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American Microbreweries
Small, local breweries, brew pubs popular with beer lovers seeking more flavor, variety
by Eunice Fried

America has had beer as long as it has had Americans. Columbus found the Indians of the Caribbean brewing their own grain drink. The Pilgrims carried beer over on the Mayflower, and George Washington liked to brew his own with a prized recipe that was heavy on molasses. Actually, the world has known beer for at least 8,000 years. The Babylonians, Sumerians and Egyptians drank beer. Rich Mesopotamians sipped theirs through gold straws. And never mind animals marching on board two by two; according to legend, Noah refused to raise anchor until his ark was well supplied with the zesty brew.

Why, then, with so much history behind it, did Americans find it necessary to reinvent beer a generation ago? Because while we were a nation awash in beer, there were hardly a drop worth drinking. The great American beer movement of the late twentieth century was not so much a step forward to something new as it was a step back to something old — beer as it used to be. And that was how our modern microbreweries were born. Small, local producers, they are breweries that make beer as it once was made.

There were well over 2,300 breweries in this country by the late nineteenth century with 77 in New York City alone. But the century was barely ten years old when that number began to decline. And the decline continued for the next seven decades as large conglomerates swallowed up small, local breweries or ran them out of business. By the late 1970's there were only 40 operating breweries in the country, most of them gigantic. And the bigger they grew, the blander their beers became.

By then, however, many Americans had tasted the beers of other countries and discovered a broad range of styles and flavors. If Czechoslovakia, Holland, Germany and other countries could make interesting beers, why couldn't America?

That's what Jack McAuliffe wondered. An American who, during his military service in Europe, watched England's new generation of small breweries take hold, he returned home and began the New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California producing British-style ales and stouts. New Albion closed three years later, but it became the inspiration behind the birth of the Mendocino County Brewing Company in Hopland, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, and McAuliffe became known as one of the fathers of American microbreweries. Another pioneer was Fritz Maytag, scion of the washing machine family who bought the Anchor Steam Beer Brewing Company in San Francisco and reinvigorated it as a "small is beautiful" brewery. From there, the movement quickly bubbled over as microbreweries began opening in barns, basements and backyards from New England to the West Coast.

Today, there are 426 microbreweries, but it remains a risky, pioneering business; in 1999, for example, 39 new microbreweries opened while 45 closed. Still, while those that succeed account for only about two percent of the beer made in the U.S., they account for much of this country's most fascinating beers; fresh, natural and flavorful, these yeasty suds bear little resemblance to the thin, bland, dull sameness of most beers produced by major breweries.

And Americans are drinking up the new brews. The Great American Beer Club in Chicago (800-879-2747) began in 1994 and now has 13,000 members who receive four types of beer a month, all made by microbreweries. At the Great American Beer Festival (no relation to the beer club), organized by the Association of Brewers in Boulder, Colorado and held in Denver each year, 300 microbreweries are there to pour their products (for information, call: 303-546-6514).

How do microbreweries differ from their big brothers? First, of course, there is the quantity. A company like Anheuser-Busch can produce over 72 million barrels a year; a microbrewery may turn out 15,000 or fewer barrels a year (A barrel holds 31 gallons). But what they lack in quantity, these small brewers make up in quality. A microbrewery makes beer the way it was made in the nineteenth century — simply and naturally, from barley, hops, yeast and water. The result is beer with more body, more taste, more individuality and more flavor and one that is an excellent accompaniment to fine food. Yes, just as wines are matched to foods, good beers are now finding their right complement on the dining table.

As microbreweries grew, brewpubs were born. Originally, casual eating places where beer is brewed on the premises, brewpubs now fall into three categories. There are those that fit the definition by brewing their own beer on premise; other brewpubs are owned and operated by microbreweries; and still others, brewpubs in name only, get their beer from microbreweries rather than brew their own. Today, there are 1,022 brewpubs scattered throughout the country. Their survival record is higher than microbreweries; in 1999, 122 brewpubs opened while 68 closed.

Microbreweries almost invariably make more than one kind of beer, some of them, delightful, inventive variations on the theme. Still the theme of beer revolves around five basic kinds:

    Lager: From the word lagern (the German verb meaning to store or rest), lager is a beer made by bottom fermentation. The world's most popular style, it is usually gold in color and with a distinctive hop flavor.

    Pilsner: Named after Pilsen, the Czech beer, where it was first brewed, its American version is milder than the European one which has a hoppiness, flowery aroma and dry finish.

    Ale: A top-fermented brew with a distinctive fruitiness and coppery color.

    Porter: A dark, full-bodied, bittersweet ale made with roasted, unmalted barley.

    Stout: A very dark, rich brew made with highly roasted malts, it has a hoppier, maltier flavor.

America's microbreweries, many of which distribute only regionally, give the beer lover a rich choice.

Outstanding among them are the following:

    Abita Brewing Company, New Orleans, Louisiana:
    Abita Amber is full-bodied, intense, nutty and fruity with malty overtones. This microbrewery also makes the whiskey-like Andygator and the dark, toffee-like Turbodog.

    Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska:
    The first microbrewery in Alaska, it is known especially for its seasonal Christmas specialty, the provocative Smoked Porter, for which the malt is smoked over alder twigs. It also makes a smooth, malty Alaskan Amber.

    Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco, California:
    Its principal product is Anchor Steam Beer which has the roundness of lager and the fruitiness of ale while Anchor's Liberty Ale is big, bold, hoppy with an intense fruity flavor. Anchor was the first brewery since Prohibition to make a Wheat Beer; its version is clean, light and delicate. It has also scored highly with its round, smooth Old Foghorn Barley Wine.

    Bohannon/Market Street, Nashville, Tennessee (defunct):
    This microbrewery's Pilsner is outstanding — dry and silky with a spicy hop flavor. It also produces a seasonal specialty, the Oktoberfest, which has a great hoppy presence.

    BridgePort Brewing Company, Portland, Oregon:
    The oldest microbrewery and brewpub in Portland, BridgePort was the creation of Nancy and Dick Ponzi, who were also one of the pioneer couples in Oregon wine. Now under new ownership, the signature brew is its ruby-colored BridgePort Ale. It also emphasizes its India Pale Ale, refreshing with notes of peach; and its Old Knucklehead which has both a pepperiness and higher alcohol.

    Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, New York:
    Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout is made with malted barley in a process that brings out a flavor akin to chocolate. And while it does not actually have chocolate added, it has been called beer's answer to a warming malted milk with a shot of Bourbon. The brewery is also known for its its dry East India Pale Ale; Brooklyn Lager, fresh, flavorful, firm and flowery; and Brooklyner Weiss, a light, fragrant beer with aromas reminiscent of clove and hop. The brewery is open Friday evenings 6pm to 10pm; and on Saturdays when it has tours from noon to 4:30pm.

    Buffalo Bill's Brewery, Hayward, California:
    A pioneer brewpub begun by Buffalo Bill Owens who sold it to Geoff Harries, it counts among its top brews the Tasmanian Devil, an India Pale Ale made with more hops and more alcohol. Buffalo Bill has is also known for its Pumpkin Ale.

    Catamount Brewing, White River Junction, Vermont (defunct):
    This microbrewery's most outstanding brew is Catamount Gold, an ale that is lightly malty with a hoppy character in aroma and finish. Catamount also produces an assertive Amber and a smooth, creamy Porter.

    Mendocino Brewing Company, Hopland, California:
    One of the country's first microbreweries and first brewpubs, Mendocino honors its history with a variety of brews. One of its most highly touted is Red Tail Ale, copper shaded, well balanced, well rounded and big on character and flavor. Other highlights in its repertoire include Eye of the Hawk, a strong, malty ale, and a fruity Black Hawk Stout.

    New Glarus Brewing Company, New Glarus, Wisconsin:
    A fine microbrewery whose best brew is the almondy, cherry-flavored, bittersweet Belgian Red.

    Samuel Adams, The Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts:
    Its Boston Lager is well-balanced and flavorful. Its Boston Ale is appetizing and robust while its Triple Bock is savory and muscular with notes of vanilla and higher alcohol than most brews.

    St. Stanis Brewery, Modesto, California (defunct):
    Both brewery and brewpub, St. Stanis is noted for the German accent of its brews — Red Sky Ale, Amber Alt and Dark Alt.

    Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Chico, California:
    Sierra Nevada, one of the earliest American microbreweries, produces a Pale Ale that has a firm hop bitterness and fruitiness and is considered a classic among small breweries. Its Draught Ale is just slightly sweeter while its Big Foot Barley Wine has earthy tones and a chewy texture.

    Tabernash Brewing, Longmont, Colorado (defunct):
    A Colorado-based microbrewery, Tabernash has a Native American name and German-style brews. It is known particularly for its Weiss, a refreshing, Bavarian-style wheat beer with the aroma of cloves; and for its Denargo Lager, a dark Munich-style brew.

American Brew Pubs
With over 1,000 brewpubs in the United States, nearly every major town has at least one. Listed below is a small sampling: