By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST
Despite our recent economic shutdown, we are in the midst of America’s second beer renaissance. Only this one began by moving in a different direction than the first and, personally, I think we are missing out.
Brewers were among the diverse working class of immigrants who settled throughout the United States. A large portion of which set up shop in the upper Midwest. Many of these brewers brewed styles reminiscent of their homeland, creating what is commonly referred to today as American Lager. These would include beers such as Schmidt, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Milwaukee, Budweiser, Hamm’s, Leinenkugel’s, Miller High Life, and hundreds upon hundreds more. Many Europeans brewed even more diverse styles, but they either didn’t survive prohibition, or were gulped up by many of the aforementioned.
As time went on, these breweries ruled, and we arrived at what many of us beer historians and enthusiasts refer to as “the dark ages” or the, 1960’s and 1970’s.
It was the lowest time in American beer history.
Save for a few surviving pioneers such as Anchor Steam in San Francisco, and Yuengling in Pottsville, PA, it was almost impossible to get a beer that was different than the big Midwestern lagers.
Enter the 1980’s.
Brooklyn Brewing, Summit, Sierra Nevada, Bell’s, and a few others open their doors and begin brewing styles not seen in America for almost 100 years.
The British were great innovators and developers of brewing evolution. Belgians were great artesian brewers with both unorthodox methods and beers. Germans and the Czech were amazing technicians focused on details.
And the up and coming American brewers of the 1980’s and 1990’s were great imitators.
Suddenly we were seeing styles such as pale ale, India pale ale, Oktoberfest, bock, Marzen, Munich Helles, Dortmund Export, weizen, porter and stout. And while often times the quality of beer and depth of knowledge of these early craft brewers left much to be desired, they were exciting times none the less. These were the beers that inspired me to brew and become a judge.
Fast forward to today, when it seems a brewery opens more frequently than a Chick-fil-A or Starbucks. The quality of malt and yeast are greater than ever. The knowledge and skill of craft brewers today, dwarfs those of 20 and 30 years ago.
Why then have we forgotten about the malt? Because to me, a large portion of current American beers lack a fundamental definable malt profile.
Think about it. Breweries everywhere, and how often do you see some of the styles I mentioned? They’re there, but one style seems to have taken the modern American palate hostage.
Not to be confused with India Pale Ale, IPA is nothing more than an ambiguous acronym, a style categorized by heavy herbal, citrusy hop presence, often intensely bitter, as well as what should also be a balancing malt flavor to its profile, but one that increasingly is absent.
Now a distinct style in and of itself, you can’t flip a bottle cap without hitting an American IPA. And some breweries make this single style as much as 70 percent of the total range of styles. Such as Post Falls Brewing in Post Falls, Idaho who, last I visited, brewed 13 beers, nine of which were some version of IPA.
To be clear, there are thousands of tremendous IPA’s all across the US, but I pine for the historic beers craft brewers were emulating just a couple decades ago.
Are we simply replacing the average lagers of yesteryear with an oversaturation of IPA’s that, while it might seem exciting now, just bring us back to the beginning?
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.