For this month’s cover story in Imbibe magazine, I investigate the “c” word—craft beer. What does it mean these days?
Thirty years ago, America’s beer market was basted in black-and-white. Big brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors cranked out masses-pleasing lagers. Nipping at their heels were little guys like Sierra Nevada, New Albion and Anchor, collectively known as “microbrewers.” Often packaged in brown bottles, their small-batch ales were rich in flavor, aroma and hue—a marked contrast to clear lagers.
These days, perception is no longer so easily colored. Breweries such as New Belgium and Brooklyn are no longer “micro,” a term that’s a ’90s relic like Reebok Pumps. Today, breweries both massive and minuscule, from Australia to Alaska, are craft brewers. Piney IPAs, aromatic witbiers and wild yeast–inoculated ales are their stock in trade—but so are crisp pilsners and lawnmower-friendly lagers, formerly megabrewers’ main domain. With sales of their once-dependable beers eroding, brewing behemoths have responded by buying or investing in established outfits like Blue Point and Terrapin, as well as releasing brews that could pass for craft in a blind taste test—and even besting craft beers in competitions. At the same time, the Brewers Association has continually tweaked its definition of “craft brewer,” leaving long-running breweries on the outside looking in. And as the industry ranks swell so do concerns about quality—the same issue that helped pop the ’90s bubble.
Care to read the tale? Check out the full story here.
The plan was to brew a barley wine. One day during the mid-’80s, Phil Moeller met up with a friend to make a batch of that strong, warming winter ale. But a blunder occurred. Too much wheat went into the mash. Before the beer swirled down a drain, samples were poured. “As all brewers do, they drank their mistakes and found it delicious,” says Glynn Phillips, who owns Sacramento, California’s Rubicon Brewing Company, where Moeller became the first brewmaster in 1987. To celebrate the brewery’s first anniversary, in fall 1988, Moeller revisited his delicious gaffe.
Relying on a heavy measure of wheat, Moeller made a rich, brawny ale with a surprising caramel complexity that tipped the scales at more than 10 percent ABV. Despite the heft, Winter Wheat Wine was surprisingly, even dangerously easy-drinking. “In the early ‘90s we used to sell pitchers of the Winter Wheat Wine,” says Scott Cramlet, Rubicon’s brewmaster since 1990. “I’m sure there were some righteous hangovers back then.”
Since wheat wine’s accidental birth, the intriguingly malleable style has steadily gained a toehold in craft breweries’ lineups, becoming a lighter but no less warming barley wine alternative. In Michigan, Short’s Brewing Company makes its Anniversary Ale with blood orange zest and green peppercorns, while New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Company ages its Wheat Wine Ale with oak chips. In Missouri, Boulevard Brewing Company has taken the name of its Harvest Dance Wheat Wine literally, formerly adding grape juice when bottling the beer. And what started as an annual fall release for Rubicon has blossomed into a year-round staple.
Care to read the rest of my story on wheat wines in the newest issue of Imbibe? Check it out here.
In the newest issue of Imbibe, I investigate a subject near and dear to many summertime drinkers’ hearts: the lager. Once upon a time, these crisp and easy-drinking beers were the bee’s knees. But over the last century, as Bud, Miller and Coors have come to dominate America’s lager scene, the style has become maligned and even shunned by craft brewers. No longer. Armed with hops and ingenuity, a new wave of brewers are making lagers most flavorful. Curious? Drink it up online! Or here’s the PDF: JA2012CraftLagers58-65.