The more things change…
If you happened to read the previous journal about the Top & Bottom series you know that I am fascinated by the persistent drive humans have had to brew and drink beer and how deeply beer is ingrained in much of human history. I am going to try not to dive too deep into that rabbit hole here, but one thing that I have found interesting in the beer industry is how beer itself has changed with the changing tastes of people over the centuries. Oftentimes this is due to advancements in technology, microbiology, and agriculture as well as political shifts and marketing. If you care to delve deeper down that hole I highly recommend The Oxford Companion to Beer edited by my mentor, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery. His History of Beer chapter is amazingly succinct considering it covers over five thousand years of brewing history.
Beer has been a big part of my life, it has been for pretty much all of my adult life. In learning about civilization through the millennia I find it fascinating to consider that beer has been a big part of a lot of people’s lives. I love to try and imagine what life was like for Sumerians in 4000 BCE or life in ancient Egypt, with completely different social norms, laws, language and culture, different belief systems, technology, interaction with each other and with nature. But, despite everything being different from what we are familiar with, the idea of sitting and drinking a fermented grain beverage through a reed straw is pretty relatable for me. We have seen that nearly everywhere people have settled, spent time in one place, and harvested grains and other food together, they have made some version of beer. The question has arisen of whether beer brewing has been an offshoot of agrarian civilization or possibly the other way around, perhaps civilization has come about where people have set up their brewing operations.
In recent years we have seen new beer styles rise and fall in popularity, the explosion of hard seltzers on the scene, and a general decline in beer drinking in the US. At a glance these could appear as portents of a doomed industry, but consider that one hundred years ago, as a result of prohibition, there were technically no breweries in the US. Before that, refrigeration had had a huge impact on the brewing industry, and before that, glass bottles, and before that, pale malting techniques, and before that, the use of hops in beer. The effects of these advancements tended to benefit the bigger breweries that were able to scale up production and distribute into new territories directly competing with the small local breweries that had been operating in these spaces. Prohibition had completely shaken up the brewing industry in the US, which had enjoyed the fruits of labor of as many as 4,000 breweries at one point. Upon the repeal of prohibition through the 21st Amendment it was, once again, a few breweries that supplied virtually all the beer to the country. American Light Lager of the time could be considered the definition of “mass production.” This situation, however, gave rise to a wonderful shift in the beer industry in America and beyond: craft beer. Now the US has just about 10,000 licensed breweries as the industry has seen a complete paradigm shift back to an older, much more local focus.
Strawberries are not a common ingredient in beer. They tend to clash with hops and can throw some strange off-flavors and astringency. In playing around with fruited sour brews we decided to give it a go and see what we got. My approach to brewing is to keep it simple. As soon as I catch myself trying to fix a problem that is caused by the fix of a different problem I will stop and reevaluate the situation. While brewing this strawberry sour ale it was so much fun to see this brew progress from warm, unhopped wort made sour through Lactobacillus fermentation. At this point the brew smells and tastes amazingly different than the final product, the overwhelming aroma here is, um, baked beans. But wait, here is where we add yeast, and literally overnight the blowoff hose on the fermenter gives off a fascinating fruit punch aroma. Then of course we add strawberries, lots of strawberries, and that’s it, no essences, extracts, or flavorings, just fruit. Once fermentation is complete we like to add a dash of hops, more of a “season to taste” than a dry hop charge. For this we use Hüll Melon from Germany, one of my favorite hops, with a delicate floral / fruit character. It really makes the fruit aromas pop. We call this beer Lost in Fragaria. Fragaria being the genus name for strawberries.
Strawberries are not a common ingredient in beer. But for thousands of years neither were hops. As people’s tastes change it is our job as brewers to find changes to continue to make beer fun and enjoyable for people. My favorite people to sit with and taste some beers tend to start the conversation by saying “I don’t really like beer.” We will always brew classic, traditional styles and always try to make them approachable and enjoyable to all. And if those traditional styles don’t do it for you, let me know, I’ll see what we can do.
“Not all those who wander are lost” - Tolkien
“Happiness, not in another place but this place...not for another hour, but this hour” - Whitman