Reading Beer making a comeback

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UNLESS YOU happened to live in Berks County 30 or more years ago, Reading Beer might never have crossed your path. But you probably tasted something like it, because it was your basic, low-priced American lager, not unlike the hometown brew in Norristown, Rochester, Allentown or 100 other Rust Belt cities.

Like so many other local brands, it got bought up by a conglomerate before, inevitably, it was put out of its misery.

You know the rest of the story: More and more regional breweries died off; beer choices dwindled; disgusted home brewers began making their own more flavorful styles; the microbrewing industry was born and now, in 2006, they’re making $20 bottles of lager flavored with chocolate and cranberries.

Either we’ve come full circle or one of those new-aged microbreweries – a company called Legacy Beer Co. in, yep, Reading, Pa. – has come up with the sudsiest new idea since the flip-top can.

This month, the company will begin brewing Reading Beer for the first time in its hometown since Gerald Ford was president.

This won’t be a high-priced remake of a classic lager, either. The company will use lower-cost ingredients to produce kegs about the same price as Bud. Initially, it’ll be sold only on draft in taverns around Reading, but if it takes off, there are plans to bottle or can it for wider distribution.

Word of the revival, first reported this week by the Reading Eagle, has the town buzzing. The newspaper and the brewery began getting calls for the beer weeks before the first glass will be poured.

“There’s a big group of people in Reading who really do miss this brand,” said Scott Baver, Legacy’s brewer and co-owner. “You wouldn’t believe the number of bars in this town that are still packed with memorabilia from Reading Beer. Some of these places, you’d think it was the old brewery’s own tasting room.

“People have never let go of Reading Beer.”

The resurrection of the old label points to a peculiar phenomenon in the slick, heavily branded world of 21st-century consumerism. Namely, the urge – even in the face of so many dazzling choices – to savor a dusty, forgotten name.

It happened a few years ago with Pabst Blue Ribbon, a pre-Prohibition lager that nearly disappeared after the owner shut down its Milwaukee brewery. The beer is unremarkable – truly no different from, say, Rolling Rock. Yet it thrives, especially in the tattooed bike-messenger tribe, without an ounce of national advertising.

Similarly, investors have tried to revive New York’s Rheingold Beer, complete with the famous Miss Rheingold.

Christopher B. O’Hara, author of “Great American Beer: 50 Brands that Shaped the 20th Century” (Clarkson Potter, $16.95), said young beer drinkers may be drawn to old-line brands because “there’s something pretty cool about something that doesn’t change much over 150 years.”

“After being socked in the head a million times by the Bud lizards and the Coors half-naked ski bikini team,” O’Hara told me in an e-mail exchange, “they may well unconsciously reach for their dad’s value brand out of instinct – the sheer, gut reaction to embrace something authentic and express their individuality… Even if you never really could stand your old man, there is something mighty comforting in cracking open a can of Rheingold in the garage, just like Dad did.”

Boutique beer backlash

This retro movement is a bit of a challenge for craft brewers whose entire business model is based on the proposition that beer made with 100 percent barley malt and bales of aromatic hops is better than the lower-priced factory stuff. Now they find themselves rejected not because their product is too expensive, but because it’s too trendy.

Baver knows he’s walking a fine line with Reading Beer.

Legacy Brewing is one of those precious micros, producing a handful of excellent brews, including a Belgian-style white beer (Midnight Wit) and a highly hopped red ale with a somewhat lascivious label (Hedonism).

Now he’s going to start making a beer with corn?

Legacy’s not giving up making better beer. “Never in a million years will this take away attention from the beers of Legacy,” Baver said, explaining that a separate company had been established to brew Reading.

But he does acknowledge he’s giving in to a nagging complaint he’s been hearing for years: “Howcum you guys can’t make a ‘regular’ beer that the average person can drink?”

Baver said, “It drives me crazy. You rack your brains and bang your head against the wall, trying to educate [beer drinkers] about good beer. Well, you’re never going to educate them. And the ‘regular’ beer drinker is 90 percent of the market. So why not go after them?

“Look, we’re brewers. For me, I just love making beer and being part of the beer industry. But we’re business people, so why not make a product that covers every end of the spectrum?

“If my customer wants it, what am I, an idiot for not doing it?”

Fair enough. But here’s the challenge: For me, it won’t truly be authentic Reading Beer unless I can buy a case of 16-ounce returnables for $4.99.

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Oktoberfest note: Want a taste of those fall favorites? I’ll be hosting an Oktoberfest tasting at the Blue Horse Tavern & Restaurant (602 Skippack, Blue Bell) from 7-9 tonight. Stop by and share a sip. Info: 215-641-9100.

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