NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Old beer brands don't die: They just cool in history's cellar for a bit.
Contrary to popular belief within the craft community, America's love of beer didn't begin when President Jimmy Carter lifted the national ban on homebrewing during the 1970s and breweries such as New Albion and Sierra Nevada started springing up and dumping trailerloads of hops into their kettles. Before beer industry consolidation whittled the nation's brewery count to 89 in 1978 – a post-Prohibition low that saw six of nation's largest breweries make 96% of the beer Americans consumed – there used to be a whole lot more choice among the nation's coolers and taps.
In 1941, post-Prohibition brewery numbers peaked at 857. Brewers at the time produced porter, bock and some of the first India Pale Ale in the U.S. In the years that followed, traditional breweries and some of the first microbreweries fell victim to consolidation and economic fluctuation.
Within the past decade, however, beer brewing has experienced an unparalleled boom. Since 2009 alone, the Brewers Association craft beer industry group says the number of breweries in the U.S. has grown from roughly 1,640 to more than 3,000. That’s the most breweries the nation has had since 1873, when there were more than 4,100.
That's not only bringing a lot of newcomers into the fold, but it's welcoming a lot of familiar faces back to the discussion with some help from Recently sold Pabst Brewing. During the 1970s and 1980s, brewing magnate Paul Kalmanovitz made a habit of buying up struggling breweries, slashing them to the bone and selling off just about everything but the brand name. It's how he came into possession of Stroh's, Natural Bohemian, Ranier, Olympia, Pearl, Lone Star, Old Milwaukee, Blatz, Stag, Schmidt's, Schaefer and a host of malt beverage brands. That “Pabst Brewery” that just changed hands between the Twinkie guy and a bunch of Russians? It's basically a reliquary containing the remaining intellectual property of most of the U.S. brewing industry's most illustrious dead breweries.
Cans and bottles featuring the historic logos of each of those breweries are filled with faceless malt beverage and set out as placeholders until a buyer bails them out and revives their original recipe. Otherwise, they're just waiting until Pabst cares enough to revive their brand on its own. The following are just five examples of beers that got a new lease on life after laying dormant for years. If you have a favorite that's making a comeback, drop a line and let us know:
Were it not for the thriving community of German brewers in Cincinnati and nearby Newport, Ky., the craft beer world wouldn't have Jim Koch, his Boston Beer, its Samuel Adams brand or its nearly 3 million barrels of annual production.
Boston Beer still looms large in this area, with the Koch's brewery now operating a large facility out of the old Hudepohl-Schoenling brewery on Cincinnati's Central Parkway, but it hasn't erased the area's brewing history or the brands that made it great.
Forget Skyline or any other chili. Forget the Reds and Bengals. Christian Moerlein Brewing in Over-The-Rhine has singlehandedly served as the Cincinnati area's beer archivist since reopening in 2010 after a nearly three-decade absence. Owner Greg Hardman bought not only the Moerlein brand introduced in 1853, but the Hudepohl, Burger and Little Kings brands of Cincinnati's beer heyday, as well as smaller brands including Top Hat, Hauck and Windisch-Muhlhauser. In the old Husman Potato Chip factory, Moerlein now brews a Zeppelin Bavarian Pale Ale, an Exposition Vienna Lager, its Over The Rhine Ale, Barbarossa Double Dark Lager, Little Kings Cream Ale and other beers served at its lager house. Pair them with some soft pretzels and beer cheese, garlic fries, spaetzle, a beer can chicken melt or fried pickles and you're off to a good start.
While you're in Over-The-Rhine, head over to Elm Street and check out Moerlein's still-standing 1895 bottling facility – now home to Rhinegeist. This relative newcomer jumped out of the box with a head brewer trained at Indianapolis-based Sun King and a complete corporate structure including a distribution manager and a head of marketing. This is how you get not only a packed tasting room in your new Brewing District digs, but cans of Truth IPA (7.2% ABV, 75 IBU) at Reds games in your first year. With a huge rotating portfolio and mainstays including a mild, citrusy Cougar blonde ale (4.8% ABV), a low-octane British Mild called Uncle (3.8% ABV) and a surprisingly hoppy American Wheat (5.5% ABV, 40 IBU), this self-distributed beer line should grow beyond its 20-barrel operation to a size more befitting its neighborhood – which once housed 38 breweries at its peak.
Christian Moerlein's story doesn't stop with Cincinnati, or even with Samuel Adams.
In 1890, Moerlein got the idea to partner with Bavarian brewer William H. Gerst on Moerlein-Gerst Brewing on Sixth Avenue South in Nashville. When Gerst, a master brewer and head of the United States Brewmaster's Association, decided he didn't need some guy from Cincinnati holding his hand through the brewery-building process anymore, he bought out Moerlein in 1893 and renamed the operation William Gerst Brewing.
He put all four of his sons to work in the brewery, watched it close in 1920 thanks to Prohibition and died little more than two months before prohibition ended in 1933. His family reopened the brewery, but that consolidation we discussed earlier helped close it again in 1954.
Grandson William J. Gerst knew another brewery was out of the question, but wanted to preserve the family legacy. He opened the Gerst Haus restaurant, which has gone through three incarnations and was once leveled to make room for LP Field, home of the National Football League's Tennessee Titans.
Current owners Jim and Jerry Chandler had the legacy, but they didn't have the beer. Originally from Indiana, the Chandlers tried reintroducing Gerst with help from Evansville Brewing just after they bought Gerst Haus in 1988. Later, they'd give Pittsburgh Brewing a shot at making Nashville's legacy beer in the late 1990s, but both attempts produced a pale facsimile of the original. In 2011, the Chandlers met with Linus Hall of Nashville's own Yazoo Brewing and came up with a plan to reformulate the original Gerst Amber and bring production back to Nashville. Yazoo has been making the easy-drinking amber ever since, and Nashville regained its legacy beer that it once had in name only.
Signs near the Lincoln Tunnel, ads on the Howard Stern show, prime real estate in New York area bars? It's odd for a beer that spent much of its recent life as a malt beverage in 40-ounce bottles, but it's a return to form for the Ballantine brand.
In the interest full disclosure, I'll let it be known that my family's ties to the beer industry begin and end with my great-grandfather, who worked at the Ballantine brewery in Newark, N.J., for several years. Newark was a center of regional brewing activity when my grandfather was with Ballantine, with Newark's Gottfried Kruger Brewing giving America its first beer can on Jan. 24, 1935. Ballantine was Newark's biggest name of all, however, serving as the nation's fourth-largest brewery at its peak and eventually buying Kruger's brewery after its brand was sold to Rhode Island-based Narragansett in 1961.
More than a few folks in the New York area remembered Ballantine from its heyday from the 1940s through 1960s, when its partnership with the New York Yankees led to famed announcer Mel Allen calling home runs “Ballantine blasts.” It's a familiar story for small brewers across the country, and one that ends the same way – in Pabst's collection.
This fall, however, Pabst has reformulated and rereleased Ballantine IPA, which was first brewed in Newark, N.J., in 1878. Believed to be the first India Pale Ale brewed in the U.S., Ballantine IPA caught the attention of Pabst brewmaster and former Redhook brewer Greg Deuhs as the company was looking for a way to break into the craft beer market. Brent Rose at Gizmodo offers the definitive account of how Deuhs combed archives, spoke with brewers and used the beer's coloring, alcohol volume and international bitterness units to determine which malts and hops he should use to replicate the original recipe.
That meant scouring the globe for specific English hops and lining stainless steel barrels with American oak to replicate the original Ballantine tanks. The result is a flavorful, balanced blend of malt and hops that's mild by modern standards – especially with its distinct lack of aftertaste – but must have blown minds during its original run.
Ballantine IPA was just released in September and is available in six-packs and wine-style 750-milliliter bottles and available in nine states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The recent sale of Pabst to Russian brewer and distributor Oasis Beverages for more than $700 million in September shouldn't affect its availability or production, as Pabst products are generally brewed under contract at other brewers' facilities. Ballantine IPA now calls the Cold Spring Brewery in Cold Spring, Minn., home, but its newfound New York notoriety is as welcome as it was during its Newark heyday.
This was the brand that showed the way out of Pabst purgatory.
In 2005, former Nantucket Nectars chief Mark Hellendrung bought the brand back from Pabst and made his brew a fixture in bars in New England and retirement communities in Florida. It was a happy homecoming.
Originally founded in 1890, the brewing company once had a 65% market share in New England, was touted by Red Sox announcer Curt Gowdy during game broadcasts and was quaffed by big-screen shark hunter Quint in Jaws. Vuts similar to those made at Schlitz turned Narragansett into a vile concoction colloquially dubbed "Nasty Narry" in the 1970s and led to its demise in 1981. The original recipe has returned and a new generation of fans and promotional "Gansett Girls" and collaborations with Rhode Island icons such as Del's Lemonade and Autocrat Coffee have helped Narragansett defend its territory from encroaching brewers including Pennsylvania's Yuengling.
Though brewed at North American Breweries' Genesee Brewing facility in Rochester, N.Y., and at Buzzards Bay Brewing in Westport, Mass., Narragansett has become enough of a regional favorite to regain its place at Fenway Park's beer counters and win over New Englanders who remember the beer's awkward middle stages under Pabst.
"Guys under 35 have no memory of the Nasty Narry days when it was swill beer and just love our story and appreciate it on its own merit," Hellendrug told us in 2009. "It's those guys in the middle who we have the challenge of convincing that this isn't the Nasty Narry that you may have been stealing from your dad in high school or buying for $9.99 a case when you were in your 20s."
Narragansett now ranks among the nation's Top 50 brewers after producing 65,000 barrels last year, including Porter, Bock, Summer Ale and Cream Ale brewed in Providence, R.I., itself. Its Oktoberfest, Summer Ale and flagship Lager all took home silver at the 2011 World Beer Championships and its beers are a fixture at the annual American Craft Brewers Festival in Boston. Short of building a new brewery in Rhode Island, it doesn't get more “back” than that.
A decade ago, Schlitz was some of the most foul malt liquor ever bottled.
Trapped in Pabst's dungeon of intellectual property, the brewery suffered a hard fall from its rise to glory that began in Milwaukee way back in 1849. In 1911, “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous” invented the light-blocking brown bottle that keeps light from spoiling beer to this day. It weathered prohibition, got through World War II as military-issued beer, introduced the 16-ounce can in 1954 and was the largest brewery in the world by 1970.
It was all downhill from there. As brewers grew, they began skimping on ingredients to cut costs and boost profits. Schlitz was no different and, by 1982, the brand and its weakened “Gusto” formula were sold to Stroh's.
"It was death to beer flavor by 1,000 cuts," Kyle Wortham, senior brand manager for Milwaukee-based Schlitz, told us in 2009. "It wasn't something you could recognize yearly, but over decades there's a hell of a difference from what you were drinking back then to now."
By 1999, the brand was so inactive that it was picked up by Pabst and held in malt-liquor limbo. There it would sit until 2007, when Schlitz brewmaster Bob Newman culled the confidential, unwritten recipe from the memories of former brewmasters and employees. With Pabst's blessing, Schlitz ranked up a promotional effort that included retro merchandise such as lawn chairs, bottle-opening belt buckles and nudie pens featuring Playboy's Miss December 1968, Cynthia Myers. Schlitz gunned for older men who remembered the beer's glory days, had been contacting the company about such a change for years and felt disenfranchised by the big brewers' youth movement and craft brewers' mature prices.
"People are just ready for a regular beer that has equity in a world that has all these boutique beers with citrus flavors, blueberry flavors and cans that turn blue when they get cold," Wortham said.
He wasn't wrong. The reviewers at BeerAdvocate have scored it an 81 of 100, with the consensus being that it's surprisingly good for a light lager. In fact, it's rated the highest among American Adjunct Lagers (those brewed with rice or corn), just edging out Narragansett. It's a great cheap beer, and a reminder that light lager wasn't such a bad style when the people making it actually cared about the beer they were brewing.
What motivates a Cincinnati kid such as Jim Koch to get brewing and help start a beer revolution with his Samuel Adams Boston Lager? Great Cincinnati beers such as those George Wiedemann used to make.
Wiedemann founded his Cincinnati brewery in Newport, Ky., just outside of Cincinnati in the late 1870s. It produced a crisp, clear brew known as Wiedemann Fine Beer and by the time Wiedemann died in 1890, it was the largest brewer in Kentucky.
Prohibition shut its doors in 1927, but by 1933 it was revived and well on its way to the 1 million barrels it would produce by 1967. Wiedemann's success eventually led to its sale to G. Heileman Brewing Co. of LaCrosse, Wis. Heileman shut down the Wiedemann brewery in 1983 and sold off the rights to the Wiedemann name. The beer bounced from a brewery in Evansville, Ind., in the late '80s and early '90s to Iron City maker Pittsburgh Brewing in the 2000s. When Pittsburgh Brewing filed for bankruptcy and reorganized in 2006, it jettisoned Wiedemann beer.
Fortunately, some beer lovers in Newport with a great sense of history picked up the brand and revived it as Geo. Wiedemann Brewing Co. two years ago. While they're only producing Wiedemann's Special Lager and a few seasonal beers – and not a whole lot of it – Wiedemann has at least found its way back to the Cincinnati drinkers who've loved it all along. It's not back to 1 million barrels, but it's not dead and gone, either.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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