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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fort George 1811 Lager

Post updated!

There's this funny beer style--actually, I'm not prepared to acknowledge that it is a style--called "pre-prohibition lager." I have no data, but it has the aroma of a "style" that was probably a broad and changing spectrum of different examples brewed in different places at different times. But through the inevitable process of calcification, it has come to stand for this wide rane. Or I could be wrong--but a fifteen-minute spin around the intertubes doesn't dissuade me.

The key features of this style, such as it is now retrospectively characterized, are the use of corn (apparently rice is a permissible, but less-tasty, variant) and pretty assertive hopping. The sources I've seen suggest noble hops would have been used, but this seems the weakest of the contentions--it was more an assumption than a finding. (As always, folks like Bill Schneller can weigh in to correct gross errors on my part. We're all used to gross errors on my part.)

Whatever the historical precedent, though, this is a very good description of Fort George's 1811 Lager, which I tried for the first time on Tuesday. If you want to immediately predispose your customers against your beer, here are two suggestions: 1) brew a lager; 2) add corn. Cardinal sins!

I hope customers are so mesmerized by the shiny blue cans that they ignore the prominent word "lager" and don't read blogs like this. Because, if they manage to get the beer into their glass, they're in for a treat. Despite people's expectations about canned lager, this is quite a lively and assertive beer. I'm not sure what the hops are, but noble sounds about right--or maybe Sterlings or a mixture of nobles and bastard American varieties like Mt. Hood. In any case, it's zesty and spicy, but buoyed by a lovely, summery sweetness. As is de rigueur for an Oregon beer (nod to Stan Hieronymus), it is as cloudy as November Portland skies. And, although it is packed with flavor, the volume doesn't blast at IPA levels, so it has that moreishness you want from a summer tipple. Great beer.

There are far too few crisp, hoppy lagers in this town, and I am delighted to learn that Fort George has added another--"pre-prohibition" or not.

Update. Two tweets from the brewery, which I'll post in order so you can see that my own failures of fact are not entirely unprecedented.
FortGeorgeBeer Fort George Brewery
@Beervana Thanks for the good word! BTW - The hops used are Galena and Czech Saaz.
3 hours ago
and then:
FortGeorgeBeer Fort George Brewery
@Beervana Correction on the 1811 hops ... Saaz and Centennial. It's right on the can!
14 minutes ago
That's a brewery after my own heart. Or brain.


  1. I haven't tried it yet but am looking forward to it. It sounds intriguing.

    I'm not sure if I actually correct you that often, since you're also a big believer in fact based research. I think I reserve my persnickety nit-picking primarily for comments by your readers. Dear God, am I becomoing Doc Wort? (Note to self - maybe it's time to back off a bit)

    It would be interesting to see brewing records for some of the US lager breweries from the pre-Prohibiton era since I wonder about the noble hops as well. It does seem a little suspect since there were so many varieties like Nugget being grown. I wonder where the Weinhard brewing records ended up?

  2. Bill, I actually look forward to your comments. They never have the flavor of coup-counting; rather, they feel like a scholarly nudge. Learning more about the history of styles is a joy, whether it comes after I've publicly offered bad info or not. So please, don't stop commenting.

  3. Jeff, I think the Pre-Prohibition Pilsner is a true style. They’re hard to find, but the best commercial example I have ever tasted was made by Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colo. Here’s what I wrote for the Daily Camera about a year ago:

    I became excited when I learned Mountain Sun was planning to brew a rare, nearly extinct style of beer – the American-style Pre-Prohibition Pilsner. Not only would this be the first lager Mountain Sun has brewed in at least three years, but it’s also an interesting nod to the flourishing-beer-culture days before Prohibition.

    It was a time when German immigrant brewers saturated the market with adjunct lagers – unique versions of the original Pilsner (Pilsener).

    “Before World War I, mainstream beers in America had considerably more character than they do today,” says Randy Mosher in his book, “Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink.” “Gravities were similar, or maybe a touch higher. Hop rates were several times what they are today. While all-malt examples did exist, most were adjunct beers, with typically around 20 percent of rice or corn grits in the recipe.”

    After Prohibition, a new generation of drinkers – who had grown up without beer in their younger years – preferred a lighter and blander version of the original American Pilsner. This was one factor that spawned the race to appease the masses with cheap, non-palate-challenging beers, and many breweries – especially those that put profit before quality – answered that call.

    America is still trying to recover from that wave of blandness, which was evident in other cultural domains, such as food (think Wonder Bread, tasteless cheese, cheap automobiles, fast food, etc.). Artisanal, hand-crafted and small-batch goods took a back seat to cheaply made, mass-produced goods that were marketed to the widest audience possible.

    But the tide has been changing for the better over the past few decades and, thankfully, it continues to change.

    Recently, the forward-thinking brewers at Mountain Sun took a look back and resurrected the Pre-Prohibition Pilsner. “Our intent,” explains Mountain Sun’s head brewer Brian Hutchinson, “was to reflect the style of beer commonly brewed by small, independent breweries that were thriving in America prior to Prohibition.”

    Poured from one of Mountain Sun’s unique growlers, the beer glowed with a pale-gold hue. I smelled inviting aromas of sweet grains and flowers.

    “Like all of our beers, this Pils is unfiltered,” Hutchinson explains. “You would never know it by looking at it, however; it’s probably the brightest beer we’ve ever made. This particular yeast strain, which dates back to the 1300s, has lent itself well to lagering, and the beer cleared quickly.”

    In keeping with tradition, the beer was brewed with a percentage of flaked maize (corn) to keep the body light.

    Mountain Sun’s Pre-Prohibition Pilsner is crisp, refreshing and full of flavor. A solid malt base is complemented by a huge hop bouquet from the Northern Brewer, Hallertau and Saaz hops. The beer bursts with notes of flowers, herbs and a healthy amount of spicy bitterness.

    Few interpretations of the American-style Pre-Prohibition Pilsner exist today, so seize the opportunity to taste this liquid history while you can.

  4. I got in my time machine and tried a few pre-Prohib lagers and I must say that I don't recall the same hop character back then.

  5. I would bet, on very limited knowledge, that you would have had some transplant variety going into pre-prohibition lagers. Say maybe an Yakima valley Golding, or Saaz derivative. I have to believe that economics drove the brewing industry back then as well.

  6. They've got it at the Safeway in Roseway, along with the Vortex. A little pricey though at 8.99 for 4--Vortex is 12.99. Good beer though.

  7. I thought Cluster was a major player in hoping early US beers.....

    Anyway all that said I think we have this rose colored view of pre prohibition beer. What history books I've read on it, combined with quotes from early brewers, suggest that some US beer was heading down the bland flavorless road before prohibition.

    Because of this I don't think you really would have that many assertive hoppy beers right before prohibition. Also, US brewing had alot of variety before prohibiton, and even some after. I think taking a lighter lager and overhopping doesn't necesarily make it a pre prohibition beer.