Friday, 18 September 2009

Beer O’Clock: American beer is like making love in a canoe

Your (ir)regular beer correspondent Neil Miller cross-posts from Wellington’s famous Malthouse Bar:

Any mention of the United States these days polarises people.  It does not seem to matter whether the discussion relates to foreign policy, hip-hop music or beer.   If you put the word “American” in front of a topic, it suddenly becomes controversial.

Me, I love America.  It’s big, it’s fun and it’s the land of the free.  As Laurence J Peter once said, “America is a country that doesn’t know where it is going but is determined to set a speed record getting there.”  Liking America is not the same as liking all Americans.  I find Oprah Winfrey more annoying than Steve Urkel and there are reasons why Canadians go to such great lengths to avoid being mistaken for southern neighbours when travelling overseas.

Talk of American travellers reminds me of an epic visit to ‘The Shakespeare’ some years ago.  Here is what I wrote at the time:

“I share the dining room with four Americans who have that amazing ability to make it sound like there are a dozen of them all talking at once through toy megaphones.  The four of them drinking OJ somehow manage to be louder than the six Canadians seriously drinking beer at the bar the night before.  One of the girls was actually called Britney and one of the guys felt it was acceptable to use ‘y’all’ a lot in everyday conversation.”

American beers have an appalling reputation internationally based on the fact that 80% of them are, in fact, nonsense on stilts.  This was certainly the reputation that Monty Python was lampooning in the line which now serves as the title of this blog post. However, that same accusation of mainstream mediocrity can be levelled at a number of countries around the world.  Often a nation’s most popular or most famous beer is hardly their best offering.  Both those generalisations apply fully to New Zealand.

I have to confess that I did try Bud Light during my stay in America.  Somewhat reluctantly, I had a taster glass of the stuff at my hotel.  Robert the Rather Excellent (Malthouse) Barman commented that this was the first time he had ever poured a tasting glass of Bud Light.  It had a faint, distant nose of apple, a watery thin body, hints of apple juice and virtually no bitterness at the end.  It was the very epitome of insipid. 

Robert agreed with every word of my tasting notes and explained that was precisely why he liked Bud Light so much.  Deep down, we all have friends like Robert.

If you move beyond the big three American breweries (Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors Brewing Company and Pabst Brewing Company), American regional, craft and micro-breweries are amongst the best and most innovative at the world. 

sierra-nevada-pale-ale1 One of the first examples of American brewing prowess to force me to re-examine my prejudices was the classic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%) from the pioneering microbrewery in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, west of the Rockies.  Fragrant, luscious, bursting with fruit and brimming with bitterness, after one sip I could never honestly say all American beer was awful again.

It is still a special beer and is once again available at the Malthouse (and at other special places around New Zealand).  Joining it for the first time are a number of its Sierra Nevada stablemates including the decadent Stout, spritzy Summerfest and the wholly hoptastic Torpedo IPA. This big 7% beer uses whole cones of Magnum, Crystal and Citra hops for added intensity.

As for the punch line to the canoe joke, well, if you don’t know you will just have to look it up.  This is a family blog after all (although you wouldn’t know it sometimes).  The line is funny, but fortunately it’s not universally true about American beer any more.



Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand 
Beer and Brewer Magazine


  1. "Me, I love America. It’s big, it’s fun and it’s the land of the free."

    How dare that post be allowed to stand. To PC-PC, that comment is false. The place is full of born again god botherers all hung up on abortion.

  2. I admit I have been giving American beer a LOT of grief. However after researching the amount of excellent microbreweries and innovation going on their I will eat my words.

    Sure they have their terrible commercial beers, but as you said, so does NZ. Kiwis need to get off their high horses about the "merits" of Steinlager, it isn't good - it's shite.

  3. A minor correction. The Sierra Nevada range is distinct and west of the Rockies. Probably the closest bit of the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada is the Wasatch range just east of Salt Lake City, which is the Western edge of the Rockies. A straight line from Salt Lake City, Utah to Chico, California (home of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company) is some 529 miles.

  4. A good rule of thumb in the US is to drink Ale not Beer.

    The alcohol content of beer is limited by law and if you exceed it you have to call it Ale.

    So if you are faced with either the major beers and some unknown names choose one of the Ales.

  5. Tom Hunter said...
    Ah Ha! Sierra Nevada Pale Ale - Yes.

    When I first went to the US in the mid-80's the beer was everything I had been led to beleive. Swanning up to a bar to be presented with winning delights of "Miller, Miller Light, Bud, Bud Light,....". What a shocker.

    But it seemed to turn around in just four years. I was back to stay in 1991 and I could not believe the turnaround. As a result I had a huge range of micro-brewery beers at my wedding in Chicago and my various NZ friends simply could not believe that the US could produce that quality.

    For whatever reason my favourite was Cellis Pale Ale out of Austin, Texas

  6. Anonymous: That's Pierre Celis too. He of Hoegaarden fame. Sold up, and moved to Texas where he brewed almost the same beer as Celis White, and a range of other excellent beers. He's back in Belgium now, consulting and brewing fantastic stuff there again.

    Owen: Are you sure about that? Is that a federal law, or some random state? I know there are some weird state laws. North Carolina, for example, isn't allowed to sell any beer (be it an ale or a lager) over 6%, though I think the "pop the cap" campaign there may have recently overturned this insanity. It's nutty because you can happily by a 13% abv bottle of wine at the same store which can only sell a 5% beer.

  7. As American we should buy and like beer that are made in America. but i think US is just have some restrictions. it should have allowed other countries to compete with US brands then we will show we like US products. for example if US allow the sale of cuban cigars in the country then we will show that we like the US cigars by buying only US brands.


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