TWO AUTHORS dominate the beer section of my bookshelf:the late-British newspaperman Michael Jackson, and Randy Mosher, the Chicago-based author whose Radical Brewing and Tasting Beer are bibles for any beer enthusiast.
When Mosher stopped in town last week with his latest, Beer for All Seasons (Storey), I couldn’t pass up a chance to sit down for a couple of beers.
Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation.
Q: Your latest book looks at the tradition of seasonal beers. Where did they originate?
A: Ultimately, beer is an agricultural product, so you’re locked into seasonality in a number of different ways, including when you have grain and hops available for brewing. For example, you go back two or three hundred years and you find that the best-quality, highly hopped beers were the old October beers that eventually morphed into India pale ales. Those were brewed in October because you had fresh malt and fresh hops, and you could make the absolute best beer.
Q: That’s the long view of seasonals. Why do we have so many seasonals today?
A: One thing we’ve seen in craft beer is that people like a change. I think a lot of it is due to the great popularity of pumpkin beers, which you’d have to credit to Bill Owens [the former brewer responsible for Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, the first commercial pumpkin success]. He was the guy who really created that style in a lot of ways, in terms of popular taste.
Q: I think you’ve got to credit Sam Adams, too, because they came up with the idea of releasing seasonals as a means of doubling up their tap handles.
A: That’s been a great strategy for them.
Q: I mean, they created an entire summer-beer style that really doesn’t have any kind of traditional underpinnings, other than it’s lighter-bodied.
A: I like that people are making beers that are not well-defined as to what the style is supposed to be. I had a summer beer from Manayunk Brewing at lunch today. It was like half a Berliner Weisse mixed with a Helles. It was a nice blond beer with a little bit of lactic, a nice amount of sourness, and that was their summer beer. And it was perfect.
Q: Back to pumpkin beer: How do you account for its popularity?
A: I think part of it is due to the fact that Halloween is by far the most popular holiday – it’s surpassed even Christmas. People just love that time of the year, and pumpkins are just iconic for the season.
Those amber-colored beers with a hint of spice just taste great in the fall. You know, it goes well with the burning leaves and the cooler weather, and I think that, when they’re done right, they can be quite delicious. It’s a way of embracing the season.
Q: I’ve always wondered, if pumpkin beer is so popular, how come nobody’s come out with a year-round pumpkin beer?
A: I think it’s just one of those beer-of-the-moment type of things. I would suspect you get a very high rate of people who buy just one or two a year, and that’s it.
Q: Well that’s always my advice: Don’t buy a whole case of it unless you’ve got 23 close friends you want to share it with. It’s such a strongly flavored beer, and it’s not hard to get tired of it.
A: It’s really tough for brewers – they’re punished for being subtle in many respects. People would rather have boldness than have to fish around for subtlety. I’m not all that happy about that, as someone who likes subtle beers and who likes to use ingredients in ways where it’s not going to hit you over the head.
Q: But didn’t craft beer sort of set itself up for that? It was always marketed as a boldly flavored alternative to mainstream Budmillercoors, which are subtle beers.
A: Yeah, but I think it’s also our American character. I mean, look at our music, look at our cars, look at our hamburgers. Everything we do, we do to excess. We pick one attribute and run with it.
Q: Which would explain the appeal of super hoppy beers.
A: Totally. We picked that one attribute and just ran with it.