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Session #100: What makes a beer historically accurate?

Phoneix Kentucky Komon

Reuben Gray hosts the 100th gathering of The Session and asks blogs to write about “Resurrecting Lost Beer Styles.” Visit his site for links to other contributions.

The SessionWhen David Pierce set out to brew the first commercial batch of Kentucky Common in, well nobody knows how many, years “it was still back when we all thought it (had been) a sour beer.” That was 1994 and Pierce was brewmaster at Bluegrass Brewing Co. in Louisville.

We’ve since learned the idea that the process used to brew Kentucky Common in the early years of the twentieth century included a sour mash is just plain wrong. But, going on the best information anybody had to offer, Pierce began with a 100 percent sour mash, mashing in hot one night and arriving to a horrific smell at the brewery the next day. It was not an easy beer to sell. Roger Baylor at Rich O’s Public House in New Albany, across the Ohio River from Louisville, did his best to support a beer he thought was historically important. He promoted it as “beer formaggio.”

Pierce made the beer periodically in the following years before he left BBC to work for Baylor at New Albanian Brewing. He refined the process, souring only part of the mash, creating a beer than wasn’t as pungent. He thought the fifth, and last, batch was probably the best. “We couldn’t give it a way,” he said. Then somebody suggested they call it a Belgian sour brown ale. The last seven barrels (14 kegs) sold out in a week.

In the years since, meticulous research by Leah Dienes, Dibbs Harting, and Conrad Selle established that if Kentucky Common occasionally turned out sour in the marketplace in the years before Prohibition it wasn’t on purpose, and it certainly wasn’t made using a sour mash. That is reflected in the recently released BJCP Style Guidelines. Kentucky Common is in Category 27, Historical Beers, and the guidelines even specify “Enter soured versions in American Wild Ale.” That works fine for judging in a homebrew competition, particularly in a historic context, but what about modern day commercial beers? Kentucky Common now has a 20-year history in which a sour mash is used in the brewing process.

Granted the modern history is limited. However, if you are looking for a “Kentucky Common” brewed in Kentucky and sold outside of Kentucky it is going to be Against the Grain’s Kamen Knuddeln, which is a blend of a young sour-mashed beer and a barrel-aged stout. Jerry Gnagy gets a lactobacillus starter from Four Roses Bourbon for the sour mash. It makes perfect sense that had Kentucky Common been brewed continuously for a hundred-and-some years that it might evolved or at least different versions would have emerged. Using lacto from a nearby distillery? Makes sense. Include a portion of beer aged in bourbon barrels? Also indigenous.

Last month, as part of the Derby City Brewfest it hosted, Bluegrass Brewing invited participating breweries to make a Kentucky Common. Eight Commons ended on offer, some sour, some not. Because we were in Kentucky the following week I got a chance drink several of them. I certainly could have wasted a larger chunk of an afternoon than I did drinking New Albanian’s Phoenix Kentucky Komon and chatting with Baylor (who has currently stepped away from the business while he runs for mayor of New Albany). It is not an easy beer to make, and the brewery does it just once a year on its smaller four-barrel system — yes, four barrels a year; like I wrote, a pretty limited modern history. “It’s one of my roughest mashes of the year,” brewer Ben Minton said, in this case because of the percentage of corn and temperamental false bottom in the mash tun. “It comes out a little different every time.”

Apocalypse Brewing, Louisville

Two historic (in other words, not sour) versions I had at Apocalypse Brewing were equally delightful. Dienes had her Oertel’s 1912, which is based on the records in Oertel’s brewing logs and the only example of the style in the BJCP guidelines, on tap. Harting brought his homebrewed version. It is the only beer he struggles to keep on tap. “Oh dad, can I take a common home?” Harting said, quoting one of his children. “I’m sure it was a fabulous bucket (growler) beer,” he added.

This works for me. Kentucky Common of the past. Kentucky Common of the present. Kentucky Common of the future. There doesn’t have to be just one.

In NOLA, ‘city beer’ brewed with magic

Some times I have so much fun doing research I feel a bit guilty. Unless I can convince myself that magic is somehow indigenous there’s little chance New Orleans “city beer” is going to make it into “Indigenous Beer: American Grown.” So I’ll just share this passage from “Germans of Louisiana” now:

Before the 1850s a beverage called “city beer” was consumed by the common man in the saloons and restaurants of New Orleans. This concoction was made according to a secret formula from fermented molasses and vermouth1 but contained no preservatives. Consequently it would spoil during transportation and had to be drunk soon after it was brewed. Beer drinkers added syrup to mitigate the herbal taste and were known to suffer violent hangovers if they over indulged. It was the custom for the oldest boy in German families to fetch a bucket of beer at the end of the day to be drunk with dinner.

In 1845 the first city brewery appeared in New Orleans, on Philip and Royal streets, owned by Wirth and Fischer. A local German newspaper described the product of this Stadtsbreuei (city brewery) as made of magic and big barrels of sugarcane syrup mixed with Mississippi River water. Despite the popularity of city beer in the German community, the brewing business was hampered by the necessity of drinking the beer on the day it was brewed.

You read that right: magic is listed as one of the ingredients


1 In another book (“The German People of New Orleans 1650-1900”) says city beer was “a molasses brew and wormwood.”

Session #95: Have I got book ideas for you

The SessionThree-time Session host Alan McLeod — the first three-time host — has offered a question for the 95th round that is delightfully easy for me to answer.

What is the book you would want to write about good beer?

I’m already at work on a book focused on indigenous beers of North America, past and present. Expect it from Brewers Publications in September of 2016.

There are plenty of other books I think somebody should write, so three quick suggestions:

– More indigenous. It’s a big world.

– More national or regional books like Martyn Cornell’s “Beer: The Story of the Pint: The History of Britain’s Most Popular Drink.” Memo to publishers:it is out of print and used copies are going for $40. Seems to indicate a level of reader interest.

– The last few days Jeff Alworth and McLeod have posted some year-in-review stats for Beervana and A Good Beer Blog respectively. A quick look here reveals that the best read post here is from almost seven years ago (gee, Stan, what have who written recently?): “Words to describe the beer you are tasting” (14,754 views). And I am pretty sure they are coming to read what I cribbed from the Merchant du Vin newsletter. No 2014 post attracted one third the attention (the top ones were all hop related). Does this demonstrate the need for an entire book? I’m pretty sure somebody clever could wrap a very interesting book around this topic, or use it to write something I would find totally silly and useless. Strangely intriguing.

Of course I’d like to see these books in print in English. That’s the language I read. But it should be obvious much of the research requires understanding other languages, making sense of things when Google Translate struggles.

If you decide to tackle one of these projects you are welcome for the ideas. You know you’ve got one customer. If you are looking other inspiration, then poke around the comments section at A Good Beer Blog. I fully expect to see something there I wish I’d thought of first. (Confession, I have a “Steal this idea” folder on Evernote.) But I’ve already got a book to write.

Place-based beer, a global roundup


Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement and Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew. The first link is to the transcript of a talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” Martyn Cornell gave in Denmark, and the second is about what he found while he was there. They are both about beer from a place, beer terroir, indigenous beers. Like I wasn’t going to make these the top links for the week. I sure as heck want to try some of this “Hay Ale.”

Mark Hø Øl (“Hay Ale”) from the Herslev bryghus. Made with hay from the field at the back of the brewery: hay goes in after the wort is boiled, and fermentation using yeasts and other micro-organisms in the hay is allowed to take place for two days. The ale is then boiled again, and a “combinational yeast” added – and more hay. The result is a sharp, pale, flat beer with a taste of what I can only call “fruity feet” – but in a good way.

[Via Zythophile]

Now on tap: Beer brewed with zebra mussels and milfoil right from Lake Minnetonka. I can’t start linking to every story about beer made with local ingredients, but this is a perfect companion for the two from Cornell.
[Via StarTribune]

How Craft Beer Fails Its Female Fan Base. Listen up, people, this is important.
[Via First We Feast]

The Belly of the Beast: A Trip to Anheuser’s Research Pilot Brewery and The Man Who Dumps More Beer Than Most Brewers Produce. Two different, but not entirely different takes, on a press trip to the Anheuser-Busch pilot brewery in St. Louis. Notice the additional attention lifestyle publications are giving beer? A few years ago, when Paste magazine was something you looked for in print because online there wasn’t much, they briefly hired Stephen Beaumont for a series of authorative articles. Then they didn’t, presumably because their audience wasn’t ready. Now it must be, because there have been seven new beer-related stories in little more than a week. My favorite is the carefully researched history of craft (and crafty) beer by Daniel Hartis.
[Via Paste and Men’s Journal]

Beer Advocate and the United States of Beer: The Complete Series! Bryan Roth consolidates links to series of posts thick with numbers, but with words that help make sense of them. I think he’s wrong about the Dakotas.
[Via This Is Why I’m Drunk]

Free State & Boulevard Newspaper Clipping from 1989. A newspaper article, old school style (a pdf rather than a link). It’s pretty obvious Boulevard Brewing founder John McDonald never expected this brewery to grow to the size it has (and will). He says, “We feel like we have to establish a local market. We don’t do that we don’t have any business shipping beer outside the city.”
[Via KC Beer Blog]

How Climate Change Will End Wine As We Know It. How the wine industry is — and isn’t — reacting says a lot about the future of agriculture. And beer is an agricultural product.
[Via BuzzFeed]

The 2014 Xmas Photo Contest Is On!!! The deadline to enter is Dec. 12. The rules might be the same as last year.
[Via a Good Beer Blog]

Beer made by walking: Indigenous?

Scratch Brewing, Ava, Illinois

The Great American Beer Festival has an “Indigenous/Regional Beers” category.1 I should have mentioned that last week when I asked for reader help in understanding what makes a beer indigenous.

I figured that out Saturday when a) Alan McLeod added a rather long comment (long enough to turn into a post of his own), and b) we hung out at Scratch Brewing after a pleasant bit of bike riding in the not-too-hilly roads around Ava, Illinois.

Foraged ingredients ready to go into Scratch Brewing beerLast year at the Great American Beer Festival founder/brewers Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleidon and Ryan Tockstein decided if they were going to return this year they would do it the “Scratch way.” They are and they are. Scratch will be pouring five beers made with foraged ingredients and without hops. They call these gruits, which could lead to a whole other discussion that is best considered another time. The point, related to last week’s question, is that they are using indigenous ingredients.

One of the beers, called 105 is made with 105 (of course) plants and funghi from the surrounding area. To brew the beer they split the ingredients into three piles, one for bittering, one for flavoring and one for aroma, mostly flowers and leaves. (Hickory leaves add bitterness and tannins. “I had to cut down a hickoy tree that day,” Kleidon said.) The beer was fermented with Perennial Ales house yeast (technically one of their house strains, I guess), itself sourced from a Belgian saison brewery. I’ll keep the tasting note short: nicely balanced, well integrated, good. And spicy.

They’ll also be serving it at the Beer Made By Walking Festival on Oct. 3 at Wynkoop Brewing (so Friday afternoon, before the GABF evening session). It appears that tickets are still avaiable. Eric Steen, who teaches art at Portland State University and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, started BMBW in Colorado Springs in 2011 (just as we were moving from New Mexico and before I could head north on I-25 to get a closer look). It’s an intriguing concept. Invites brewers to go on nature hikes and make new beers that are inspired by plants from the trail.

More than 20 of the beers at the festival were made specifically for this event from Colorado breweries that have collaborated with BMBW. They’ve also added a “foraged and indigenous” component to our festival this year. These are beers from brewers not part of the original Beers Made By Walking program that use foraged, wild, and indigenous ingredients to create “place-based beers.” The five breweries participating are Scratch, Fullsteam, Fonta Flora, Ladyface, and Wicked Weed.

The afternoon should provide a good opportunity to consider what constitutes an indigenous beer.


1 Here are the GABF guidelines: Indigenous/Regional Beers are any range of color. Clear, hazy or cloudy appearance is acceptable depending on style. Malt sweetness will vary dramatically depending on overall balance desired. Hop bitterness is very low to very high, and may be used for highlighting desired characters. This beer style commemorates combinations of ingredients and techniques adopted by or unique to a brewery’s particular region and differentiated from ingredients and techniques commonly used by brewers throughout the world. For the purpose of defining this style, uniqueness of ingredients, regional heritage, technical brewing skill, balance of character, background story defines the intent of this category. The use of hops, yeast, water, malt, or any raw grain regardless of origin does not by itself qualify beers as an Indigenous/Regional Beer. Body is variable with style. “Indigenous/Regional Beers” that are not represented elsewhere in these guidelines by a defined style could possibly be entered in such categories as Experimental, Herb & Spice, Field Beer, etc. but by choice a brewer may categorize (and enter) their beer as Indigenous/Regional Beer. Beers that represent established historical traditions should be entered in “Historical Beers” or other categories and should not be entered in Indigenous/Regional Beer category.

To allow for accurate judging the brewer must provide additional information about the entry including primarily the unique ingredients used and/
or processing which contribute to the unique qualities of the style, and information describing the beer style being emulated. This information will
help provide a basis for comparison between highly diverse entries. The information must not reveal the identity of the entering brewery. Entries not
accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.

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