Authors: Ken Wells
Dr. Kaplan said new evidence also suggests that beer, because of mechanisms that “are not all clearly understood,” may help raise by 10 percent to 20 percent the so-called good cholesterol levels in some people, thereby helping to ward off coronary heart disease and related afflictions such as dementia. Beer is also rich in B vitamins and folates (an enzyme also found in green leafy vegetables), both of which help keep homocysteine blood levels in check. (Homocysteine is a chemical that, in elevated amounts, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.) For those reasons, said Dr. Kaplan, “beer drinking has equal or perhaps more benefit” than its rivals, wine or spirits.
Of course, before the Joe Six-Packs of the world rush out to quaff a few in celebration, the researchers offered a major caveat. They generally define moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and two a day for men (a drink itself being a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits). Conversely, studies show that binge drinkingâconsidered the consumption of six or more drinks in a dayânot only obliterates the benefits of moderate drinking but puts drinkers at increased risk for obesity (the notorious beer gut being one manifestation) and certain types of cancers, liver failure, and stroke.
And there are statisticsâgenerally published by anti-drinking groupsâthat tend to dim this bright news about beer. The Public Health Institute affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, for example, published a report in 2000 that estimated that 10 percent of beer drinkers account for more than 40 percent of all beer consumption. Though the beer industry disputes this as wildly inflated, it acknowledges the existence of a preponderantly young, male group of consumers who don't exactly fit the profile of moderate drinkers.
As appetizer-sized servings of gravlax with beer and cilantro arrived, followed by the beer-braised chicken and salad with Corona Beer dressing, the question of whether drinking beer was good for you was easily replaced by the conclusion that it was certainly fun. The beer in the gravlax dish turned out to be Budweiser, and the beer Daniel Bradford asked us to take from the ice buckets at our table and open turned out to be Bud's fancy brother, Michelob.
This just showed you how catholic this event was. Of the ten beers we were to sample, eight of them qualified as craft brews. But Michelob and Corona are popular light lagers, and not of a style in favor among the Ale Heads who predominate in Bradford's organization. The Ale Heads represent a return to pre-lager America before the 1870s, when lager began to predominate, and they pay homage to Britain and Belgium, the only two countries in the world where ales still predominate over lagers. Ale Heads believe that ales, brewed from feisty yeast strains that ferment at higher temperatures than do lager yeast strains, have more character and range than do lagers and their derivations such as Pilsners, bocks, and MÃ¤rzens. Most Ale Heads think lagers, even the good ones the Czechs, Dutch, and Germans make, are boring. (An eloquent counterargument on the merits of lager and the cool-loving, bottom-fermenting lager yeast appears later in a chapter exploring the beer yeast underworld.)
At any rate, we popped open the Michelob and everyone poured a couple of fingers into crystal wine goblets.
“Notice the great aromatics in this,” Bradford intoned, nosing his glass. “It's light and very delicate â¦ Do you get a kind of tingly taste in the back of your mouth? That's the hops.”
I have to admit I'd not drunk Michelob in years and hadn't in the past nosed it, or spent much time noticing its hoppy aroma. But I dutifully sniffed my glass and concluded he was right. And the salmon appetizer marinated in Bud and cilantro was good, too, though it seemed to be there wasn't much beer taste in it. But maybe that was the point. Beer in food, Chef DeLucie would later explain, wasn't supposed to be the main show but to act pretty much as oils and spices do, helping to enhance flavor.
I was wondering what Bradford would say about Corona, these days a light lager most consumers know for the slice of lime you're supposed to force down the bottle neck, and its advertising affiliation with the pop rocker Jimmy Buffett. I'd drunk a lot of it on a few beach trips to Mexico and I found it pleasant on a hot day, but it seemed something of an odd pick for a fancy beer tasting.
I also knew that Corona had gotten its U.S. start in the 1960s as a kind of cult beer, winning word-of-mouth endorsement from young American adventurers who had discovered it while surfing in Mexico. From there, it had grown into an import juggernaut, in 1997 racing by Heineken to claim the spot as America's number one imported beer (startling, given that Heineken had held that spot since 1930). In fact, as of this writing, Corona was, by sales, the sixth most popular beer among
beers sold in America and the fifth most popular in the
This seems all the more astonishing given that in the late 1980s, the brand, owned by Mexico's Grupo Modelo (and now part-owned by Anheuser-Busch, which in 2000 bought a 50 percent nonmanagement stake), withstood one of the most bizarre smear attacks in corporate history. Salesmen for a Nevada Heineken distributor, jealous that Corona was taking business from its brand, began spreading the word that brewery workers urinated in the beer before it was bottled. The entire affair was the subject of a
Wall Street Journal
feature story in 1987 and ended when the distributor, sued for $3 million in damages by a Corona importer, retracted the slander and apologized. Talk about rebounds: in 2002, Corona sold 90
cases of beer in the U.S.
Bradford seemed to agree with the growing hordes of Corona drinkers, calling the beer “refreshing and tasty with a hint of citrus” and, using a wine analogy, “easy to drink, just like a zinfandel.”
I was wondering if Bradford was perhaps just being politic. So I later asked another certified Ale Head, Jim Koch, at Boston Beer, what he thought of Corona. He was surprisingly complimentary, too. “It does have its own unique flavorâkind of a grape soda-pop fermentation ester. You wouldn't mistake Corona for Miller or Bud. It's somewhere between a Bud and a Heineken.”
I perhaps understood this a bit better when Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing, the dean of craft brewers, told me, “Well, you know, once beer drinkers try Corona, usually there's no going back to Bud.” Or put another way: the craft beer folk take a reasonably charitable view of most imports, considering them to be the portal through which Bud, Miller, and Coors drinkers, if they are ever going to cross over, are drawn to microbrews. This is kind of like the argument that pot leads to heroinâexcept the spin (if you're a craft brewer) is positive.
Bradford then moved on to more exotic beer: Goose Island Hex Nut Brown Ale (Chicago); Samuel Adams Boston Stock Ale (Boston); Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout (Boonville, California); Deschutes Black Butte Porter (Bend, Oregon); New Glarus Belgian Red Ale (New Glarus, Wisconsin); and Ommegang Abbey Ale (Coopers-town, New York). It occurred to me how much like a wine tasting this wasâthough Bradford insisted that though the style might be borrowed from wine events, the beer writer Michael Jackson is “quite correctly credited with beginning the development of a real vocabulary for beer. We talk about the malt-hop balance, things that actually apply to beer.”
But, like a wine tasting, Bradford used the pauses between samplings to impart knowledge much as a wine steward might discourse on the origins of a certain vintage. He tackled a question about proper beer serving temperatures, for example, noting that lagers, because they are made at colder temperatures, are best served at colder temperatures, whereas ales and their darkish derivations such as stouts are best served in the range of cellar temperatures.
He ventured into beer color, entirely a function of malt. “Malt is barley,” he said. “You let it sprout. Then you kill it. Then you roast it in a kiln.” Typically, the darker you roast the malt, the darker the beer. This explains why Guinness is black.
As we moved deeper into the menu and got to the grilled steak with stout-beer sauce, I thought Bradford might fall over. “This is almost like veal stock,” he said, savoring a bite. Then, sampling the paired beer, the Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, he described it as “deliciously smooth. This is black malt with oats added. The oats help smooth it out.”
He stopped and offered a confession that showed his private beer tastes were not quite as catholic as his public ones. “I love stouts,” he said. “It's all I have in my refrigerator.”
By the time we got to dessertâbeer floats made with vanilla ice cream, Pyramid Apricot Ale, and Fat Dog Stout, and paired with New Glarus Raspberry TartâI had to admit that I'd gone from being somewhat dubious of the Uptown Beer notion to being charmed by much of what I'd heard and tasted. It was hard to tell much about the beers that were churned up in ice cream but the New Glarus Raspberry Tart was surprisingly tasty for something I didn't think I would like. It was as if beer had somehow been married to sparkling wine.
I later looked up the Raspberry Tart on the New Glarus Web site and this is how it was described: “The voluminous raspberry bouquet will greet you long before your lips touch your glass. Serve this Wisconsin framboise very cold in a champagne flute. Then hold your glass to a light and enjoy the jewel-like sparkle of a very special ale. Oregon proudly shares their harvest of mouth-watering berries, which we ferment spontaneously in large oak vats. Then we employ Wisconsin farmed wheat and year old Hallertau hops to round out this extravaganza of flavor. Why wait for dessert?”
Okay, that's a bit of precious New Brewing preening, perhaps. But then again I had to admit: it wasn't my father's Falstaff.
Drinking beer â¦ educates, creates friends and enlarges humanity's grasp of its own commonalties.
I didn't really get out of Minneapolis until Monday morning.
Sunday can be a desultory day for beer anyway, so after sleeping off (and exercising away) my Gasthaus Wiener schnitzel, I'd pitched up early in the evening at Great Waters Brewing Co. and Brew Pub in Minneapolis's twin city of St. Paul. It was a very slow night, however, and after taking a gamble on the Cajun jambalaya (which turned out to be pasta), I ordered my one and only beer for the evening before succumbing to Gasthaus lag.
The beer was one of Great Waters' cask-conditioned ales, beers stored and served at cellar temperatures in a tradition owing much to the British. I'd drunk quite a few of those during my reporting days in London, when I would occasionally amble in to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub off of Fleet Street where Samuel Johnson spent salubrious evenings after laboring the day over his famous dictionary. The Great Waters rendition was called Old Bastard IPA (IPA being an abbreviation for India Pale Ale). I liked the name and it was tastyâa big beer, nicely hopped, as Daniel Bradford might say. In fact, ever since my Bradford encounter at the beer-and-health seminar, I'd found myself sniffing beers for hopsâand feeling a little silly about it. But that didn't stop me, for Bradford had clearly planted a seed of something.
I realized I actually might have a strong beer preference, other than for cold lager on a hot day: I was perhaps a Hophead, or on my way to becoming one.
Hophead was a term I'd heard from the Beer Geeks, which itself was another term I'd just learned. Beer Geek may sound like a pejorative but it isn't; it's an honorific bestowed upon Beer People of unusual enthusiasm and knowledge. And it is considered kinder than Beer Snob (which is also subject to be derided as an oxymoron) and most certainly kinder than Beer Nazis, a term I'd heard to deride beer know-it-alls who sought to impose their beer tastes on others.
At any rate, thanks to Bradford's prodding, I'd done a little studying on IPAs and learned that India Pale Ale wasn't made in India (the same as Russian Imperial Stout wasn't made in Russia). It was made by British brewers for expatriates in India during that long colonial experiment known as the Raj, to wash down all those fiery curries they were eating. And its hoppiness was more than just a flavor play: hops serve as a preservative (as can high alcohol content). So IPAs were made strong (typically 7 to 8 percent alcohol by volume) and with lots of hops, to survive the long sea voyage to the Subcontinent. It was dawning on me that if you were a Hophead, IPA might be your beer.
I had no way to judge, on a dead night, whether Great Waters was a candidate for the Perfect Beer Joint. But I left it very happy after sampling the Old Bastard IPA.
On Monday morning, I found myself at the doors of the James Page Brewing Co., a microbrewery in Minneapolis that I knew about because I'd noticed their beer being offered aboard the Northwest Airlines flight I'd flown in on. I'd looked up the address online from my laptop and was pleased to learn that the brewery sponsored an annual Blubber Run, a five-kilometer race that featured a beer keg stop at the halfway point. As a beer-drinking jogger, this was my kind of race.
I found a small brewery in an antique low-rise brick building tucked into an otherwise nondescript industrial area. I went in and was greeted by Christopher Dunn, an energetic, lanky, sandy-haired man wearing khaki shorts, a green polo shirt, and Topsiders. If you were looking for a brewer to pose for the L.L. Bean catalogue, this would be your guy.
The first thing I did was to ask Dunn about the dense green vine I'd noticed that was growing up the front of his building.
“Hops,” he said.
Though I would see fields and fields of hops later in my journey, this was my first hops encounter. Dunn dragged me outside for a closer look.
The vine was climbing Jack-and-the-Beanstalk style up the building. “Hops grow like weeds,” he said. Then, examining the vine more closely, he pointed to a mildly alien-looking pod. “See that little piney-cone thing? That's the hop flower. If you take one of those and break it open, you can smell the hop oils and resins that provide you with the aroma and bittering in beer. It's pretty pungent stuff.”
Dunn plucked the pod, broke it open, rubbed the separated parts together, and held it to my nose. It was mildly bittersweet and herbal-like, but with a definite biteâexotically pleasant.
Dunn told me that some brewers (Bud is one) actually use the dried flower-cone (pressed into bales) in the hopping process. But most hops these days are processed into hops pellets that Dunn said “look like gerbil food. I'll show you some we have stored in the freezer. The aroma is something else.”
Back inside the brewery, we settled at a table near a small bar area where Page serves sample beers to tourists and Dunn did what any good microbrewer would do: he told me something about the brewery while offering me a beer. It was morning yet, but work is work, so I accepted a half-pint of his Iron Range Amber Lager after reading a sheet describing Page's five regular and four seasonal beers. One of the brews, called Boundary Waters Golden Lager, was made with Minnesota wild rice. (I wondered if that would make Ian Baumann think better of Bud's use of rice in its beer.) I chose the Iron Range because it had won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest in 1999, so why not the best?
I sipped it; now that I was beginning to accept my Hopheadism, I could say that the hops profile was a bit understated for my tastes. But it was malty, smooth, and highly drinkable. Maybe I'd discovered a great breakfast beer.
Dunn told me Page was started in 1987 by a Minneapolis home-brewing lawyer for whom the brewery was named and had an initial output of about 650 barrels a year. A team that included Dunn, a Milwaukee native who confessed to being a Pabst and Miller drinker in college, took it over in 1996; in 1999, the brewery undertook a limited offering to 100 shareholders as a way of raising capital. Output had climbed to about 10,000 barrels a year and Dunn said he was optimistic the brewery could grow about 20 percent a year over the next several years. Its marketing plan was pretty typical of what I came to learn that microbreweries tried to do: squeeze into a niche built upon good, somewhat exotic beer, build a core of enthusiastic and loyal local drinkers, and use their good word of mouth to spread brand appeal to an ever-widening area. Already Page's brews were being distributed throughout Minnesota and in western Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Chicago, and as far away as California. The brewery here strictly made draft beer. Page had for a while farmed out its bottling operations to Minnesota Brewing Co., a respected regional brewer that made a popular lager called Grain Belt Premium.
But Minnesota Brewing, like many regionals that had to scrabble in the lager market against the marketing and distribution muscle of the Big Three, had recently given up the fight, Dunn told me, throwing 200 people out of work. This forced Page to shift its bottling business to another regional brewer, August Schell Brewing in New Ulm, Minnesota, about two hours south of Minneapolis. All that remained operating at the 150-year-old Minnesota Brewing plant was a small, smelly, and locally unpopular ethanol-making operationâethanol being fuel made from cornâthat the brewery had taken on in a last-ditch effort to supplement its income and perhaps save its beer-making operations. “It's a nightmare from a PR standpoint,' Dunn told me. “But you're seeing more of that across the country as these regional brewers try to hang on.” In fact, as I moved down the river, dead regional lager breweries became a mainstay of the landscapeâvictims of a consolidation trend, the latest round of which I'd come to learn had begun after World War II and had continued unabated since.
We then headed off for a quick but enthusiastic tour of the place. Breweries regardless of size have an essential smellâa signature sweet-and-sour odor of warm malt and fermenting liquids that's perhaps best described as beer in the raw. This one was no different. Beer making is relatively simple, though brewers do tend to throw around a bit of jargon when they describe it.
“Here,” Dunn said, as we stepped inside a warm, steamy room stuffed with a large stainless steel tank, “we mash barley in the mash tun.” That simply describes brewing's first step, which is transferring malted barley from a storage silo into a large, primary brewing vessel (the mash tun), where it is mixed with water and gently heated in a process called mashing. The mash that's produced is essentially a porridge of fermentable sugars. The mash is rinsed in hot water. The result is a sweet, amber liquid called wort. The wort is drained off, usually by gravity through a false bottom in the mash tun, and the spent, soggy grains usually go to feed some lucky local cattle.
The wort, Dunn went on to explain, then goes into another big tank called a boil kettle and is brought to a boil for about ninety minutes. As the boil begins, hops are added for the first timeâthese hops are usually of a variety known as bittering hops. “Most of our hops come from the Pacific Northwest, though we still use some from Europe,” he explained. “It's similar to wine. Thirty or forty years ago you didn't think of the U.S. as a great wine region but it is. It's getting to be the same with hops.” Toward the end of the boil, the beer is usually hopped again, this time with so-called finishing hops that boost its aroma and smooth out its flavor.
The boiled, hopped wort is then spun by whirlpool to rid it of spent hops and any remaining malt solids, cooled to room temperature through a heat exchanger, and moved to a fermentation tank. There, fresh cultured yeast is addedâ“pitched” in brewer jargon. The wort is now called beer and over a period of about five days undergoes fermentation as the yeast feeds on sugars and gives off alcohol and carbon dioxide. In some cases, the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation, which can boost carbonation and alcohol levels, or smooth out the taste. The beer is then transferred through a filter to a tank (known as a bright tank) where it is brought to optimum carbonation levels, often with the help of the injection of carbon dioxide.
Some ales can be ready to drink in as little as two to three weeks and lagers in as little as thirty daysâBud is. But many ale and lager styles take much longer, particularly stronger beers that require extended fermentation periods.
Page, like many microbrewery start-ups in the 1980s, began its operation by using refurbished and modified equipment scavenged from defunct dairy farming operations. It operated a simple two-vessel brewing system, meaning a mash tun and a boiling kettle. “It's not one of the prettiest breweries you'll ever see,” Dunn told me, “but we put our money into the end product.”
We then made a detour into the freezer room, where Dunn rustled up a box of pelletized hops to show me. They looked exactly like gerbil food but they smelled a lot better. As I was leaving, he told me that hops are actually a close relative to the cannabis family. “So we do have a hop bong out back if you want to try it,” he joked.
I laughed and said I'd skip the hops smoking this time. But it did occur to me that this connection to marijuana must have been the derivation of 1920s term “hopped-up,” a euphemism for a drug high.
Before leaving, I did ask Dunn about the Blubber Run, and whether Page actually did station kegs at the halfway point. “Absolutely,” he said. “In fact, this year we're doing things a little differently. We have a bus at the halfway point to haul people back to the starting line, since a lot of people never get farther than the kegs.”
, I'd barreled south down the Interstate to the junction of storied, scenic Highway 61, but not before gassing up at a bustling Mobil station where a Shania Twain country music video blared from an amplified LCD screen on the gas pump. I didn't think I needed to be entertained while pumping self-service regular, but I guess the theory these days is to let no moment pass in America without a mass media fix. What'll they think of nextâMTV screens in the bathroom stalls?
Bob Dylan, in his satirical 1965 breakout album,
Highway 61 Revisited
, may have introduced Highway 61 to the global music world, but the route it follows, hugging the Mississippi for most of its length, is an ancient one, heavy with echoes of Native Americans, frontiersmen, fur traders, riverboaters, and settlers and, more contemporarily, grifters, madmen, and religious visionaries, not to mention visionary musicians, poets, and writers. Also known as the Great River Road, the official highway was created in 1938 out of existing federal, state, and local routes. Its original purpose, as a major north-south thoroughfare, has been largely subsumed by the construction of quasiparallel four-lane Interstate highways that lop off hundreds of miles from Highway 61's more meandering path. One perhaps unintended virtue of this: traffic and attention have been diverted from long stretches of the Great River Road, which at least has kept the strip mall developers from lining every mile of it with the tacky, kudzulike sprawl that now blights the entrances to an astonishing number of American towns.