It started with this article in Boston Magazine about Jim Koch. Apparently the founder of Sam Adams had been sounding off in a most aggressive manner about how the craft beer movement had abandoned his product. It wasn’t long till a number of editorial responses had been penned and discussions had taken over a number of Facebook threads. Of the ones I read all of them, even those who professed respect for his contributions to craft beer, were critical of his manner and rightfully so.
But all of this discussion got me thinking about those beers that helped to open our eyes to the wonderful reality of good beer. You know what I mean, the beer that was your gateway. The one that first got you thinking, “Man, I’ve never had a beer that tastes like this before!”
For me there were several. In the late 80’s there weren’t many options and at college our go to beer of choice at Delta Phi was Old Milwaukee. But I can still remember the first time I tried Bass Ale. It had so much more flavor plus it was imported so it must be good. Trying Guinness was a similar experience. But for me the real eye opener was Saranac, the newly released craft line from the F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica, NY. The initial releases of Pale Ale, Black and Tan and Adirondack Lager were all instrumental in helping me understand that there was so much more to beer than the “Old Swill” we guzzled by the pitcher-full in the frat house basement.
Given that I was in need for a topic for our next Franklin Society (church beer club) meeting, the timing could not have been better. After surveying our members I got a number of suggestions from their own experience and allowed me to assemble an extensive line-up of 16 different “gateway” beers.
In alpha order these were as follows: Bass, Blue Moon, Guinness, Fuller’s ESB, Hoegaarden, Linderman’s Framboise, Monk’s Flemish Red, Newcastle Brown Ale, Pilsner Urquell, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, Saranac Pale Ale, Shiner Bock, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Yards ESA, Yeungling Black and Tan and of course Sam Adams Boston Lager.
The first thing that struck us about this list was how many of them were imports. Of course given the reality of the beer scene in the 80’s and early 90’s this is actually not too much of a surprise. In order for a beer to be considered good it had to be imported.
But perhaps more importantly was the fact most of us really didn’t drink these beers anymore at all. That is of course Jim Koch’s point- namely that many good beers have been abandoned either because they have become ubiquitous or because they have become passé in the ever constant quest for the new, novel and better.
But is that fair? Were we passing up good beers simply because we had come to take them for granted? The truth is both yes and no. .
Some beers like Shiner and Newcastle were simply terrible. Newcastle was so bad that 13 of us barely drank more than one bottle of it. Others, like Hogaarden, Bass and Saranac Pale may have been great in their day but now would be hardly worth seeking out as many better alternatives exist at the same (or in the case of Bass) lower price points. Then there were those worthy beers like Sam Smith’s., Yards and Sierra that many of us still drank on occasion. For me personally the big surprise of the evening was Yeungling Black and Tan which was surprisingly good especially at the price.
Overall, many of them seemed quite subdued in terms of flavor. You can blame the profusion of hop bomb IPA’s and bold IRS’s if you like but I also think that while many of these beers were eye-openingly bold in their day, they now seem pale and timid. And I say this as someone who loves good session beers.
It is worth noting that as our beer tastings go it was the weakest lineup ever. Yet it was also one of the most engaging and fun as we reminisced and shared our stories of what got us into craft beer in the first place. As one member said, “Thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane. May we never do it again.”
But what about Boston Lager? Reviews were mixed. Several couldn’t stand it. Most thought it was not bad but contrary to Jim’s assertion, it did not convince anyone to the point that they would seek it out the next time their bought beer. That doesn’t make it a bad beer. It just means it has lost its hold over most craft beer drinkers. I firmly believe that it will remain a gateway that leads people out of the purgatory of mass produced crap into a larger universe of flavor, quality and possibility. And for that alone it is worthy of our respect even its creator’s behavior is not.