Ale's Well That Ends Well

Changing Tides

Even after the War of Independence, Americans continued to make ales exclusively until 1842, when the famous beer of Pilsn, Bohemia (known in the United States as a Pilsner) was introduced to the world. Unlike the dark, heavy ales of the time, this new beer -- a lager style -- was crisp and golden. More importantly, it was transparent. And with drinking glasses just coming into fashion, the clear-beer fad spread. (See Gerald McLeod's feature for a more detailed history of the Pilsner.)

Soon the Pilsner supplanted the ale as the everyday beer in America (as well as in almost every other country around the globe). By the 1960s, the American version, a bland and watery mutation of the original, accounted for over %90 of beer sales in the United States. But while Anheuser-Busch and Miller cornered the market with their lifeless lagers, some beer drinkers were searching for alternatives.

Save the Ales

With the gradual repeal of state temperance laws from the Prohibition Era, home brewing became a legal way to circumvent the Pilsner monopoly. The brewing process essentially involves extracting sugars from a treated grain, usually barley malt, with hot water; seasoning the resulting solution, or the wort, with hops; and then adding yeast to the wort to convert the grain's sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide -- a process known as fermentation. There are two fundamental types of yeast used to achieve this final step, and the choice between them determines whether the product will be an ale-type or a lager-type beer.

Ale yeasts, which are also used to make other beer styles such as wheat beers, float to the top of the wort and ferment there, while lager yeasts sink to the bottom to do their business. Lagers, or "bottom-fermented" beers, e.g., Pilsners, bocks, and Oktoberfests, require refrigeration during fermentation as well as ice-cold storage, which helps explain why most early American homebrewers opted to make "top-fermented" ales, whose warmer fermentation and maturation make them more convenient and less costly to produce at home.

Gambling that their countrymen would pay for quality, top-fermented alernatives to the insipid domestic Pilsners, a few farsighted homebrewers scaled up production. Thus began the microbrewery movement that has burgeoned in the United States over the last 10 years and is presently filling Austin bars like The Gingerman, The Draught Horse, Dog & Duck, Lovejoy's, and Crown & Anchor with a new generation of ales and ale lovers.

If there is one drawback to this bounty, however, it's the speed at which it's reached fruition. With new beers arriving in town weekly, supply seems to be baffling demand, particularly for those just beginning to explore life beyond Budweiser. Fortunately, however, there is a method to this newfound madness. So grab a bowl of pretzels and pull up a pint glass, as we survey the suds of River City.

American Pale Ale

The darling of the American micro movement is known as a "pale ale," a beer style that originated in England but has been redefined in the United States due largely to differences in hops. "Hops" in beer talk refers to the sticky, resinous buds of the hop plant that are added to a beer for seasoning. Ales derive much of their personality from the two basic types of hops used in brewing: flavoring hops, which effect a pleasant bitterness and dryness to counter the sweetness of the malt; and finishing hops, which account for much of the beer's aroma.

The American pale ale (APA) is a sweetish, fruity, amber-red beer, typically with a big bouquet of flowery finishing hops. The style is epitomized by Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a full-bodied brew that balances a bittersweet palate with a piney, floral finish; Boulder Pale Ale, a recent Austin arrival, has a similar flowery nose but is drier and lighter-bodied than the Sierra Nevada; Anchor's splendid, perfumy Liberty Ale has an uncharacteristic straw color and an uncanny drinkability; and despite its misleading moniker, the top-fermented Celis Pale Bock's bitter, fruity palate is clearly akin to an American pale ale.

A stronger, hoppier version of pale ale evolved from the special style that England shipped to India during the days of the British Empire, known appropriately enough as an India Pale Ale, or IPA. Today, the term has lost its meaning in England but is being revised here at home. Waterloo Brewing Company's Guytown IPA is a typical example and the Oregon Brewery's IPA has recently made its debut at the Gingerman, the Draught Horse, and Trudy's Lone Star.

Many small American breweries are also producing variations on the pale ale theme under labels such as "extra pale," "amber," "red," etc. These names -- the results of marketing -- may reflect the use of a different type of malt or yeast, or they may just mask an inferior ale. In any case, the beers to which they refer are not usually far removed from an APA.

Bitter Ale

In England, a bitter (no `s') was originally the draft version of the bottled pale ale, but a more definite distinction has evolved. Today's bitter is a bronze-to-copper brew that derives its name from a strong presence of flavoring (bitter) hops. The bouquet is often fruity but not perfumy as in many pale ales, and a crisp, dry palate makes this style a nice alternative for those not enamored with the sweetness of the APAs.

English pubs often serve several versions of bitter, distinguished by epithets such as "best bitter" and "extra special bitter," or ESB. These beers generally ascend in alcoholic strength from the regular bitter on up through the special, but there are no rules; one pub's ESB is another's best. Compare the import, Fuller's ESB, with the domestic Redhook ESB (both available on tap at Dog & Duck, the Gingerman, the Draught Horse, and Lovejoy's). The former is fruity, malty and copper-colored, with a scintillating bitterness, while the latter is lighter in color and body, considerably drier, and even more pleasantly bitter than the Fuller's. Balcones Pale Malt ("pale malt" is the type of malt used to make a bitter; the term does not refer to a beer style) is fuller-bodied and maltier than a typical bitter, but the stringent hoppiness of Balcones' best effort lands it somewhere near this class. Brown Ale Brown ale, exemplified by the famous edition made by the Newcastle brewery in northeastern England, was originally created there to compete with the pale ales to the south. These deep-amber ales are much less hoppy than both American and English pales, their most noticeable characteristic being a smooth, nutty palate (hence the occasional use of the word "nut" before the style's name). St. Arnold's brewery of Houston makes an outstanding edition, with a richness belied by its light-brown color and a delicious cocoa aftertaste. This chocolatey flavor is even more evident in the dark, scrumptious Nut Brown Nectar produced by the Rogue brewing company of Oregon. Pete's Wicked Ale, on the other hand, is a new-wave American brown, with a deep copper tinge and a sweet palate matched by a hint of berry in the nose. All three are available on draft at the Gingerman.

Barley Wine

Barley wine, another distinctive British ale adopted by American breweries, is so-named because of its high alcohol content and heavy, sweet flavor, both of which can approach those of a sweet red wine. It is almost always bottled, but Old Foghorn, an exceptional domestic version made by the Anchor brewery of San Francisco, is available on draft at the Gingerman and the Draught Horse. In summertime, this style works best as a dessert beer.

Porters and Stouts

These are the famous dark, bittersweet ales of London and Dublin made with (barley) malt that has been roasted until black. They are better suited for cool weather (and material enough for an entire article within themselves), but a dry Irish stout like Guiness or Murphy's always complements a plate of oysters. The Copper Tank brews a stout that's lighter bodied than the imports, with a nice coffee flavor in its bite. Boulder and Anchor each make outstanding porters. Wheat Beers: Austin's Place in the Revolution Although it's been said that America's beer revolution is merely an English ale renaissance, the craft breweries are beginning to turn their attention to another class of beers particularly well suited for hot climates like Austin. These are the wheat beers -- top-fermented (ale-type) brews in which 30-60% of the barley malt has been substituted with wheat malt.

Although the most famous purveyors of this genre are the Bavarians, credit for introducing local patrons to the acidic twang of wheat beer goes to the Celis Brewery and its classic Celis White. The Belgians are famous for seasoning their beers with adjuncts in addition to hops, and Pierre Celis's witbier, as the Belgian rendition is known, is no exception. Smacking of coriander and orange rind, this spicy brew has converted many Austinites to the style, particularly as a tonic against the Texas heat.

Traditionally served with a slice of lemon, Bavarian wheat beers, or weizen beers, are also superb thirst-quenchers. They're marked by a tart, fruity palate and -- especially in the darker versions, or dunkelweizen -- a satisfying spiciness reminiscent of apple cider. Like Celis White, weizen beers are commonly bottle-conditioned, which means that additional yeast is added in the bottle to promote a secondary fermentation. In this case they are known as hefeweizen ("hefe" means yeast) -- cloudy, effervescent beers with an addictive tanginess imparted by the added yeast, which settles to the bottom of the bottle and is delicious poured over the beer's head.

Joining Celis in the local wheat beer market this week is Shiner, which has just debuted a honey hefeweizen that should become a standard in the capital if it can approach the level maintained by the German brands of Franziskaner, Hacker-Schorr, and Julius Echter. All of these breweries make excellent hefeweizen beers, available bottled in gourmet shops or on tap (except for the Julius Echter) at the Gingerman and the Draught Horse. Red Hook also makes a good bottled hefeweizen, and Waterloo Brewing Co. brews a wonderful draft version, which is occasionally available mixed with its raspberry beer to make a delicious cooler.

For those who don't care for the yeasty sediment of a hefeweizen, a kristalweizen may be worth a sip. This is a weizen beer from which all the yeast has been filtered, leaving behind a clear ("kristal") wheat brew. St. Arnold's bottles a kristalweizen, and it's available on draft at Dog & Duck.

The filtered Pete's Wicked Summer Brew is also made with wheat malt, but the percentage relative to the barley seems to be lower than in the weizen beers. It is less acidic, though deliciously seasoned with a touch of lemon, and very refreshing. I recently sampled a similar type of wheat beer in California made by Rhino Chaser, accented with peach instead of citrus. Together, these beers may may forecast a new American interpretation of the wheat style.

Where is Beer Headed?

In addition to the Bavarian wheat beers, right now the craze in the brewpubs of Portland -- the vanguard of the American beer scene -- is a dark, spicy ale made from rye malt. The Gingerman has been serving Redhook's rye for about a month, and Waterloo Brewing Company is on top of the scene with its own fresh-brewed edition.

The most exciting phase of the micro movement may be yet to come, however, as presaged by the recent release of Sam Adams' Golden Pilsner. Although the lager does not match the delicacy and flavor of a genuine Czech version, it is certainly superior to Budweiser and its clones, and other craft brewers are likely to follow suit. Here in town, the Bitter End recently served a Pils for a couple of weeks, and Austin's new Live Oak Brewing Company is set to introduce a Pilsner in October. If the small brewing companies begin to encroach on Anheuser-Busch and Miller's turf by reinventing the American Pilsner, then expect the sparks in the beer revolution to really begin to fly. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle