Tag Archives: Beer History

Get your Dirndl on …it’s Oktober

Long before the seasonal onslaught of pumpkin beers marked the turning of the seasons, like 1810 long before, German beer lovers were celebrating Oktoberfest, a sixteen or seventeen day fair held in Munich that ends on the first Sunday of October.

While the origins of the fest had more to do with royal weddings and the celebratory trappings of Bavarian culture – food, music, dancing, parades, games, costumes etc. the modern incarnation is really best known, for better or worse, as a bit of a piss-up.

However, despite the presence of what is locally known as beer corpses (overtly drunk patrons) the beer in those extra big steins really does deserve some reverence.

Oktoberfest beers, true Oktoberfest beers that is,  are strong caramel forward creations, low on hops and high in sugar, that must conform to the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) and be brewed within the city limits of Munich. Presently, there are six breweries that meet the criteria to produce traditional Oktoberfest beers.

 

Oktoberfest Beers photo from Sanfa Media

Oktoberfest Beers photo from Sanfa Media

Like many traditions, as the popularity of Oktoberfest broadly, and Oktoberfest beer specifically, went global the essence of the beer style evolved. In Tasting Beer, Mosher suggests there has been a general trend towards producing drier and paler versions of Oktoberfest beers.  As Oktoberfest beer changed Marzen beers came to stand-in for the traditional and Oktoberfest the modern interpretation.

Nonetheless when you grow weary of pumpkin pie spices try a beer that is and always has come to typify the fall season.

According to Rate Beer the top ten Oktoberfest/Marzen beers are:

Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen

Free State Octoberfest

Surly SurlyFest

Grassroots Song of Spring Ale

Dark Horse Octoberfest

Heater Allen Bobtoberfest

Les Trois Mousquetaires Oktoberfest

Calumet Oktoberfest

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A Beer for all Saisons

A couple of years back now, and many posts ago, I wrote about the history of saison beers. At the time saisons or farmhouse ales were somewhat of a novelty but like many great fads saisons appear to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance this craft beer season.

So here is a bit of my original post on the origins of the style.

Saison is French for season and it was believed saison style ales were brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the following summer’s harvest.

However, according to Mosher’s Tasting Beer the current story about saisons being brewed to sustain workers  during the labour season, while quaint, is not exactly historically accurate. Rather the term saison applied to the eccentric beers of Liège as well as the beers of Mons in an area now known as the Saison region.

The commonalities uniting these beers were the ingredients used, saisons being brewed with a regional yeast strains, malt, wheat, oats, spelt and even buckwheat or broad beans, and not the coalitions of thirsty farmers and their intrepid beer-brewing wives – though personally I find the farmer version much more romantic.

Mosher suggests that fast forward to the twentieth century and the modern day versions of these saison beers may or may not contain wheat, tend to be bottle conditioned and have a higher ABV. One of the defining elements of this newly named style is the yeast, a ‘slow cranky’ strain believed to be related to red wine yeast.  This yeast is quite heat tolerant and produces lots of peppery phenols.  Spices are optional but pepper, orange, malts and grains of paradise are sometimes added.

A Saison Darkly

While I don’t have much new to report on the historical origins front I have tried a saison worth blogging about, A Saison Darkly from Stillwater Artisinal Ales.

This is the first beer I have tried from this brewery but I am a long-time admirer of the incredible artwork adorning the labels of their beers and I was intrigued enough by the promise of a dark take on the saison style to bring one home.

A Saison Darkly 8% ABV (great beer name to go with a gorgeous label) pours dark brown black with lots of mocha coloured head on the initial pour. There is pretty decent head retention on this beer. Lots of sediment remains in the bottom of the bottle, most decidedly the mark of a good saison, and there is a bit of cloudiness and sediment in the glass. A funky yeasty nose but there is also a coffee chocolate dark beer element to the nose. First couple of sips and this beer speaks more to the dark beer character rather than the farmhouse. I find the saison style gets a bit overwhelmed by the roasty malty character of this beer but that does not necessarily mean this is an inequitable partnership. As you drink the yeastiness comes through now and then reminding you you are not drinking a straight-up porter. Overall I think this is a great blending of styles and I look forward to sampling more from the Stillwater line-up.


Should we Fear Big Beer?

Eons ago, when I first became a craft beer drinker, I watched the documentary Beer Wars. Like many other documentaries it warned us about the evils of mass-production, globalization and monopolies while highlighting the David and Goliath like struggles of little companies against the big guys that are out to squash them. Beer Wars spoke of the big brewers buying up retail space to highlight their brand, throwing millions of dollars into ad campaigns designed to fog the mind and tug at the heart strings (thanks Simpsons) or at least stimulate the thirst centres of our brains, manipulating distribution in a Machiavellian fashion and just generally being jerks.

 

Beer Thirst Poster

 

But when you get right down to things is Big Beer a threat to the craft beer industry (and oh yes it is an industry)? Are we even talking about competition for the same market? Does Big Beer put under many up-and-coming craft brewers today? If there are restrictions holding back the craft beer industry who or what is responsible?

 

If we look to history as our teacher when beer production first emerged there were many small players but through competition and consolidation Big Beer emerged to dominate and unfortunately homogenize the beer scene. As Big Beer continued its slow and steady march towards mediocrity it is true that many small breweries fell victim to its expansion BUT in these cases we were almost always speaking about small breweries that had been established for many years succumbing to outside pressures not emergent craft brewers selling out to the highest bidder.

 

Beer Taps

 

If the 1970’s were a veritable wasteland for beer lovers, the 1990’s bore the brunt of developing small breweries who attempted to start at the top and dominate this re-emergence of craft beer enthusiasts; however, the big business tactics that worked so well for the top three did not fit this new beer culture. Early missteps fostered an environment for the sustainable growth of craft beer as quality became a mantra, loyal customers supported the small breweries and business sense was tempered first and foremost by the aforementioned traits.

 

Total Breweries

 

If the craft beer movement as we know it today emerged as the antithesis of Big Beer than no one can argue that craft beer has made astonishing progress. There are new breweries opening faster than bloggers can commentate, craft beer is increasingly popping up on the menus at local restaurants and pubs, craft beer festivals, communities of home brewers, beer judging etc. etc. etc. all indicate that craft beer has created not a niche market but rather a viable and thriving alternative market to the big beer complex. If the Big Beer market has become stagnant craft beer market is a bottle conditioned beauty brimming with possibilities.

 

Alibi Room Samples

When it gets right down to it I am not sure Big Beer and craft beer could even be considered to be in direct competition with one another. I mean, honestly, do you know anyone who goes to their local beer store and cannot decide between Labatt’s Blue and Driftwood’s Fat Tug IPA? Are Molson and Parallel 49 really in competition for the rights to distribution at your local arena? Is Brewery Creek worried about allocating enough floor space to 24’s of Lucky Lager that R&B Brewing is in danger of being pushed out of the market?

 

Perhaps our biggest fear should be the feeble attempts of Big Beer to market faux-craft offerings but to any savvy beer lover (one with taste buds and a smartphone) there really is no danger of mistaking Molson Canadian with a old-time bike on the label as a craft beer.

If you really want to get right to the heart of the matter the biggest obstacles to the continued growth of the craft beer industry have more to do with local, provincial and federal laws and regulations than direct competition from Big Beer. Convincing Big Beer drinkers to make the switch …well that’s a whole other blog post.

 

*Thanks to CNN for the tap handle photo and the Brewers Association for the craft beer charts.


Sometimes the ad is better than the beer.

Lately I have been on a bit of a beer drinking break as I recover from an extended seasonal beer blitz. During this hiatus I have been taking some time to delve into beer history, specifically beer advertising. As craft beer continues to grow and expand the move into advertisements seems inevitable so I thought it might be fun to explore one of the arguably most successful beer ad campaigns ever.

 

Let me introduce Sascha better known as the Hamm’s Beer Bear.

 

Hamms Beer Ad Flowers

 

First a little background on the Brewery

Hamm’s brewery was established in 1865 in St. Paul Minnesota by Theodore Hamm, a German immigrant, who inherited the Excelsior Brewery from his friend and business associate. Thanks to the pure water from the brewery’s wells and its utilization of the native sandstone, the operation grew quickly. By 1910 the brewery was shipping 700,000 barrels yearly. After just over one hundred years through the trials of prohibition, decreasing national sales and competition between big breweries, 1968 marked the first of many ownership changes for Hamm’s when the company was acquired by Heublein, which sold it to Olympia Brewing Company. Eventually Hamm’s became the property of MillerCoors, the current owner and brewer of the Hamm’s Brand.

 

 

The Hook

Truly great ad campaigns manage to marry and iconic image with a signature jingle. Oh yes, the jingle that infectious little tune that sticks in your head whether you want it to or not. For Hamm’s that jingle was derived from the song “From the Land of Sky-Blue Water”.  The jingle was first used on radio and later on television. Here is a portion of the lyrics (imagine tom-toms echoing over the water):

 

From the Land of Sky Blue Waters,

From the land of pines’ lofty balsams,

Comes the beer refreshing,

Hamm’s the beer refreshing.

 

Hamms Beer Ad From the Land

 

The Star

While the jingle was catchy and enforced the direction of the ad campaign it was Sascha the Hamm’s Beer bear that was to become the real star. Hamm’s ad campaign sought to emphasize the cleanliness and naturalist qualities of Hamm’s beer owing to its clear water and production in pristine Minnesota.  The first television commercial depicted animated beavers beating their tails to the tom-tom beat of the jingle, as well as live action shots of the forests and lakes of the “enchanted Northland” aka Minnesota.  The second commercial, produced in 1952, introduced a clumsy dancing black-and-white cartoon bear, which proved so popular it was used for the next three decades.

 

Hamms Beer Ad  Seattle Worlds Fair

 

Last (and least) the Beer

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about Hamm’s beer. As a community of craft beer enthusiasts it is very unlikely you will want to go out of your way to seek out any of the Hamm’s line-up but just in case you are trapped in an isolated community that time forgot and there are only three options staring back at you from the dusty liquor store shelf here is what rate beer thinks:

 

Hamm’s America’s Classic Premium Beer has a score of 2.

Hamm’s Golden Draft has a score of 10.

Hamm’s Special light has a score of 10.

 

HAMMS Can

 

While Hamm’s beer may not have stood the test of time Sascha sure did. The beer bear is the subject of books, adorns countless types of brewiana, has online devotees, and lives on through the miracle of You Tube.

 

*Thanks to wikipedia and numerous online resources that shared their love of the bear and the brewery.

Hamms Beer Ad Paws of Refreshment


The Art of the Beer Mat

Recently I wrote a post entirely devoted to the art of the beer label so this time around I thought I would blog about that oft-overlooked and most humble staple of brew pubs the beer mat. Composed of absorbent materials like pulp and paper, the beer mat, or coaster, is designed to spare furniture from the dreaded water ring but more than that beer mats are another venue for brewers to display their creativity and further their brand. It is this aesthetic aspect that has led to beer mats becoming a much sought after part of breweriana.

Now for a little history lesson: In 1880 this first beer mats made of cardboard were introduced by the German printing company Friedrich Horn, and in 1892 Robert Sputh of Dresden manufactured the first beer mat made of wood pulp. By the start of the 1900’s, brewery names began appearing on the mats in single colours. Watney brewery then introduced the beer mat to the United Kingdom in the 1920’s. The world’s biggest beer mat company (with 97% of the US beer mat market), Katz Group, has been in business since 1903 but recently declared bankruptcy.

So what does the future hold for the beer mat? Staking their reputation on the belief that beer mats mean more to the beer drinker than a place to park your ale, one Katz executive sees beer mats of the future adorned with shiny foil, pull off labels, wipe-clean surfaces and mats that change colour with heat/cold. A computerized version detects the weight in your glass and alerts the barkeep when you need a top up!

Other fun facts about the Beer Mat:

Tegestology is the Latin term for the practice of collecting beer mats. Tegestos refers to a small reed mat. The most extensive collection comprises of 150 000 mats.

The record for beer mat throwing is 38.26 meters. There are also record holders for most beer mats flipped off a table and most beer mats flipped off a chin.

In Ireland, beer mat usage is the world’s highest at 50 per person per year.

Beer Mats Rule! is a blog devoted to the beer mat.

The Official Beer Mat Flipping Website is dedicated to …well beer mat flipping.

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*Thanks to Wikipedia, BBC and Spiegel Online International


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