Did I mention the Maureen Ogle book Ambitious Brew here? Don’t remember if I just did that at Facebook or not. Anyway, I finished it a few weeks ago and thought it was excellent. Definitely worth reading if you’re interested in the history of American beer. Frankly, I never had much of a problem with the lightness of American lagers and am not particularly interested in slamming them. But I came across this quote a while ago and thought it was interesting:
Perhaps the difference stemmed from nothing more than scarcity and abundance: German beer culture was born and raised in a place that was overcrowded and where food was often in short supply. For centuries, Germans and other Europeans had prized beer as food—liquid bread. But the American experience relegated that idea to antiquity’s dustbin. The United States was the land of liberty, high crop yields, and protein-rich diets. No one need drink beer for food. No surprise, then, that Americans preferred a beer that sat light on the stomach, a beer more suited to the American way of life. John E. Siebel, the science editor for one of the first brewing trade journals, Western Brewer , and founder of the first American brewing school, understood this point. The old-world crowd would always prefer the “nourishing qualities” of full-bodied Bavarian lager, he reminded his readers, but Americans drank in order “to pass time pleasantly in jovial society.” They disdained old-world lager as too heavy, too filling, and entirely too brown, and demanded instead a light sipping beer, one that fell somewhere between “light wine and the heavy Bavarian lager.”
Brewers who planned to stay in business had to adjust to the times and the place. Thus the great wave of experimentation with beer styles. Improvement-minded inventors obtained patents on new methods of brewing with corn and other cereals in hopes of creating a lager that allowed brewers to cope with chronic shortages of grain and satisfy the tastes of non-German Americans. But in the early 1870s, the nation’s brewers encountered the answer to both problems: Bohemian lager, a light-bodied, low-alcohol, lemon-colored, translucent brew. On the tongue, it tasted and felt as different from Bavarian lager as lager did from English ale. Many brewers recognized that this style of beer would appeal to an American audience.
It’s a strikingly evolutionary explanation IMO. Like so many objects, the history is complicated and a lot of different selective factors went into the fixing of a suite of traits — in this case, light-bodied lagers — into a particular population. Part of the reason US brewers used adjuncts like corn and rice in their brewing was because the barley they had to work with packed more protein than the European varieties and thus the adjunct grain added carbohydrates to the brewing process, creating a less cloudy and cutting down on the particulates. In a lot of cases, that actually made the product more expensive to produce. Plus there was a history of alcohol consumption that was wildly different than in Europe, a much greater degree of industrialization earlier, and entrepreneurs who could experiment with consistency and quality from batch to batch. We often forget that back in the mid-late 19th century having a pure, consistent, and safe product wasn’t really the norm.
Anyway, read the book, it’s a good survey.