The Experts: Garrett Oliver on Mass Market American Beer

In my pre-Thanksgiving post, I mentioned Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table. If I had a book this good for every subject I was interested in, I’d be a very happy and informed man.

The Brewmaster's Table

The subtitle of the book is “Discovering the the pleasures of real beer with real food,” and Oliver explains that it was originally intended as a cookbook with recipes and beer pairings. Fortunately, it’s much more. The first 50 pages explain in simple terms how beer is made. The next 200 go into some of the most important brewing traditions: Lambic beer, wheat beer, British ale, Belgian ale, Czech-German lager, and finally the American craft beer revolution.

It’s in the lager chapter, learning about pilsner that I found a hilarious take down of the worst in American beer. Most of the beer world falls into two basic categories: ales and lagers. That distinction is based on the two species of yeast brewers use (each of which has myriad strains), and the necessity of lager’s longer, cooler fermentation process. Pilsner is a type of lager, and in fact the most popular style of beer in the world: it includes everything from Budweiser to Heineken, Stella Artois to Singha.

Pilsners are generally clear and amber with a hoppy bitterness and some bready maltyness. They’re quite flavorful. But not all are like that. Here’s Oliver:

[From its origins in Pilsen], it’s a long depressing slide to mass-market American pilsner, a style that includes the world’s best-selling brands. Many of these beers are marvels of technology and quality control that, combined with successful mass marketing, have allowed big American brewers to make beer with almost no taste at all. This is not an easy feat–yeast likes to make flavors when it ferments wort. Technology worthy of a nuclear power installation is needed to prevent anything pleasant from happening. These beers are hollowed out by the heavy use of virtually flavorless corn and rice. Gone are the bready all-malt flavor, the sharp fragrant hops, and the smoothness achieved through months of aging. In their place, American mass-market pilsner presents a watery beer that is quickly produced out of a half-malt mash, with virtually no hops at all. Some big American brewers actually don’t use hops but stoop to all manner of chemically altered hop extracts. The beer is then filtered to within an inch of its already pallid life.

The result is essentially alcoholic seltzer water with a thin head. It bears the same relationship to genuine pilsner that mass-market white bread does to a warm loaf of Italian ciabatta–that is to say, virtually none. Do you bake bread at home? Try to make a loaf of Wonder Bread. Just try. Believe me, you can’t do it. No home baker can. You’d need a laboratory and millions of dollars of equipment to achieve such a remarkably bland creation. American mass-market beer is exactly the same thing. It’s undead.

If you’re new to real beer, or if you’d like to explore beer’s potential and history, this is a perfect book. It’s very engaging and opinionated and it will make you want to raid your local bottle shop for every kind of beer available. It’ll also make you want to eat. Oliver recommends trying a good pilsner with Indian, Thai or Mexican food: “With spicy dishes, its knifelike bitterness cuts right through the spices and finds the heart of the dish. The sweetness of the malt marries into the dish and helps cool the fire while the carbonation physically lifts the hot oils away from the palate.” Worth a try.

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