Craft Beer, A Culture On the Rise

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There are few things in today’s society that are more engaging to talk about than sex, drugs or Rock N’ Roll. Their risqué nature, cemented in history, offer a break from the routine malaise that is talking politics or sports with a neighbor that you really don’t want to be having small talk with to being with. And while knowing the intricacies of a co-worker’s sex life may seem appealing to some, few things tell you more about a person than their favorite beer. Whether you’re a dark stout girl, or a guy that enjoys himself a nice fruity or spiced brew, your favorite suds say a lot about you. So let’s take a break form the immortal three, and let’s talk about beer. Not the hum-drum, run of the mill, beer-flavored water that comes in non-descript aluminum cans by the 30… but the gloriously refined younger cousin: craft beer.

This isn’t to say that craft beer is reserved for those that fancy themselves gaudy or living the lavish life of luxury – drinking champagne on private jets comes to mind – but quite the opposite in fact. The craft beer culture as we know it today has grown from a basement hobby, from men and women alike, looking to return good beer to those that had been robbed of it decades prior by the mega-breweries attempting to monopolize the market, and reinvigorate the passion and artistry of the industry. The stranglehold has been loosened, and foreign beer styles are forcing their way back into the national eye, one bottle, one new believer, one new enthusiast… one new beer groupie at a time. The craft beer culture is one that is growing at an alarming rate, and its influence has reached far beyond the land of the yinzer, stubborn in his ways. Nay, craft beer is not exclusive to those who drink Henri Jayer, Grand Cru Burgundy wine at upwards of $20,000 a bottle[1], but for anyone who enjoys the bitter-sweet fizz of an artisanal ale. So… let’s talk about beer.

***

It’s 8:30 pm on Friday, as Mike Atkinson walks out of his class. He has one thing on his mind: beer. He walks briskly down the hallway, past the Reed Student lounge, and down three flights of stairs in the Cathedral of Learning. With a triumphant smirk he steps through the automatic doors on the ground floor, and out into the cold Pittsburgh evening. His casual step becomes a proud stride, as he maps out the night in his head. What wonderful suds awaited his taste buds this evening? Walking down Forbes Avenue, cars, students and buses all whiz by him at a dizzying pace, as the night shrugs off the day’s final light and engulfs Oakland. He makes a sharp left on Atwood, avoiding the homeless man sitting against the wall, and continues on his way. Another quick right on Bates, and Mike is almost home. But first, one quick stop: Mellinger’s, to get his beer for the evening. As he approaches the door, dozens of neon signs caged behind the metal grates covering the windows all suggest what to drink that evening.

Two young men wearing Pitt apparel and carrying cases of Natural Light walk past him as he pushes the door open. Inside Mellinger’s sits a burly man atop a stack of beer cases that looks him up and down from under the brim of a dirty Penguins hat as he approaches the counter. The man perched behind the counter doesn’t say a word, but looks at him and pulls out a note pad in preparation for his order. Mike glances down at the tattered three-ring-binder sitting on the counter and flips through the laminated list of beers that they offer.

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Mike looks up after flipping a few more pages, and glances at the wall behind him. Hundreds of beer bottles line the walls, some brown, some clear, and all coated in a thin layer of dust, boasting just how long they’ve been there. The cases of Miller Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon sit idly on the floor with large price-sheets taped to them; these walls are reserved for a higher-level lager. He looks back to the man behind the counter, “well, what’ll it be?”

***

The first thing to consider when choosing a type beer is what you ultimately want out of your brew. Beer will get you drunk regardless of style if you drink enough. If that’s your ultimate goal, you may as well shell out $16 at Mellinger’s, buy a case of Natural Light, and have at it. But if you’re looking for more than a quick buzz, you have a difficult choice to make. Like a good steak from Ruth’s Chris Steak House, or a crisp garden salad, there is a flavor for every palate and a style for every occasion. Most people don’t know what makes one beer different from another, not because they’re unintelligent, but because they haven’t had a reason to care until now.

What is Beer? [2]

Beer is essentially just fermented yeast, water and hops with spice nodes added based on the type of beer that is being brewed. Beer then boils down to two main categories: Ales and Lagers. However, both styles can range from light to dark, strong to mild, and bitter to sweet.

 

Ales vs. Lagers [3]

Ale yeast is fermented at warmer temperatures than lager yeast, and the yeast is collected from the top of the fermenter (top fermented beers). This gives ales a more ‘yeast-derived’ flavor that can easily be infused with spicy or fruity flavors. Image

Lager yeast is fermented at cooler temperatures than that of ales, and is collected from the bottom of fermenters (bottom fermented beers). Bottom fermentation gives the beer a stronger concentration of grain and hops, and gives it the classic dark flavor that is most readily comparable to a mutated, alcohol infused coffee.

The 1900’s saw a paradigm shift in the beer culture of America. Foreign styles like the Belgium Wheat, German Pilsner, as well as beers from Mexico, the Netherlands and UK were slowly phased out, becoming insignificant in the nation’s beer market. With this drop-off in eclectic beer, the light-adjunct lager, or one that was brewed with weak or secondhand hops became America’s staple beer. Breweries like the Miller Brewing Company played on the misguided nationality behind these beers through effective marketing campaigns that labeled these beers as the American Standard Beers, slowly changing the American preference of beers while reshaping the industry. However, as the scale of the market was shrinking, an underground brewing culture devoted to the reinvigoration of beer was growing. Home-brewing became the only way to acquire traditional styles of beer. Interest grew, and soon the underground culture became the ‘craft brewing’ culture we know today. As techniques and ingredients became more refined, craft beer became more popular and the market began to grow. With more expansion came a greater choice and a wider spectrum of craft beers. [4] Until the 1980’s this non-descript, beer-flavored water, with no tradition to mention, was the image of popular beer in America. Ironically, it was this craft brewing culture that would soon assert itself as the new face and tradition behind the American brewing culture.

***

As the clock drags towards 9 pm, and the closing of Mellinger’s, Mike continues to flip through the pages of beer. Across South Oakland on Oakland Avenue, Erik Hubbard is walking into Fuel and Fuddle to eat dinner. He walks through the propped-open door, and is greeted by the rich, cozy smell of the brick oven that permeates the room. The environment is relatively calm and inviting before the 11 pm rush when food and drinks become half price. The hostess escorts Erik and his friends to their seats against the wall. He sits down with a worn-out sigh, pulling in his chair over the aged wooden floor as the waitress approaches with a smile. “What can I get you boys to drink tonight,” she asks.

A large chalkboard hung on the burnt brick wall above paints a picture of the wide assortment of beers on tap and in bottles. Listed next to the $5 Miller Light is that evening’s special, Sierra Nevada, a bold pale ale for only $4 a bottle. Sierra Nevada was born in 1970 by home-brewer Ken Grossman, and sold its first pale ale in 1980. Now, the home-grown and privately traded company sells over 1 million barrels annually, and is worth almost $200 million. [5] Erik rubs the weariness from his pale blue eyes, and scans the chalkboard again before settling on the Anchor Steam, Steam Beer, a highly effervescent California-brewed ale. [6] He tugs at his Pitt hoodie and rubs his face before taking a long, slow sip from his glass of water, as the waitress saunters back to the bar.

Now craft beers are available at almost every distributor across the country, with dozens of variations on style. Mike now has options that weren’t so readily available even a few decades ago, and as a result faces the not-so-bad dilemma of which beer to drink. Will he go with a typical light lager like Natural Light, Keyston or Bud? Or will he venture into the realm of the India Pale Ales, the Sierra Nevadas, Abitas, Dogfish Heads, or the Lagunitas? The culture in Pittsburgh is changing, and more and more college students and adults alike are leaning towards the unique styles of beer that were once little more than a basement fad.

“I mean, I can walk into any place that sells beer and grab a Natty or a Miller literally any time I want,” said Pitt junior, Erik Hubbard. “I’d heard of Anchor Steam from a friend or something and figured I’d try it. I’m not sitting here trying to get hammered at dinner, I just want a good beer with my food.” He ran his hand through his hair and took another sip of his beer, studying it as he put it down. “Good choice I guess,” he chuckled to himself.

***

It’s a tick past 2 in the afternoon on Saturday as George Grey, a graduating senior at the University of Pittsburgh, pulls the door open, and walks into Fat Head’s Saloon behind his parents. There is a palpable buzz in the air, an atmospheric amalgamation of the energy of a state fair and the hominess of watching a sporting event at your cousin’s house, perhaps only without Aunt Shannon grumbling about the dog and getting drunk off one too many vodka-cranberries in the corner. The blonde hostess, mid-conversation with a portly Pittsburgh man sporting a lumpy Pirates shirt, swings around enthusiastically. “Hey guys,” she exclaims. “How can I help yinz’ today? D’You guys like a table or a seat at the bar?” Her turquoise eyes and animated smile welcomed them as the words left her lips one by one. George explains that his parents are visiting from out of town, and he wants to show them a taste of Pittsburgh. Eagerly, the greeter grabs a handful of menus and beckons the group to follow her as she wades through the growing early-afternoon crowd towards the bar.

“Beer is an art,” says Fat Head’s’ owner Glenn Benigni. “It’s an art that can be enjoyed by every sense.” Fat Head’s is a restaurant and craft beer mecca wedged between Bruegger’s and Casey’s on South Side’s East Carson Street; the largest stretch of bars in the area. As far as craft breweries go, Fat Head’s is doing it right. The restaurant was a thriving establishment – offering the best, and largest sandwiches in Pittsburgh – long before it added craft beers to its repertoire. Approached a few years ago by Matt Cole, award-winning brewer, Benigni jumped at the chance to expand his horizons to the world of craft brewing. Now Fat Head’s is a staple on the bar crawl, regularly attracting large crowds for both food and drink. Boasting more than 42 styles of beer, 12 of which are brewed in house, and 22 that are locally brewed in Pittsburgh, Fat Head’s is a great example of how the beer culture is changing. [7]

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George sits down and examines the massive list of beers that sits mounted in triumphant splendor above the bar. His father, George Sr. orders a Miller without hesitation, while George Jr. looks over the list for a second time, mouth slightly agape. “What’s it gon’ be kid,” the bartender asks heartily as he wipes down a tall stein behind the bar. George thinks for another second as his father takes a large, familiar sip of his Miller, before settling on the Güdenhoppy, a brilliant, straw colored, traditional German Pilsner, one of Fat Head’s house-brewed seasonal spring beers. The Güdenhoppy has almost the same basic scientific structure as Natural Light, its significantly toned-down pilsner relative, but they are worlds apart.

“Most people laugh when I go with spiced beers or fruity beers,” George says. “But I’m really not an IPA guy.” And George is certainly not alone, even amongst experienced beer drinkers. IPA beers, or India Pale Ales, are traditionally extra hoppy and bitter. The IPA style dates back to the 19th century in England, when their milder pale ale was packed with extra hops and fermented with more alcohol to ensure it’s survival across the sea to India. The name stuck as it became more and more popular both nationally and internationally, and thus the IPA was born. [8] Today there are hundreds of derivations and alterations of the style, but they all maintain their traditional bitter taste and more potent nature. “I enjoy a cold Natty as much as the next guy, but there’s something about a beer that can be savored that get’s me. You can tell the guys behind the scenes put a lot of effort into their work.”

“My favorite beer,” repeats Benigni, letting the question mull over in his mind. “I can’t answer that,” he chuckles as he scratches his head. “That’s like asking me which kid I love the most.”

***

This sentiment is consistent and fervent across the craft beer community. These 22 beers are just a small taste of the beer offered by Pittsburgh brewers. Cities across the country from New York to Sacramento have begun hosting Craft Beer Week in honor of the culture and community that have developed around craft beers. Not to be left behind, Pittsburgh has graciously stepped into the trend, and will hosts its third annual Craft Beer Week this April.

Newcomers and enthusiasts alike will take part in events like beer tastings, meeting the world-renowned brewers and even try beer brewed specially for Craft Beer Week. The week is not just a celebration of libation though, in actuality, it goes much further than the typical onlooker might think. In its inaugural year, Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week brought more than $2 million into the city economy. The week is organized and run by the Craft Beer Alliance of Pittsburgh, a non-profit 501(c)(6) organization. [9] (No profit can go to private individuals, but rather towards development of the organization or charity) The PCBA is comprised of industry workers like brewery managers, restaurant managers and brewers alike that are looking to develop the industry and proudly show off their product to the world, or, city in this case. (PCBA Web) Craft beer has grown from a hobby in kitchens across the country, to a full-blown addiction. Home brewing is as commonplace as painting, about as artistic and more rewarding.

Like any other passion, craft brewing is cultivated through years of practice, and it’s only natural that people want to show off what they’ve done. “If I could brew beer this good I’d never buy it again,” laughs Erik as he orders his second beer of the evening, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “I mean… there are what, four places to get pizza in South Oakland? It’s all pizza, but none of them are even close to the best pizza I’ll ever eat…”

“Perfection? This Miller is perfect for me,” George Sr. states bluntly. “It’s not that I don’t like these ‘craft beers’ they’re just not what I want right now. What I want right now is the same Miller I’ve been drinking since you were born.”

There’s no doubt times are changing, and the concept of what good beer is, is changing with them. “When you look at the [PCBA] and the all of the micro breweries that are popping up around Pittsburgh, and doing WELL…” Trevor Weis, a Pitt senior who has been working at The Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville PA for the past two years, pauses for a moment “I don’t know how you can deny that things are changing. People wouldn’t buy it if they didn’t like it.” Church Brew Works is another staple of the Pittsburgh craft beer scene. Set inside a church that was originally built in 1902, it opened as a brewpub in 1996. Brew Works is reminiscent of the ornate church it once served as. A center isle encased with booths on either side bisects the interior. Tables are set around huge pillars that line both sides of the room, with massive fermenter tanks poised like trophies where the alter would stand. [10] Church Brew Works is a home of tradition as well as creation. And with creation comes opportunity. Craft beer is an opportunity for people to put their own stamp on a growing national trend. While Sierra Nevada is a strong example of this national shift, Fat Head’s dozen house-brewed beers show just how close to home this culture is for many people.

***

Mike finishes flipping through the pages and pushes his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. The clerk taps his pen on the counter, “well?”

***

“Realistically… I drink beer at least once a week in one way or another,” Mike says. “I’m no connoisseur by any stretch, but there’s definitely a time and a place for whatever style of beer someone wants.” He sits down in the cheap Ikea chair in his kitchen and grabs one of the beers he’s just purchased. Mike grins as he cracks open his beer, cold and perspiring in his hand. He pauses for a second, and looks hard at his selected brew. “I don’t think I’d ask for a Natty at a nice dinner, but I also wouldn’t expect to see Goose Island at a party… You know what I mean?” He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “I’ve been looking forward to this for the past few hours, and honestly, anything cold, carbonated and remotely close to beer would have been good.” Mike smiles again and takes a long, deliberate sip from his beer before letting out an exaggerated exhale. “That’s a good brew.”

[1] http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/henri+jayer+grand+cru+richebourg+vosne+romanee+cote+de+nuit+burgundy+france

[2] http://allaboutbeer.com/learn/beer/

[3] http://www.beer-faq.com/difference-ale-lager/

[4] http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/raley_timetable.shtml

[5] http://www.sierranevada.com/brewery/about-us/our-story

[6] http://www.anchorbrewing.com/beer/anchor_steam

[7] http://www.fatheadspittsburgh.com/beer.html

[8] http://www.beeradvocate.com/articles/247/

[9] http://pittsburghcraftbeerweek.com/pittsburgh-craft-beer-week/ (PCBA Web)

[10] http://www.churchbrew.com/

**I do not know the origins of the photos in this piece, and thus cannot attribute credit. I claim no credit, and don’t seek to, for any and all of the above photos. All were found on Google, and are being used solely for the purpose of visual aid.**

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One thought on “Craft Beer, A Culture On the Rise

  1. Hey there Alex,

    Great job on your story. Nicely woven facts and history without slowing down the pace. You also nabbed some really great quotes in here, like this one: “That’s like asking me which kid I love the most.” For your structure, I like that you used people to draw us through the story. Kickass job keeping my attention throughout (despite my — I’m sorry to admit — lack of interest in beer). Great great job explaining beer in a few short, easy to understand and fun to read grafs. Your writing style is a good fit for radio reporting. I could imagine the audio version of this story fitting well on APM’s Marketplace or Freakonomics.

    Regards, and best of luck for your future writing endeavors,

    Emily DeMarco
    emdemarco.wordpress.com
    emily.demarco@gmail.com

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