as you say he wan't concerned about cost.

    4. What you're calling a "budweis-style pilsener" is more accurately called a Classic American Pilsener, since I've never heard of 6-row barely, corn or rice being used in 19th century Czech brewing.

    5. The subtle flavor you're talking about is a matter of perception. The original pilseners made with American 6-row barley and corn or rice had bitterness levels 200% to 300% of modern Bud/Miller/Coors, as measured by mL/L of alpha acid isomers. If 200% was subtle, then the modern version must be nearly tasteless (which, IMHO, it is).

    6. There is much speculation about the name Budweiser, and the last time I heard anything official from Anheuser-Busch, they said it was chosen as a "german sounding name" that people would connect with beer. Like I've said above, they made little effort to copy the malt or hop levels used in Czech brewing. There have been a series of lawsuits in Europe over whether A-B has the right to that name, or a Czech brewery in Budvar has the rights.

    7. The alcohol levels in pre prohibition beer were typically 5.0%, not 3.2%. The Volstead Act of 1920 which started prohibion banned anything over 0.5% alcohol. The only place I can imagine getting the number of 3.2% is that that's the highest limit allowed for the eight months between New Beer's Eve on April 7th, 1933, and the official repeal of Prohibition on December 5th, 1933.

    8. Many of the breweries that stayed in buysiness during Prohibition sold "near beer" (aka nonalcoholic beer) and hopped malt syrup, not yeast or soft drinks. The malt syrup, ostensibly for use in baked muffins and specialty foods like Swedish vortlauf, was mostly used by homebrewers.

    9. Fritz Maytag brewed a steam beer, which is a lager fermented at ale temepratures, and is one of the classic beer styles developed in America. It's not quite correct to call Anchor Steam an ale.

    10. The big breweries may have gotten big by using quality ingredients, but over time they have adjusted their recipes to create the most inoffensive beverage possible. Modern Budweiser uses a tiny fraction of the hops per barrel of pre-prohibition Bud, and the modern version uses American hop varieties like Chinook which have four times the bittering per pound of Saaz (and are therefore cheaper per bitterness unit).

    John October 8th, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Big American brewers do not use better ingredients, as this book apparently states.

    Doug Brown states (from information culled from the book): "You can't make pilsener with American six-row barley,
    because it's too protein rich. You end up with unprecipitated blobs of protein, sort of like drinking a lava lamp. Brewers toiled away and found a solution: mix the barley with adjuncts like white
    corn and rice. Here's where part of the myth dies -- rice is more expensive than barley. Yes, the big brewers use rice not to save money, but because it makes better beer."

    I have to note that somewhere along the line of "facts", a slippery trick was used. He claims that rice is a better ingredient because it enabled the merican brewers to avoid the "protien globs" caused by using 6-row barley.

    The fact is, 6-row barley is considered quite inferior to the 2-row barley used by Europeans (and microbrewers), and you aren't forced to utilized adjuncts such as rice and corn when you start out with the better malt in the first place.

    6-row barley is grown because you get a higher yield per acre, thus lower cost to produce. Maybe rice is more expensive than cheap 6-row barley, but its use is only done to overcome the shortcomings of the 6-row malt, not because it is inherently better.

    I haven't read the book, but I suspect the author comes from a major brewery background or got her information primarily from sources close to the big brewery industry, due to the omission of important facts that undo these claims of quality.

    I won't start drinking the mass produced American swill anytime soon. If I can't have a good beer, I won't have any beer.

    Jeff October 9th, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    There is a myth among us beer snobs about the history of beer in America. It goes something like this: everyone used to drink full-bodied beers up until prohibition.

    After prohibition, the big brewers took over the industry, flooding the market with weak beer made more from rice than barley, because rice is cheaper.
    They aggressively drove everyone else out of business, and so now Americans drink this limpid swill because they don't have a choice. It makes a great story, particularly for fans of hearty ales and microbrews. The only problem is, as Ogle lays out in this fascinating history, the myth is almost completely untrue.

    I am a beer snob, but I am not at all versed in the history of American brewing. I did see, however, a photograph of a friend's grandfather seated at a table in St. Louis some time prior to prohibition. On this table in front of my friend's grandfather and the other men seated at there were bottles of Budweiser. Upon first inspection, it looked unremarkable - similar label, same brown bottle. However, after looking more closely at the photo, I noticed a couple of the bottles were only half full, and they were made of clear glass. In other words, Bud used to be a dark beer or the company at least brewed a dark beer, not just a pilsner.

    J. Shwaik October 10th, 2006 at 7:04 am

    In addition to the mistakes mentioned by S. Perkner, there is another in the same sentence: it's the style of beer that is "also known as Pils", not the town. The German name for the town is Pilsen.

    To David Lewinnek: same mistake. Budvar is the name of a beer made in the town of Ceske Budejovice (less the diacritical marks). This town was known as Budweis to the many Germans who lived there before being expelled in the 1940s.

    Pat West October 11th, 2006 at 10:23 pm

    The technical claims in this book are preposterous. Yes, barley malt produces a heavy, proteinous wort, but in modern breweries the protein can be easily filtered out, leaving a very flavorful, light tasting beer. The idea that the modern day use of “malted” rice or corn is more expensive than barley malt is completely ludicrous. Finally the modern day use of inferior northwestern U.S. hops, such as “Northern Brewer”, is glossed over as insignificant. The simple truth is that quality hops, such as Saaz, are essential and do not appear in any significant quantity in mass produced U.S. beer. Finally, the degree of artificial carbonization in U.S. mass produced beer is off the scale. It seems absolutely bizarre that there is so much sound information on wine in the U.S. and so little on beer. This book has done nothing to improve the situation.

    Pat West, D.Sc.
    Consulting Enologist

    Bartender X October 12th, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    Accuracy is a critical issue in any non-fiction book, especially in a book which purports to dispell myths on a given subject. In his review, Doug Brown comments that the big breweries use rice because it somehow makes a better beer, but I have to disagree. "Better" is a matter of opinion, and no doubt people who drink only Bud Light, Coors Light, etc. would agree, but I find it hard to imagine that any beer connoisseur would feel that way. My understanding is that rice and other adjuncts are used because they impart little or no taste, resulting in a very light (read: flavorless) brew, and make it easy to achieve a greater degree of consistency with every batch. And I'll take David Lewinnek's comment about Anchor Steam a step farther: it's not just "not quite correct" to call Anchor Steam an ale, it's flat out wrong. It may share some characteristics more commonly associated with ales, but if it uses lager yeast, it's a lager.
    -Bartender X,
    Aspiring Beer Geek.

    Maureen Ogle October 16th, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    I'd like to add one comment.

    Re. the notion that I work for or have a background with a "major" brewery or that my information came from a major brewer:

    I'm a historian, not a beer person. I've been working as a historian for more than two decades, and my research for this book consisted of five years digging through libraries, archives, newspapers, and the like.

    None of the "major" breweries cooperated in any way in the creation of this book.

    Indeed, people at both A-B and Miller avoided cooperating with me, although I had a brief phone conversation with the "historian" at Miller.) (He assured me that neither he nor anyone else at Miller would help me.)

    I also had a couple of brief -- emphasis on brief -- conversations with the historian at A-B, which largely consisted of him taunting me with his refusal to allow me anywhere near the company's archives.

    There is one important exception to this pattern of non-cooperation: A-B allowed me to use the company research library (NOT the archives, but the library).

    But that's a courtesy that the company extends to ANY legitimate researcher.

    The library consists mostly of chemistry journals, but it also contains one of only two existing full runs of Western Brewer and the only complete run (to my knowledge) of Zymurgy. I was VERY grateful that I was allowed to make use of those sources.

    But that was the beginning, middle, and the end of the "cooperation" from the Big Boys.

    Thanks to all for their comments. As a historian, researcher, and scholar, I'm all for a lively exchange of ideas!

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