beer, History

Illinois: Right Here. Right Now.

From its German immigrants bringing their desire for and ability to brew lager, and the origin of powerful prohibition era organized crime families, to what is and isn’t a craft beer, Illinois has a deep history with beer.

In 1818, Illinois became the 21st state, and just 19 years later, Chicago was incorporated. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world at the time, and is now the third largest in the U.S. A major influence on its was the influx of Irish and German immigrants and it wasn’t long before these new residents clashed with the growing temperance movement that was sweeping the nation.

This first big clash started in the early 1850s. Disguised as prohibition, an anti-immigration platform was emerging, and Illinois had a staring role. As Maureen Ogle writes in Ambitious Brew:

Such was the case in Chicago after voters filled city hall with pro-temperance, anti-immigrant officials and the new mayor ordered a ban on Sunday drinking. The mostly native-born police force closed the city’s foreign-owned beer gardens, beerhalls, and taverns but turned a blind eye to “American” taverns that stayed open in violation of the law.

This ban inspired protests, which escalated into violence resulted in the Lager Beer Riot. In the end, the immigrants prevailed and it wasn’t long before the demand for beer quickly outpaced supply. And then, making things worse, the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed 19 breweries. But it wasn’t long before the brewers bounced back and Chicago quickly became a major player in the nation’s brewing scene.

Then came the Chicago Beer Wars of the roaring 20s, ushering in a violent era of organized crime that created mobsters such as Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.

From day one, Prohibition was not a widely supported cause. It was a war in its own right between rural Protestants and the nation’s urban (immigrant) citizens who were viewed as a threat. So, when prohibition came into effect, organized crime quickly stepped in to fill the void, resulting in powerful organizations that made a fortune bootlegging alcohol throughout the prohibition era. The organized crime speakeasy scene was so prolific during prohibition that at one point, Al Capone purchased more than 250,000 tapping heads from Anheuser-Busch.

With the repeal of prohibition, the state of brewing in Illinois remained status-quo for a few decades, with big nation breweries absorbing the smaller ones. Then came businessman John Hall in 1988 with a new brewpub, Goose Island. John Hall wanted to bring flavorful European beer to Chicago, and that desire has led to Chicago’s oldest brewing organization and eventually the next riot involving Chicago brewing.

When Goose Island first opened, they knew they had their work cut out for them. During the 1980s, the American public were not accustomed to the complex and flavorful beers typical of Europe. One of this blog’s collaborators was in Chicago when Goose Island opened:

I was working in Chicago when Goose Island opened, at the forefront of the great brewpub trend. It was a major event, beer people felt our day had come, although the brews at Goose Island and other brewpubs then were simple and straightforward compared to today’s
@jbnbpt

It didn’t take long for interest in Goose Island to establish a reputation of successful craft beer that allowed them to expand beyond the basics and continue their reach into brews with tradition and character. Their reputation of quality craft beer would continue for almost 25 years until March 28, 2011 when the company was sold to Anheuser-Busch, an event that quickly turned the wrath of the craft beer world onto one of its own.

One doesn’t have to look far to find articles about people up in arms over the Goose Island sale. While both good and bad opinions exist most trend to the bad, with the controversy boiling down to the definition of craft beer. According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewer is Small, independent and traditional. Because Goose Island is no longer independent, they no longer fit the definition, yet they still produce their own take on traditional beer, and their volume is up, but only to 2.1 million cases. Also, a review of the top 250 beers list shows Goose Island holding 2 of the top 15 spots, indicating that they are making coveted beer despite the controversy.

Eschewing all the controversy, this week, we are all in with Goose Island. From their stable, we will be sampling five different brews, 4 Vintage ales, and 1 Bourbon County.

Illinois Beer

Goose Island

Two of the most common brews available from Goose Island are their India Pale Ale, and the Honkers Ale. However with its purchase by InBev, these two lines are no longer brewed in Chicago, instead they are brewed by Anheuser-Busch in upstate New York. So we set our sights on some of their more interesting products that are actually brewed in Illinois.

The first beer we will sample this week is a beer called Sofie, one of the brews in Goose Island’s vintage line. Right from the start, this beer reminded me of champagne. It had a sweet and fruity smell with a very light body and a higher carbonation than most beers. One of the party classified it as “Looks and smells better than it tastes,” and another stated that “It would be great with spicy food.”

Illinois Beer

Goose Island Sofie

This beer, like the rest of the beers in the vintage line, seems to be marketed like a wine. The labels are clean and basic, and all use fonts that implies sophistication. The label for each brew in this series has a name, style and year, prominently displayed. In an era where the mass market beers are focusing on drink-by dates, it is nice to see a different kind of date on the label.

The next beer from the Vintage line that we sampled was the Pere Jacques. This beer was more caramel in color than the Sofie, and also had a sweet caramel smell to it. Tasting wise, this was the least-liked beer of the day, triggering comments like “Not into this” and “Tastes like burnt varnish.” Overall not an enjoyable beer, and it was quickly disposed of for the next sample.

Moving down the line, we opened the Matilda. This beer is brewed with the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces, so right from the start we knew this was going to be different. This beer was quickly pronounced the best of the three so far sampled. It had really interesting character and the use of the Brett was perfectly executed. Just enough to make it unique and interesting.

Illinois Beer

Goose Island Pepe Nero

The final beer in the vintage line for us was the Pepe Nero. Listed on the brewers website as having an aroma of roasted chestnuts, I found no distinguishable smell for this beer, however the flavor was great. 2 out of 4 of the party really enjoyed this beer and were quickly reaching for a second sample.

Prior to the invention of the stainless steel keg, all beer was brewed and shipped in wooden barrels. At that time, the brewers took extensive measures to ensure the barrels were free of any influencing flavors that could leak into the beer. Lately, the craft beer world has been taking barrel brewing in new directions, and trying to leverage the potential residue from the previous contents of the barrel. It is not uncommon to see beer aged in wine barrels, or bourbon barrels, both from varying amounts of time, allowing unique character and flavor to develop.

When I was purchasing the beer for this week, I was talking to the owner of the liquor store about Goose Island. Just as I was about to leave, he asked if I ever had Bourbon County. This is a brew that as of this writing is sitting at number 13 on the Beer Advocate top 250 beers list. I said that I have not, as it is really hard to find. With a wave of his hand, he summoned one of his employees to the back room and out came a single bottle. After paying more than I ever have for 10 oz. of beer, I was heading home with a bottle of Bourbon County Stout, our final sample of the week.

One sip has more flavor than your average case of beer

Illinois Beer

Bourbon County

“Wow, look at the legs!”, was the first comment as this beer was getting poured. Black as tar, with a viscosity of 50 weight motor oil, this beer had all the signs of something unique. The aroma was sweet, dessert sweet. The mouth feel was thick. Not maple syrup thick, but thicker than any other beer of the day, and by far the most interesting beer of the day. Quickly we heard “This needs chocolate,” and a block of 60% dark was chopped up and placed on the table. With that simple addition, the character of this beer quickly changed, and I now understood why this beer is so coveted.

Before the chocolate, this was a top 20ish beer, after the chocolate, a top 5.

In the end, Goose Island did us no wrong. Say what you about about what is or is not a craft beer, this week we sampled 5 different brews that were something special.

Next week, we head south to Alabama.

 

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beer, History

Kentucky: Unbridled Spirit

This week was a big week for Kentucky, and I am not talking about the basketball win earlier in the week. I am talking about the fact that this week marks the 15th week of this little project, and Kentucky is the 15th state of the United States.

Prior to becoming a state, Kentucky was a county of Virginia. After some petitioning by the residents, On June 1st 1792, Kentucky separated from Virginia to become its own state.

When it comes to Kentucky, most people think bourbon, not beer, and for good reason. Bourbon is considered to have its origins in Kentucky. There is also the association of derby’s, elaborate hats and Mint juleps. While bourbon is probably the dominant drink of the state, beer has been brewed in the state almost since its founding, and this week we get to sample two different styles of beer from a Kentucky brewer.

Located in Lexington, the second largest city in Kentucky, is the Alltech Lexington Brewing Company. Founded in 1794, The Lexington Brewing company was once the largest building in the city of Lexington, however it failed to navigate prohibition era successfully, and as a result lost its pre-prohibition era dominance. It appears that the company limped along in some form until 1999 (but I can’t find details), when the company was reestablished by Dr. Pearse Lyons, a man with a deep family relationship to the brewing and distilling industry. Since its rebirth, the Lexington Brewing Company has been working to produce a high quality product while maintaining its Kentucky roots.

Kentucky Craft Beer

Kentucky Brewing Company

The first beer sampled from Kentucky was the Kentucky Ale, a marriage of an English Pale Ale and an Irish Red Ale. One thing I am learning about myself from this project is that I prefer beer styles that have stronger (but not too strong) characteristics. I like the hoppiness of an IPA, the smells that clearly stand out as soon as you pour it in the glass. Because of that, I have been struggling with ales. Not because they are not good, but because they are hard to describe.

This ale looked great in the glass, but there was no distinct smell or flavor that I could latch onto in an attempt to help describe the beer to somebody. It was definitely better that anything you will see mass produced across the U.S., but why you should drop everything and find a bottle of this, I am not capable of providing that information.

If you are a fan of some of the more well known Irish Reds that have been on the market for years now, you will probably love this beer as it does have more character than those. But as I continue on my quest to understand and appreciate the ale style, this beer has not helped me answer any questions quite yet.

During my research on Kentucky, I stumbled upon a new set of terms and vocabulary pertaining to alcohol laws. We have previously mentioned encountering dry counties, but Kentucky takes it to another level. According to this wikipedia page, there are 7 different classifications of a county’s alcohol law status. This is quite detailed for a state that prides itself on being the largest producer of bourbon in the world. In fact they claim to produce 98% of the bourbon in the world, and linking that strong bourbon heritage to beer, the next beer we sampled from Kentucky was a Bourbon Barrel Ale.

Kentucky Craft Beer

Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

Considered their flagship beer, the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, is aged for six weeks in the freshly decanted bourbon barrels, and that is clear right from the opening of the bottle. The first impression you get is bourbon, and it is amazing how the beer picks up the smell and flavor of the bourbon from the barrels. If you are a fan of bourbon, you should try this beer, as it was probably the best bourbon beer I have tried on this project. But I would classify this as a sipping beer, not something you would take to a Super Bowl party.

The benchmark of late for this blog has been the fire pit beer. What beer could you enjoy more than one of while sitting around a fire pit. This beer would be hard to have on my fire pit list. Instead, this is a beer that I would enjoy with a nice meal. Or since I am not a big fan of straight bourbon, I might have this on hand for myself when hanging out with friends that do like their bourbon, straight.

That concludes this week, next week, we move into Tennessee.

 

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beer, History

Georgia: On My Mind

Georgia

In 1733, just 55 years prior to becoming the fourth state, James Edward Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia. In the early days of the colony, Oglethorpe was aware of the amount of work required to build a successful colony. He was also concerned about the potential effect that drunkenness could have on the productivity of the settlers. Drunkenness at the time was considered a result of drinking higher alcohol beverages such as whiskey or rum, so as a deterrent, Oglethorpe offered each new settler 44 gallons of beer in an attempt to steer the settlers away from the “demon rum”. The beer the settlers drank on a daily basis was a type of beer called small beerSmall beer helped colonial families maximize their resources through the reuse of grains, was often used as a substitute for water and due to its low ABV (1-3%), it was consumed throughout the day.  While small beer fell out of popularity in the 19th century, the beer laws of the country seemed to hold onto the idea of lower alcohol beer much longer. It has only been over the past 8-10 years that many states legally allowed higher ABV beer (most beer was restricted to 4-6%). In fact, it wasn’t until 2004, that Georgia increased the legal ABV for beer from 6%. Prior to 2004, most craft beer was illegal in the state, including three of the four beers sampled this week.

Finding beer from Georgia wasn’t all that hard. It was all over in Alabama, and you could even find it on tap at places like Dreamland BBQ. So, during a visit to Mark’s Mart in Selma, AL, I picked up some beer from SweetWater Brewing out of Atlanta. Then, while travelling back home, we made a slight detour off I-81 in Chattanooga to see if we could find some beer from Tennessee. A quick search on Beer Advocate pointed us towards Beverage World in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and this place was a find. As soon as I walked in, I knew I was in a special place. The staff really knew their beer, I mentioned a state, and they went straight to the location on the shelf and I was quickly setup up with beer from South Carolina and North Carolina. They explained that, while they were just a across the Tennessee border, they can’t get any beer to sell from that state (But Whole Foods, in Chattanooga would be the place to get some.) They were so helpful and knowledgeable that I had to ask if they had anything special from Georgia that I must try, and boy they sure did. I left there with some interesting beer for this week and expanded my selection from a single style to five different types of beer from three different breweries.

Georgia Craft Beer

This week’s selection

Beer Number One: Liquid Bliss

Georgia may known for its peaches, but it is also the number one producer of peanuts in the nation. So, it is only fitting that we start this week out on a beer made with peanuts, and chocolate. Brewed as a side project at Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, liquid bliss,

Georgia Craft Beer

Terrapin Liquid Bliss

combines peanuts and chocolate in a porter to create a very unique beer. In the glass, it has the look of a typical porter, or as one taster said: “It looks like motor oil!”. But the smell was totally different, a distinct mix of chocolate and peanuts. I was concerned about the taste. I have had chocolate beer before, such as the Black Chocolate Stout from Brooklyn Brewery, but adding peanuts was taking this to a whole new level, and I was pleasantly surprised. The peanut taste was there, but it wasn’t overpowering. What really stood out was the taste of the chocolate. It was described as “A peanut butter cup”, and “smooth and silky”. While I couldn’t drink too much of this, as it was sweeter than I typically like in a beer, I would rate this one a success.

Beer Number Two: Wake ‘N Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout

The next beer we sampled from Georgia was also from Terrapin. When Terrapin was founded, their goal was to craft beer unlike anything else coming out of the southeast, and this second beer continued with the unique theme set by the liquid bliss. Another stout, the Wake ‘N Bake, brewed with coffee beans from Jittery Joe’s Coffee (there is even a coffee for the beer), this beer packs a punch. An oatmeal stout is brewed with oats and was associated with “nourishment and viewed as healthful”. With a stout, the grains usually lend to a chocolate or coffee flavor. With this beer, the majority of tasters agreed it tasted like cold coffee. Normally, I do not have an issue with cold coffee, but for me, there was something else in the taste, hot peppers, and I found the after taste hard to get over. Overall, 2 out of 4 people sampling this beer loved it.

Beer Number Three and Four: 420 Extra Pale Ale and Festive Ale

The next two brews hail from SweetWater Brewery in Atlanta. An Extra Pale Ale called 420 and a seasonal brew called Festive Ale. The first beer sampled was the 420. Being the only beer this week with an ABV less that 6 (5.4%), the 420 is a typical pale ale, light-copper colored and hoppy. I enjoyed this beer, and it would complement a nice summer day quite well. It didn’t have any specific characteristics that made this standout from other pale ales in my opinion, but it was good. It would be interesting to try it with other pale ales to see where the distinct characteristics stand out. Again, well received among all the tasters. Next was the Festive Ale.

When the chill Sirocco blows
And winter tells a heavy tale
O, give me stout brown ale
– Anonymous, 1656

The Festive Ale is considered a Winter Warmer, a dark beer brewed during the winter months, often with spices, mimicking a past when beer was heated and spiced, and sometimes mixed with strange ingredients such as eggs and even toast. Luckily modern brews winter brews leave the eggs and toast for breakfast, but they still contain unique mixtures of spices. With this beer, the spices were not overpowering, if fact, they were almost non-existent in the taste. This was defiantly a strong, but very enjoyable beer.

Beer Number Five: 17th Anniversary

Georgia Craft Beer

Red Brick – 17th Anniversary

The final beer of the week came from Red Brick Brewing, the oldest operating craft brewery in Georgia. Opened in 1993, as the Atlanta Brewing Company, the company changed their name to Red Brick Brewing in 2010. When the good folks at Beverage World handed me a four pack of 17th Anniversary  they told me it was special (and strong). Aged for months in Jim Beam barrels, this beer is a limited edition brew.

“I rather whiskey than cinnamon in my beer”

Right from the start, the smell of whiskey was strong with this beer. The color was a dark copper color and the beer was clearly unfiltered, with plenty of little floaters. The taste was clearly bourbon, probably a bit too much actually. A few people in the testing love their bourbon, but they were not fans of this beer. Myself, I found the whiskey taste and smell too strong, I prefer something with more hops. “Is there any of that 420 left?”

In the end, the tasting party loved Georgia. The past two weeks, the beer has been getting more palatable, while still staying interesting. Georgia has some great brewers, and with beer names like 420 and Wake and Bake, there is clearly something else going on down there to inspire their creativity.

Next week, we come back to New England with some fun selections from Connecticut.

 

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