Category: Beer Reviews

Molto Birra


Italian beer can be great, but not always. We tried a lot of bottles when I was working on this article, and they were all interesting, and expensive, but we found a few duds. Some had gone a little sour. Some were old. Inconsistency is expected with such a small industry. The biggest Italian craft brewery, Baladin, is 1/15th the size of Dogfish Head, and Dogfish Head isn’t even that big.

But beer is booming there — Italy had 65 breweries in 2000. Today there are 279. That’s not as explosive as the biggest spike in American craft breweries (200 opened between 1993 and 1994) but it’s something. Both booms produced some sub-par beer, but the difference with Italy is range. A flooded market forced American craft brewers to specialize; Italian brewers are making weird stuff right out of the gate.

I asked Sam Calagione what it was like collaborating at the new Eataly brewery with Teo and Leo, the brewers at Baladin and Birra del Borgo, guys who brew with stuff like kamut, myrrh, and ginger.

“We picked fresh thyme in the hills behind Leo’s brewery, threw it in the brew kettle. I put a jalopy brewery in my truck and drove up to Boston, met the guys at a nondescript warehouse, and fired up some test batches. It all happened in person, over pasta and good beer. Teo doesn’t even use email.”

Leo does. He wrote to me that brewing with Sam went like this: “When I was brewing with Sam I was telling to Sam the idea and Sam went crazy for that!” That’s about how it works in our house, too.

Bock Story

Prohibition killed the bock. Bocks are rich, grainy, and worst of all, German. When breweries got running again 78 years ago today, they were making beer for drinkers used to Bevo, Vivo, and watery gin. The target market would not have appreciated a beer named after a goat.

A very few breweries resurrected it successfully. Shiner’s bock — brought to Texas by way of Cairo by a German brewer named Kosmos — is so popular today that Anheuser-Busch and Michelob are chasing its fame with their own versions. (Big fans of Rahr’s Bucking Bock, we were tricked into getting A-B’s ZiegenBock by a bartender bragging that it was “only available in Texas.” He didn’t tell us tourists that it’s brewed by Pabst.)

But for the most part, if a brewery made a bock — and most didn’t — they just poured a little caramel coloring in their regular amber ale. When craft breweries started bringing back forgotten styles like brown ales and wheat beers, they passed by the bock. Anchor’s Fritz Maytag vowed never to make one. “He said bocks were what breweries made when they cleaned off their floors once a year,” our friend and Anchor brewer Mark Carpenter said.

A hop grower friend of Fritz’s threw a bock party every spring in honor of his vines’ first sprouts. The beer he served was all imported — there were no American bocks worth drinking. When he died, Fritz brewed his first bock in his honor, and today it’s one of the best around.

Side note: That grower was John Segal. We met his son, John Segal, Jr., who took over the ranch, at Lagunitas a few weeks ago. He was wearing the family belt buckle: custom-made sterling silver emblazoned with two hop cones.

…But Is It Green?

In honor of St. Patrick, some Guinness rumors we uncovered in our research:

It’s brewed with beef bouillon. It used to be brewed with rats (these have been replaced by beef bouillon). It’s mixed with old, stale beer. Guinness brewers were some of the first to practice sparging, or rinsing their grains to extract more fermentable sugars. Guinness brewers used to power parts of the brewery with a steam engine that ran on old beer. Guinness tastes better in Ireland. (This last rumor was “confirmed” by “researchers” in the Journal of Food Science this month.)

Break free of your shamrocked chains! Today, drink American: rat-free, and obviously more delicious here.

See my picks of the best American dry(ish) stouts in the Wall Street Journal: North Coast Old No. 38, Avery Out of Bounds, Anderson Valley Barney Flats.

Back in Brown

They say Texan homebrewers invented brown ale. (At least, the modern version.) Knowing their reputation, we don’t doubt it. It’s the hardest style to make, in our opinion — not too sweet, not too dry, not too roasted… It needs an experienced hand.

Makes sense too that the folks at Anchor perfected it.

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