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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010

Pre-Pro Beer

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This year Milwaukee was one of five cities chosen by brewing behemoth MillerCoors as a test market for its new beer, Batch 19 Pre-Prohibition Style Lager.

“Back in 2004 there was a small flood in our archives in the basement of the Coors Brewery in Golden,” explains Keith Villa, master brewer at MillerCoors. “As I was moving boxes of records to a safer location I ran across the logbook the brewers used to use at the turn of the century. It was just an amazing find because it literally had all the recipes, the quantities of materials they used, and everything they did on a daily basis, written in exquisite handwriting.”

Villa, who earned his Ph.D. in brewing and fermentation biochemistry from the University of Brussels in Belgium, recreated the beer that was outlined in the dusty black logbook and deemed it Batch 19, named for the last year, 1919, before Prohibition made the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol illegal. Batch 19, Villa says, gives beer drinkers an opportunity to taste what a beer made before Prohibition would have tasted like. The question is: How would a pre-Prohibition beer taste and can MillerCoors make an authentic recreation?

Before Prohibition there were more than 1,000 breweries and brewpubs in America that served a wide range of beers, from English-style ales to German-style lagers—whatever satisfied the neighborhood demand. By prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, the U.S. government forced the closure of most breweries, leaving many brewers to pursue other careers. A select number of brewers were able to convert their breweries into manufacturing facilities for other products. Adolph Coors started making malted milk, most of which was sold to the Mars Candy Co., as well as scientific ceramics.

Brewers had to wait just short of 14 years before Prohibition was repealed in 1933. By that time, the damage was done. This period had a crippling effect on American brewing, including the traditions that were established between 1830 and 1920. The brewing companies that survived Prohibition, like Coors, grew larger, filling out the gap left by the small, regional breweries. In less than two decades the unique, craft beers brewed in a variety of styles by small brewers were replaced by the mainstream light lager of brewery giants.

What followed was no less than a beer blight, a period of 50 years when the average beer bought in the United States was a bland pale lager that offended no one, but inspired no one. However, it was this seemingly never-ending era of light lager that incited our country’s grassroots home-brewing culture, resurrecting with it full-bodied doppelbocks, strong stouts and above-average ales.

But, back to the question: What would a pre-Prohibition beer taste like?

“The ingredients and where they’re grown have a huge impact on the flavor of the beer,” explains Russ Klisch, president and founder of Lakefront Brewery. “If you went back to the time of pre-Prohibition, all the ingredients for beer were made right here in the state of Wisconsin—hops were grown here, the malt was all grown here. If you want to know what the taste really was like during the pre-Prohibition period, our Local Acre beer would be the closest flavor to it.”

Klisch uses the term terrior to describe how geography bestows special characteristics upon particular varieties of beer. Loosely translated as “a sense of place,” terrior is the reason why two beers made with the same yeast strain, hop variety and style of grain can taste notably different if those ingredients were grown in different regions. Without the beer industry to buy their commodities, farmers stopped growing ingredients for brewing, which resulted in the loss of certain kinds of hops and barley.

“Ingredients have changed tremendously since before Prohibition,” Klisch adds. “The barley is probably somewhat similar, but the hops are probably a lot different now than they were a hundred years ago… And yeast strains come and go.”

Though he was able to create Batch 19 in a way that stays true to the actual recipe, Villa agrees. “There aren’t the same ingredients today that there were roughly 100 years ago,” he says. “The barley malt variety has changed. The hops have changed. Everything is different. But, it is better quality today than it was 100 years ago.”

We may not be able to know definitively how a beer made before Prohibition tasted, but thanks to the work of local and national brewers, we can find joy in sampling pre-Prohibition-style brews and pondering their authenticity. And we can celebrate the fact that, in 2009, 1,595 breweries were operating in America—the highest total since Prohibition.