Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beer travels well

Pitcher This: Beer travels well


Traveling is its own reward — the chance to see new things, to get out of one's comfort zone, and of course the pleasure of getting away from work, which I'm sure is a vacation motivator for others (though not for me, honest).

But I take special pleasure in getting out of town because it means trying beers I can't get at home.

Beyond the brews themselves, I like getting the opportunity to sample someone else's beer culture, to see how beer grew out of and into the fabric of local life.

A recent family reunion trip took me to New York State's sparsely populated southwest, a land of dairy farms, cool summers and rolling green hills where residents of northeast Alabama would feel at home.

There, as in the identical country on the other side of the Pennsylvania line, beer has been part of the landscape almost as long as the big red barns that dot the valleys. German immigrants settled in large numbers in New York and Pennsylvania from colonial days and into the 20th century, bringing their brewing tradition with them.

Both states have managed to hang on to much of that heritage, with a few independent breweries still in the hands of the families that founded them. Among them is Straub Brewery of St. Mary's. The family founded it in 1872, though their involvement in brewing can be traced to 1831. They've kept things small, distributing only in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

That's not the case for Matt Brewing of Utica, N.Y., founded in 1888, also by a German immigrant. The company survived the depression and the mid-century consolidation of the beer market, just long enough for a new generation of the Matt family to remake it for the craft brewing explosion. Matt's Saranac line of brews includes seven year-round regulars and a range of seasonal and specialty beers. Matt's not afraid to market beyond its Northeastern base. Saranac made its Alabama debut at Birmingham's Magic City Brewfest and is on store shelves in Birmingham now.

Not for export anytime soon are the offerings from Ellicottville Brewing Co., a brewpub in a small ski town an hour south of Buffalo. EBC's brews are the sort one's got to travel to enjoy, and I'm thankful to get the chance to do it once a year on my family reunion trip (in the interest of full disclosure, the company is operated by a second cousin).

If you're up that way (or you're in a Birmingham store that carries the Saranac stuff), give these a try.

Straub Beer — A really light lager, much like its former Pennsylvania cousin Rolling Rock. Not very complex, but not bad, and easy to drink ice-cold on those rare hot Northeastern summer days.

Saranac Pale Ale — This one stands out from most micro-brewed pales in that it's consciously aiming for the British version of the style. The hops are milder European varieties, without the citrusy bitterness so prominent in most craft pales.

EBC Two Brothers Pale Ale — A solid American pale ale, with lots of those hops that Saranac avoided.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The selling of 'the great American lager'

Pitcher This: The selling of 'the great American lager'


There's been lots of talk recently about the biggest beer deal in years: The offer by Belgium-based international brewing giant InBev to pay $46 billion for America's iconic beer-maker, Anheuser-Busch. Depending on who's talking, the offer is either a common-sense investment by one giant corporation in another, a low-ball effort by one company to pick up another on the cheap, or an affront to national dignity — a foreign corporation buying up an American household name.

It's talk of the last kind that seems to be the loudest, and the most based on emotion in place of fact.

It seems a lot of people care deeply about the legacy of the venerable St. Louis-based brewer, founded in the mid-1800s by German immigrants.

Sure enough, AB, as the company is known, produced or perfected many of the innovations that have made the modern brewing industry possible. When Eberhard Anheuser bought what became Anheuser-Busch in 1860, beer was a very much a regional, even local beverage. Brewers couldn't ship their product far because beer wouldn't keep for long trips. Anheuser's son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, helped introduce pasteurization and refrigerated railcars, both of which made it possible to ship the brewery's beer to new markets, according to an official company history.

When the company introduced its Budweiser brand in 1876, it used these new tools to make Bud the first nationally distributed beer, shipped far beyond St. Louis.

To help introduce the brand to these new markets, the company also innovated in marketing and advertising, putting the Budweiser name on posters of attractive young women — "Budweiser Girls" — holding bottles of the brew.

All of this helped AB to become the country's largest brewer, with Budweiser the best-selling brand nationwide by 1957, according to the company. It also helped to nearly end regional and local brewing, as mass-marketed national brands out-competed smaller producers.

Of course, Anheuser-Busch wasn't the only big fish in this pond. Miller and Coors enjoyed successes of their own, competing hard to become household beer names in their own right. Of course, not nearly as much hullabaloo was raised when in 2002 Miller was sold to South African Breweries, forming SABMiller, or in 2005 when Coors merged with the Canadian brewer Molson. Those companies now are cooperating in the United States as MillerCoors, to act as a stronger competitor to the giant Anheuser-Busch.

And the headlines weren't nearly as big in 2006 when AB bought the Rolling Rock brand from none other than InBev, shuttering the storied Latrobe, Pa., brewery where it had been made for generations to move production to its own plant in New Jersey. In short, AB is not a new player to this mega-brewer game. The company helped make the rules, and it should come as no surprise that they might wind up inside a bigger fish someday.

The good news is that even if the sale goes through, regional and local brewing in America is in the midst of a big comeback. The big brewers have been losing market share in recent years to smaller, upstart companies who've built their business on brewing something wholly different from Bud.

So rest easy, American beer will be alive and well, even if the company with the big bald eagle in its logo gets sold off to Belgium.