Point of Brew: Craft brewing back to the future

By From page A7 | January 02, 2014

Duke Albrecht IV enacted the well-known and durable German (or Bavarian) beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot in 1487; it required that beer be made only from barley (meaning barley malt), water and hops.

Some brewers abide by that ancient dictum today, perhaps for marketing reasons or as an ideal guide to brewing excellence, although the Reinheitsgebot no longer has the force of law. In 1952, the Reinheitsgebot was incorporated into the Biersteuergesetz (beer taxation law), which — with some sensible modern updates that allowed yeast and wheat, for example — still severely restricted the raw materials from which beer could be made.

The Biergesetz still regulates manufacture of lager beers in Germany for sale there, although beers may be imported into Germany that contain any legal food additive, mostly other grains and sugar preparations, especially, e.g., ales from Britain and Belgium.

Now what these traditional German brewers might make of the craft-brewing scene in these United States I do not know; perhaps I shall find out one day. But for sure the Reinheitsgebot or the Biergesetz is not a guide to, nor a limit on, American craft brewers’ invention.

It seems to me that during the Year of Our Lord 2013 (now, thankfully, history) American craft brewers have become more and more adventurous in the raw materials they choose to make beer and the way they make them; I don’t doubt that will continue in 2014. Almost nothing seems to be off limits: brewers are rollicking in innovation and invention and glorifying in the term extreme beers.

Oddly enough, most of these ideas are coming from exploration of brewing and beer history; much of what I report here as innovation or invention is, in fact, a return to old and even ancient practices that were long ago replaced (for good reasons) by modern materials and methods; this is what I mean by brewing back to the future.

For a long time, we have seen craft brewers progressively use higher levels of traditional materials such as malt and hops in their formulations, leading respectively to more alcoholic (sometimes much more alcoholic) beers and beers that are intensely bitter. Also, brewers have explored vigorously the whole range of specialty malts available from around the world that bring to beer an intense range of colors and flavors.

Brewers also explore raw grains as adjuncts such as ordinary rice and corn and wheat, but also barley and rye and oats, and teff and quinoa and sorghum, and have harvested nuanced flavors from such inclusions. However, these are all quite reasonable extensions of common brewing practices that brewers and their customers can easily understand.

Incorporating honey in beer is not exactly new but is much more popular now than before; adding fruits such as oranges and other citrus such as yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit) and peaches and apricots with berries, including juniper berries most commonly used in gin, and herbs of all sorts including sweet gale or bog myrtle (a component of an herbal mixture called gruit that was added to beer before the use of hops) and vegetables such as beans and twigs of spruce and pine buds is almost usual.

One brewer, sure to be copied by others, uses grape juice as a significant beer component, perhaps blurring the distinction between beers (cereal products) and wines (fruit products). Perhaps the oddest addition is kombucha, a sweetened tea fermented with a mixed colony of yeasts and bacteria.

I do not doubt that modern brewing methods that superseded the old ways, took away much of the excitement and invention (and risk) of brewing beers and introduced reliability and consistency (boring!). Such practices as native or spontaneous fermentations, using wild yeasts for primary fermentation, aging beer in wooden barrels, usually used bourbon barrels, encouraging sour fermentations and blending back of old beer into new are all resurrected brewing practices that allow craft brewers to explore the outer limits of their craft.

Perhaps in 2014 they will make the beer they dream on or, at least have fun; perhaps they will create a product that becomes a modern marketing hit. Who knows? Some beers with unusual components have made the list of the Top 25 Beers of the Year 2013 according to Draft magazine.

I’m not sure where all this exploration and innovation leaves the ordinary beer drinker. If the ordinary drinker be defined as someone who drinks beers from the large American breweries, then these unusual beers leave the ordinary drinker out in the cold; that’s a two-way street of course because the drinkers and the brewers are not interested in each other; this is a dangerous business model for small brewers!

If, on the other hand, the ordinary drinker is one who has already embraced the kinds of craft beers that are the mainstay of the craft industry such as IPAs (India pale ales) then such curious beers give drinkers alternatives to explore that may bring pleasure and expanded choice and increased interest.

In 2014 who can be against that?

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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