Friday, January 8, 2010

Classic American Craft Beer & Great Lakes Brewing Company

Many beer enthusiasts view American Craft Brewing as a recent—albeit eventful—phenomenon. The work of Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing Company in the late 1960s and 1970s, and that of the Grossmans at Sierra Nevada in the early 1980s, certainly edified a new generation of American beer drinkers about the possibilities of authentic brewing traditions and ingredients (and commenced the contemporary Craft Beer Renaissance). But this was not the first time Americans had had such an opportunity, this was not some idea that had finally arrived. American Craft Brewing had finally resurfaced, a sort of materialized revenant—rendered spiritless for nearly a century—bubbled anew.

To be sure, the resuscitated Craft Brewing scene focused on Artisanal Ales (Anchor Steam notwithstanding) rather than the Authentic Lagers brewed by 19th century forebears. This was largely a result of the American Home brewers (like Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada and the Widmer brothers up in Portland) who took their brewing aspirations to the next step; Home brewers had relied primarily on English yeasts and brewing methods for their underground ales due to the relative ease of brewing in this tradition at home. But what had not changed in the hundred some odd years since Craft Brewing last prevailed was the dedication to traditional methods and ingredients, a dedication to quality over quantity, to flavor over the bottom line.

It is well known that German immigrants brought the tradition of craft lager production to the United States in the 19th century, primarily settling in the Midwest. But perhaps just as important is that their traditions of brewing and beer drinking had been—and continued to be—so seamlessly integrated into the cultural lifestyle of these men and women. As temperance movements targeted the evils of drinking in the 19th century, they had trouble vilifying these German people generally, and lager beer specifically. In contrast to the negative effects of strong ale, wine, and spirits, many temperance workers saw beer drinking in a different light. The beer halls of the Midwest were filled with families eating and modestly drinking this lower alcohol beverage. In fact, earlier in the century, as an upstart American Political Party was developing strategies to garner the votes of Americans, they decided to take a relatively relaxed stance toward the consumption of alcohol. The Republican Party, as they had chosen to call themselves, wanted to gain the confidence of America’s ever-bourgeoning immigrant population, a population having trouble deciding upon political allegiance. The Whig party was out, due to their anti-immigrant and temperance movement tactics. The Democrats welcomed immigrants and drinking, but condoned slavery (many immigrants had left Europe primarily for freedom in all of its avatars). The Republicans courted the immigrant vote by working to stop the spread of slavery as America moved westward and by advocating the restrained, social approach to drinking symbolized by the imbibing of craft-brewed German lagers, now brewed stateside.

Ironically, it was this advocacy that led to the demise of craft brewing. The original breweries were small and regional, content to produce beers like they had in the Old World for palates thirsting for the tastes of home. But as railroads blanketed the US, the country got smaller, allowing breweries to expand their shipping reach. Breweries started producing more beer, and began to cut down on production costs; the goal was no longer to produce full-flavored, traditional lagers for a discerning local audience, but to cheaply produce mass quantities of lager for as many people as possible. Macro breweries continued to produce lager, the sort of blessed alcoholic beverage of temperance, but as mere shadows of what they once were.

Nowadays, Craft Brewers tend to opt for sexier styles of beer: higher alcohol and intensely flavored, due to high hopping rates, various flavor additions (chocolate, coffee, fruit), wild yeasts and bacteria, and/or by barrel aging. This is an expected reaction to the watered-down macro lagers that have so dominated US brewing throughout the 20th century, and many of these extreme beers are amazing. But some American Craft Brewers have always sought to return to the roots of Artisanal American Beer, rather than join in the more modern movement toward extremity. Enter Great Lakes Brewing Company, of Cleveland, Ohio.

GLBC has been cobbled together by the traditions of Craft Beer in Ohio. This now Regional Craft Brewery began in 1988 as a brewpub in a building that since 1872 has been occupied by various pubs and restaurants. On one side of the building, faded painted signage from the early days still hawks beers served inside for “Family and Medicinal Purposes” (in keeping with the permissible uses of alcohol of those times). In 1998, when the brewpub expanded for the second time to meet growing demand for their craft lagers and ales, they incorporated some buildings that had once housed the kegging facilities of Schlather Brewing, a Cleveland Brewery dating back to 1878. And when they needed help in formulating their original recipes, they turned to Master Brewer Thaine Johnson (1921-2001), whose 3 decades in brewing had included managing the Christian Schmidt Brewery; Christian Schmidt had been established in 1859 and was Cleveland’s last remaining brewery until its closure in 1987.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson along with brothers Patrick and Daniel Conway (the founders and owners of GLBC) insisted on incorporating the techniques of European immigrant craft brewers into their revivalist beers: they utilize the freshest, most flavorful ingredients and eschew those guarantors of flavor compromise, preservatives, chemicals, and pasteurization. Not only that, but they chose, for their first—and still flagship—brew, an Old World German lager style called Dortmund Export.

Originally called the Heisman (after the famed football star who once lived around the corner from GLBC), this refreshing and clean, yet firm and fuller-bodied lager was an overnight success. Eventually renamed Dortmunder Gold, to further its relation to the authentic craft lager tradition, this beer is all-malt with a subtle bitterness and mildly herbal-spicy aroma American-grown German Hallertauer hops. This style of beer originated in the Westphalian city of Dortmund, and became popular not just in the northwest of Germany, but also in the neighboring regions of what are now the Netherlands and Belgium; thus it was known as Export. This style would have been brought to the US in the 19th century, and GLBC’s version is true to that Export’s classic form. While hoppier than Helles (i.e. Pale) Lagers, it is neither as bitter as a German Pilsener, nor as aromatically hoppy as the Czech variety; while fairly malty, it is dryer than the Helles style. At a relatively moderate strength of 5.6 %, this brew is ever so quaffably sessionable, and yet never boring. The flavors may be subtle, but are enticingly delicious.

The equally subtle and equally impressive Elliot Ness Amber Lager is another brew that hearkens back to the early days of German-American Craft Brewing. Brewed in the Vienna-style, this iteration disregards the current examples of modern American Amber Lagers in search of something more traditional and increasingly difficult to find. Contemporary American examples tend to use some corn or rice adjuncts rather than an all-malt grain, which typically lightens and sweetens the end product. Even those that do employ 100 % malted barely, have begun to use more intensely bitter and pungently aromatic American hops, and often at levels far higher than suits the classic Vienna Lager. These hoppier Ambers are often outstanding, but lack the subtle nuances of the original style. Elliot Ness Amber Lager (named for the most famous patron of the Market Tavern, which occupied the GLBC’s brewpub’s building from 1933-1976) is a true throwback: toasty-bready malt richness predominates, with a gently drying hop finish. Approachable, yet intriguing, this is among the only classic Vienna-style Amber Lagers available year-round in the US.

Beginning the week of January 11, 2010, Great Lakes Brewing Company’s fine lagers (and ales!) will be available in the greater Washington, DC area. All of their craft brews make a welcome addition to the DC beer scene, which seems limitless in its ability to grow and offer the finest examples of artisanal brewing available both at home and abroad. The one question that may come up is why has it take GLBC so long to launch in this market? The answer, unsurprisingly, relates to their bread and butter: classic Craft Lagers.

Because lagers tend to be lower in alcohol by volume and to employ lower amounts the two ingredients relied upon to preserve and extend the shelf-life of beers, (hops and dark malts) special care is needed to ensure the quality of craft lager; both alcohol and hops have an anti-bacterial quality to stave off infection, while darker malts develop anti-oxidant properties key to preventing oxidation. Likewise, lagers tend to have less intense flavor profiles, causing them to show imperfections more glaringly and sooner, once the beer begins to deteriorate. Macro brewers deal with these issues by pasteurizing their beer, which extends shelf life, but deadens the vibrant and fresh flavor possibilities. Due to this, GLBC has insisted that any purveyor who wants to distribute their brews needs to ensure that shipping is done with refrigerated trucks. Once they received this guarantee from a local distributor, they became certain that their brews would remain fresh and taste as the brew master intended upon arrival in the Mid-Atlantic.

And we at ChurchKey are honored to be the first to showcase the myriad fruits of GLBC’s labors. We will pour all five of their wonderful year-round brews on draught Tuesday, January 12 2010. Stop by to taste some contemporary craft lagers—and ales—that can tell us a lot about our past, keep us content in our present, and maintain promise for the future successes of Craft Beer.

Greg Engert
Beer Director


  1. Great Lakes Nosferatu is delicious too...I have one left from a trip to Ohio.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Bravo! I am really looking forward to finally having Great Lakes in the mid Atlantic. Dortmunder Gold and Edmund Fitzgerald are two wonderfully perfect beers for all occasions.

    One thing missing from this post is a mention of their adherence to the Reinheitsgebot. Most (if not all) of their flagship beers proudly state that they are made "in keeping with the "Barvarian Purity Act of 1516" which is awfully rare to see these days...

  4. tell the guys from GLBC that they should be nicer to their patrons than they were at Big Hunt tonight. the crowd might have been bigger than they'd planned on, but they could have been a bit more courteous.

  5. Will there be brewers there? People fom the brewry? or just yay beer?