I wonder how many people attending this weekend’s The Book and The Cook event at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have seen the latest Miller beer commercial.
Several hundred beer fans will be spending a Saturday afternoon in the middle of March Madness, sipping a selection of 14 Belgian-style ales during a tutored tasting amid the museum’s Egyptian artifacts. They’ll be sniffing the bouquet of raspberry-flavored lambics, sipping coriander-seasoned saisons from small goblets, jotting down their observations about the mouth-feel of grand crus, and comparing notes on the aftertaste of malty ales made by Trappist monks.
Says the Miller ad: “It’s time for beer . . . to stop acting like wine.”
It’s a strange proclamation from a brew that once called itself the champagne of beers. Even stranger from a company that, despite its blue-collar image, owns one of America’s top craft breweries, Celis of Austin, which ironically produced one of the ales – its world-class Belgian White – that will be featured at this year’s The Book and The Cook event.
Nonetheless, I can understand the attitude of that Miller commercial. For most beer drinkers, March Madness is an occasion for mindlessly slugging down lager in 16-ounce plastic cups. A beer-tasting in a museum sounds like a godawful affair where testosterone-challenged yuppies daintily sip ales, their right pinkie properly extended.
I mentioned the ad campaign during a phone conversation earlier this week with Michael Jackson – the British writer who’s got a thing for beers, not the pop singer with a thing for gloves. He’ll be hosting the museum tastings (which are sold out), probably the most popular event of the weeklong The Book and The Cook affair.
I can hear Jackson shrug his shoulders over the transatlantic cable. “When you’re that big, you’ve got to attack every segment of the market, regardless of the contradictions,” Jackson says.
But Jackson, like others who find themselves defending their beer-drinking passion, is troubled by the underlying message of commercials like this. To him, it’s all part of the dumbing down of beer. It’s a message that tells consumers they shouldn’t care how their brew tastes, that it’s “only” beer and they should be more concerned with the canned Madison Avenue image of their favorite brand.
It’s a message that says the American palate is not sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle wonders, for instance, of lambic. These are specialty ales from a small region of Belgium that are spontaneously fermented with wild, airborne yeast. In my well-thumbed copy of Jackson’s “Beer Companion” (Running Press, Philadelphia), lambics are described as the beer world’s sherry or vermouth. They are so tart that brewers frequently flavor them with fruit juices, like peach (peche), cherries (kreik) or raspberries (framboise).
Are Americans really ready for lambic?
“I don’t think Americans have different kinds of taste buds, if that’s what you mean,” Jackson says.
So I gave it a shot on the eve of the NCAA basketball championships. While three buddies and I filled out office-pool brackets, we shared a large Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene lambic – a $9 bottle I grabbed at the Foodery (10th and Pine streets). Sour and bubbly like champagne, the brew vanished quickly. No one – not even the Temple Owls fan – complained that it tasted like wine . . .
One of the happy synergies of the craft beer renaissance is the willingness of American brewers to experiment with different, challenging styles. That’s especially evident at the weekend museum beer tasting in which seven traditional Belgians will be matched with seven American-made Belgian-style ales.
Notwithstanding Celis (which is actually brewed by Belgian expatriate Pierre Celis), this is a pretty big leap for most American brewers.
Yards of Manayunk, for example, has an exceptionally solid reputation as a British-style ale producer. But Tom Kehoe and partner Jon Bovit have come up with their own Saison, a tart brew that – thanks to the use of Belgian yeast – carries a mild plum taste. A few kegs of the brew are on tap in local pubs.
Eric Savage of Dock Street Brewery and Restaurant (2 Logan Square), who will try almost anything, has come up with a ruby-colored Grand Cru that he aged 10 weeks in oak barrels from Chadds Ford winery. “I have tried to be 100 percent authentic, including using Belgian malts and yeast,” Savage says. “I even changed the mineral content of the water to get as close as possible to the Belgian style.”
At Samuel Adams Brewhouse (1516 Sansom St.), William Reed is chiming in with a Brewhouse Tart Ale that he aged with oak chips. Fermenting his brew with Belgian yeast and lactic culture gave it a fruity essence.