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Saturday, November 07, 2015


A little Saturday morning chin-scratcher for you to mull. Stan links to an article about the famous "judgment of Paris" in the wine world and wonders:
What if Fritz Maytag had not bought Anchor Brewing in 1965?

What if the committee charged in 1906 with interpreting the meaning of the Pure Food and Drug Act had decided to implement some sort of legal differentiation between all malt and adjunct beer, or enacted a proposal that lager beer be required to lager at least three months? (Both were considered and rejected.)

What if the USDA had not released the Cascade hop variety in 1972?
In comments, I suggested that there is no analogue in the beer world. It's just impossible to imagine that beer would remain the one product immune to the post-industrial return to quality and diversity that came to all the other products on the grocery shelves.

But there's a side debate here--one Stan and I have been batting back and forth for years. When we look at the landscape of American brewing now, what we see is a fully-developed American idiom: hoppy ales made with neutral yeasts and base malts, accented (if at all) with just a bit of caramel malt. Whether the name on the package is IPA, double IPA, white IPA, Session IPA (etc), that national lineage is always evident. I have argued to Stan--who has steadfastly remained unconvinced--that there is basically one source for all that. So let me put it out to you, and you can line up in the Stan, Jeff, or alternative camp as befits your reading of history:
What if Ken Grossman had never made Sierra Nevada Pale? (And as a corollary: Sierra Nevada Celebration?)



  1. If... then a much higher percentage of old people would claim Anchor Liberty as their "aha!" beer moment.

  2. Exactly, we'd just be talking about Liberty Ale instead of SNPA. Or, as with the East Coast, we'd not be talking about Grossman anyway. The great thing about beer is how unimportant single instances are. It's all fungible, a favourite word I'll admit. No individual has been all that important even if a few have gotten pretty wealthy.

  3. Here's the reason I don't think so. If you accept that the US was always going to end up here, then sure, there's no reason to identify one source as particularly important. If, however, you imagine many possible worlds, then the antecedents become quite important.

    I start with the assumption that we might have ended up anywhere. I do believe that we would have developed a national tradition, because that's what happens in countries that develop them. But there's no explaining why people in Cologne gravitate to pale ales* while those in Munich like dunkel and helles lager. (And so on.) But once a place ends up with a tradition, you can start tracing it backward. You can see the antecedents that led to kolsch when you go back to the ale tradition of what is now Northern Germany and the existence of bitter bier and the influence of pale lager. Sometimes you can go back to a single source, as in the case of pilsner.

    So if we accept that (and I think teasing apart the argument means trying to find agreement on what we're talking about), then you have to ask the question of where the antecedents were. Liberty ale entirely unconvincing. It has none of the DNA of modern hoppy American ales. It's an English-style product that uses Cascade hops as accents to malt body. It does not use caramel malt and has a candy-sweet rather than caramel-sweet body. It's a nice beer, and I agree with those who argue that Fritz doesn't get enough credit. But there's no way in hell that beer has anything to do with modern IPAs.

    SN Pale and Celebration do, and they bear all the hallmarks of the modern style. More importantly, I don't know of other early examples that did (and no one has credibly made a case for them)--and we know that SNP begat many, many imitators. Celebration's significance is overlooked, I think. I'm not quite old enough to recall its release or early years, but by the late 1980s, I do recall what a stir it created when it was released each year. I know how many homebrewers made clones of it, and I know of at least a few breweries that made one-off homages to it. Again, I'm not aware of another beer that was so like modern IPAs from the early days.

    So: Sierra Nevada was brewing beers with all the intact DNA of modern hoppy American ales around 1980 and no one else was. I can't count the number of drinkers and brewers that have described the formative importance of these beers on their thinking. (When I was talking to Dave McLean at Magnolia recently, he was the latest in a line of people--including folks like Hans-Peter Drexler--who said the same thing.) I have never heard any brewer describe an experience with another early pale/IPA that might have led to where we are now. So that's why I think Sierra Nevada's role in developing the American palate was so critical. If Ken Grossman hadn't existed I have no confidence whatever that we'd be where we are.

  4. You are missing the fact that Grossman didn't invent hoppy pale ales. He may have been the first to mass sell them in mass for a few decades but you are not inquiring into the external circumstances present which would have caused another to latch on to the pre-existing conditions and take the obvious and available path. Hoppy pale ale simply isn't that special a phenomenon.

  5. Alan, I don't think I am missing that. (I have a passing familiarity with beer styles.) I think I've shown my cards here pretty extensively: I'm arguing not that Grossman made the first hoppy ales (that would be absurd), but that he made the first ones that bore what we now can see are the hallmarks of American hoppy ales (low yeast character, accentuating citrus and American hop character, a focus on the flavor and aromas, not just bitterness of hops, and caramel malt). All you have to do is taste a Sam Smith's India Ale to discern how unlike hoppy ale predecessors American hoppy ales are. It is super minerally, has a dollop of diacetyl, has tons of yeast fruit, is bready with the characteristic base malts Americans eschew, and focuses on hop bitterness rather than flavor and aroma. It's why in England there's a whole new generation of brewers making "American-style" ales: because they are nothing like English ales.

    Moreover, he wasn't just the first--which is a necessary but not sufficient bar for influence--but scads of other brewers cite SN as their direct inspiration.

    I know you disagree, but you haven't actually made the case against Grossman.

  6. But, not to be disagreeable, you have set so many constraints on the exploration of the idea that you have guaranteed your outcome. And your assumptions are not compelling, with all due respect, because you are not citing anything to support them. There is no reason another mass production hoppy beer wouldn't have arisen given SN did not invent the preconditions. Given its a hypothetical, it's also a bit silly to take such an adamant position as "making the case against Grossman." I am just saying your argument isn't all that compelling given the actual external factors which you are comfortable not canvassing.

  7. Fair enough Alan--compelling is in the eye of the beholder, and where one person sees a narrative, another may see false narrative.

    One thing I'd pose to you. You said I put too many constraints on things. But isn't that what style is? Germans distinguish between helles and pilsner, two beers that are far closer in character than American hoppy ales and anything else outside the continent. We have come to a certain point in brewing, and the notion that there are "east coast" or "west coast" IPAs is quite outdated. American IPAs, while different in the particulars (strength, hop selection), are made the same coast to coast. I had a double IPA at Yazoo in Nashville yesterday that could have passed for Pliny the Elder.

    So fine, I'm overstating Sierra Nevada's influence. How then did we get here? Write the story of American brewing for me.

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  9. So, growing up in Iowa, Sierra Nevada Pale was quite literally the go-to craft beer well into the 00's - it wasn't until 2008(ish) that the market opened up there and new craft brews started to get shelf space. Along with Dead Guy, SN PA is probably one of the most known, so I'd have to give some credit there based solely off my personal contact with it.

    It's hard to explain to people in Portland what it was like just a few years ago at the grocery store in most midwestern towns: An entire cold case stuffed to the brim with dirty thirty cases and tallboy sixers of your (least) favorite domestic brews. Crammed, literally stuffed into the corner of the beer case, would be three beat-up 6-packs of those squat pale ale bottles, of dubious vintage. I bought more of that stuff than I care to admit, but it did carry me through several bland (and poorly considered) moves back to the hometown...

  10. I guess what I meant to say )and forgot to include) is that, from this beer lover and homebrewer's view, SN PA was influential, simply because it was often the only decent beer to be had in certain parts of the country. It wasn't my first experience with 'american' ipa/hoppy pale ideals - that came from a random bottle of Arrogant Bastard that landed in my hands via strange any rate, though, it's hard to ignore the impact that SN MUST have had, by way of being the most accessible, and likely first (if not only), hoppy craft ales many people around the country ever saw.
    That those folks would go on to brew their own beer is without question, and it would have certainly had an influence IMHO...

  11. Liberty and SNPA both use cascade, both use yeast from Ballantine (via the Siebel bank, and different strains from what I have ready) and both use domestic pale malt. The only difference is one used caramel malt to try and mimic Fullers and one didn't (not sure what specific English beer Fritz was going for). So what I see is Ballantine is the original source that we have our modern tradition from, and Cascade is the random occurrence that enabled our specific path, via Anchor and then SN, who were doing the same thing when it comes down to it. A touch of crystal 60 doesn't a new style make.

    I have no idea how you can say Modern IPA is more like SN than Anchor. That's simply untrue, though it was more true ten years ago. Most modern IPA is paler and less caramel-flavored than SN, much more like Anchor. And Liberty is dry hopped like all Modern IPA, and SNPA is not. I would actually argue that SN also has a prominent and distinctive yeast character in their beer, though it's not the juicy-fruit profile of other English-origin yeasts, more bready and sulfury.

    Anyway, I do see a big detour in American brewing stemming from Celebration with it's big caramel sweetness inspiring a lot of beers and the IPA style in general, but we eventually got back to real IPA with the current paler, dryer style and less hoppy red ales claiming to be IPAs. I don't want to be too harsh on SN but that was more of an obstacle to overcome than a source of inspiration. Liberty was there the whole time and we've come back around to it eventually.