Read This Book: Ambitious Brew- The Story of American Beer

18 04 2010

Ambitious Brew- The Story of American Beer
by Maureen Ogle
Published by Mariner Books Boston, MA 2007
Available at most book stores and on Amazon.com

Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew- The Story of American Beer is, in itself, ambitious. To write the history of American beer is inherently different from, say, The Battle at Gettysburg or the opening day of Disneyland. It is a history that spans centuries, geography and incorporates science, technology, politics, popular culture and religion. And as is the case with many books that attempt to be comprehensive, it is hardly what it sets out to be. Ogle’s book begins in Milwaukee in 1840; a daring, if not controversial, time to begin a book on American history. At this point, the United States had been a country for about 60 years. And Europe had been on the East Coast of modern day USA for about 200 years. But this points to a reality of what this is really about: corporate, industrial beer.

Beer had existed here before 1840. Indigenous American Indians all had alcohol, much of it corn based–making it more closely related to Budweiser than anything in Germany or England. And famously, the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts instead of Virginia because they were running low on supplies, particularly beer. But people soon learned that the Eastern Seaboard was a poor environment for making beer. Barley did not grow well in the craggy soil of the North, nor the swampy mud of the South. There is a myth that the Founding Fathers brewed their revolution over flagons of foamy ale. But they more likely drank whiskey, coffee, tea and cider in their meetings. Ben Franklin, for one, while a lover of beer, was well known for haunting coffeehouses of his day.

For the most part, beer in America was rare until the 1800’s. Beer became more popular due to two occurrences: the opening of the West and the rise in immigrants. As rich, arable land became available and German and Czech immigrants¬† arrived, beer became easier to make and more favorable. This is why Ogle chose to start here. She follows the great brewing families of the 19th century: the Millers, the Buschs, the Pabsts and the Uiliehns. For the most part, she moves quickly; the rise of the beer barons and the empires, the battle for the top, the debate over prohibition, post-war mergers, the “dark ages”, the rise of micro and craft brews, and beer’s modern renaissance.

It is a quick read. At times it can get a bit bogged down in the details. It can become confusing when thirty years of brewing history gets condensed into three pages, especially when it comes down to remembering which eccentric relative is which. But overall, it is very illuminating. Ogle does a very good job debunking some common misconceptions about industrial beer. For instance, many people think that American breweries use adjuncts like rice and corn to make beer less expensive. However the use of these ingredients was a very well thought-out decision. Up until recently, it was actually more expensive to brew with rice and corn than just barley. It was not until the 1960’s and ’70’s that corn was a cheap commodity for brewing. Furthermore, people in Post WWII wanted bland food and drinks. The 1950’s saw the rise of Wonderbread, vodka and TV Dinners. Research and development teams were looking for ways to strip flavor from their products everywhere, not just in beer. People were looking for ease and convenience and had become used to bland wartime rationing, both on the home front and on the war front. Beer was just one of many products that fell into that trend.

Beer in America is hardly over. Which makes it difficult to end a book on American beer history. Ogle ends it with a “State of the Union” in the American beer world. She lists the top ten breweries in America with Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors on the top (interestingly enough Miller now owns Coors and A-B is now part of the Belgian company ImBev). And while all three (now two) are looking to best each other, they are acting like lobsters in a bucket, pulling each other down as they loose ground to newer, smaller competitors. Ogle attempts to bring it all together by mentioning the new Golden Boys (and Girls) of the brewing world: Dogfish Head, Russian River, et. al. And calls for more cohesion between the Old Guard and the Vanguard. By promoting a unified beer industry that shares and educates on the virtues of beer, all could rise together. Overall, an idea that is not half-bad.

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