Brewing History’s Lost Orphan.
For the last quarter of a century or so we’ve all got used to the triumphant return of locally brewed beers featuring exciting flavours that had been all but lost in the drab years of corporate duopolies dominating the brewing industry.
That the USA has been central to this phoenix-like rebirth is rather satisfying, especially when one considers that for non-Americans, the thought of American beer was likely to cause derision and disgust from pretty much anyone else prior to the late 1980’s. “American beer? That’s that fizzy stuff that looks and smells like wee right? I wouldn’t want to drink that!”
Of course the Americans rather turned the tables on such derision with their astonishing beer renaissance and are now rightly viewed as one of the world’s premier brewing nations. But the origins of the USA’s own original styles is a subject worth looking at.
Let’s go back to between a hundred and a hundred and thirty or so years ago. The USA was a fast developing country, busy putting the awfulness of its civil war behind it. World superpower status was still a long way off. Back then the US occupied about the same level of wealth and influence as Australia does today.
In this fresh bustling society, immigrant brewers from the great European nations were busy setting up in business all over the country, but particularly up and down the west and east coasts where the majority of the population lived. Various ale styles were produced along with the exciting new lager styles emerging from the breweries of Germany, Czechoslovakia and Denmark. A look at the names of the big players in this nascent industry showed a marked Germanic flavour.
The American brewing industry had reached the important point of moving past the simple copying of European styles and beginning to develop genuine original beers. Of these, Cream Ale was preeminent.
Trying to get to grips with what the original stylists of this type of beer thought is tricky. Breweries worked in vastly different ways to today, both in production and marketing. Transport was expensive and few brewers dreamed large enough dreams to encompass the idea of offering a national brand like Anheuser Busch managed many years later.
Today’s brewers have to work quite hard to get themselves identified and adopted properly as truly local brands. If you do, you find yourself competing with products from all over the country and indeed the world. But back in the early days of New World brewing, LOCAL was your ground state of being. As long as your product was enjoyable you had a reasonable assurance of strong local support.
Buoyed up by this, breweries were able to settle into well organised production of distinctive brews that drinkers could rely on. And among the assorted methods being used, long conditioning periods became more common. Traditional ales often took no more than three weeks or so to be ready and had, as they still do, quite rich and estery characters. But the longer conditioning times becoming widespread as lager brewing grew in popularity began to influence ale conditioning times as well.
After all, it’s not like ales are diminished by a lengthy conditioning. They lose some body perhaps and are more austere on the palate than they would have been some weeks before, but the result is a drier, and, might we venture, CREAMY drink.
This creaminess almost certainly came from natural carbonation under pressure. Brewing vessels capable of holding conditioning beer under modest pressure were becoming available and even a wooden cask can hold enough pressure to allow the extra C02 produced during conditioning to enter solution in the liquid as fine bubbles. Carbonated drinks had been around for a hundred years at this point so the public had developed a taste for them, but by the late 19th Century tank building had reached a level of sophistication that pressurisation became possible leading to an increase in naturally carbonated beers. Many of these beers, if carefully made, displayed a fine texture and mouthfeel that would have amazed consumers at the time with its surprising sophistication.
But then, on January the 20th 1920, the USA took careful aim at its own foot and pulled the trigger. The Volstead Act, or Prohibition, killed the brewing industry off almost entirely. Any brewing company unable to adapt to some new form of product had to close. Alcohol consumption didn’t fall of course, in fact it rose, but demand was now met by organised crime rather than by legitimate breweries with an actual pride in their work.
By the time the whole disastrous social experiment had been abandoned, the USA had lost all that its pioneer brewers had worked to achieve. As the industry struggled to rebuild itself in the pre-second world war years Cream Ale was all but forgotten as European Lager styles came to dominate the market.
Yet Cream Ale clung on in the Eastern US right into the dawn of the new American beer revolution. Possibly the most famous of these came from the Genesee brewery in upstate New York. Their Cream Ale was conditioned using the German method of Kräusening. This method involves mixing freshly fermenting lager wort into a fully fermented ale to start a secondary fermentation that not only produces the finely beaded carbonation typical of such a beer but also adds a small measure of lager characteristic to the finished product.
Whether this particular detail in the process formed part of the original recipes is unclear, but the hybrid ale/lager yeast profile is usually the first detail that any beer aficionado recalls.
Cream Ales are not the Hop Monsters of the new look brewing scene. They are gentle, malty light beers bearing a marked similarity to the Kolsch styles of Cologne. Highly refreshing though somewhat unsurprising in today’s market, Cream Ales have their niche and certainly deserve recognition for the way an orphan beer style managed to survive into the 21st century from such a devastating set-back.