A Speech on Beer in Milwaukee in 1972

If industrial brewing in North America can be viewed as a parabola, 1972 is a perfect year to describe its vertex. In that year, a fine short article was written as the basis of a presentation given at a conference of milk products experts in Milwaukee. The author and speaker was Donald G. Berger of Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company in Milwaukee. He addressed the International Association of Milk, Food, and Environmental Sanitarians. The article was published in its journal, the Journal of Milk Food Technology, you can read it here.

Rarely have I read an article this length that combines so well essential beer history, explanation of beer and brewing ingredients (except hops, but see below), and advances since the 1800s in brewing sanitation, chemistry, and bacteriology.

The only gap I’d identify is an omission to discuss hops in any detail, but no doubt he had to pick and choose within the scope of the presentation.

1972 is of course at a point of sharply rising consolidation in the brewing industry. There were no craft breweries with the quasi-exception of tiny Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Almost all beer was what is now called the American Adjunct Lager style; ale and porter had practically vanished. There was no wheat beer, no IPA except Ballantine’s, a tiny seller, no flavoured beers, and certainly no sours except failures in the brewhouse to discard.

Berger explained the motive force behind this environment (the emphasis is mine):

The industry trend during the past 20 years has been toward the production of a light beer; see Table 2. The definition for “light” is less satiating, less color, and mild flavor. Although individuals have their own definitions for flavor, we must agree that beer is no longer a robust, hearty, strong-flavored beverage. Most American beer is now refreshing and pleasant tasting. To achieve this change, brewers have gradually reduced the specific gravity of the wort using new varieties of malting barley and by varying the malt/adjunct ratio. Hop flavor has also been reduced. The traditional method of hops utilization was the addition of dried hop flowers or cones to the boiling wort in the kettle. Hop extracts are now in common use.

Reading between the lines, I think Berger had a soft spot for the robust, hearty, strong-flavoured beers of an earlier time – beers of course brought back by the craft brewing movement starting just a few years later.At the same time, he points out that such beers were more easily able to hide faults from poor sanitation in the brewery, use of wooden vessels, multi-strain yeasts – the old way of brewing advances in brewing science had largely rendered void. Many of the brewing advances described are still used today such as hop extracts, use of papain to eliminate protein haze, and certain methods of filtration.

Berger seemed committed, or resigned at any rate, to the dominance of the light beer style, explaining that technically beer was cleaner and better than it ever was. He states a wisdom I have heard countless times from people in the brewing business, something I thought had arisen only after craft beer started:

The darker, strong flavored beers of the past tended to mask nuances of flavor caused by wooden vessels, oxidation, process variations, etc. This masking effect has now been removed and flavors contributed by very low levels of alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, mercaptans, phenols, fusel oils, etc. are discernible to the taste.

As this statement was made in 1972, the idea must have been lore by then in the brewing business, it perhaps arose in the 1930s when the industry started up again and brewing science was significantly ahead of the pre-Prohibition era.

Of course, there is no contradiction between brewing rich-tasting beers and technically clean beers.

Lightness was the post-war mantra and came first – not technical brewing mastery. Craft brewing reversed the emphasis at least in the early decades of the industry, in part under the influence of Michael Jackson who lyricised the Jules Verne-looking plants of old U.K., Belgian, Czech, and French breweries.

Today, most brewers probably agree that a high degree of brewing and packaging sanitation goes with product integrity hand in hand, regardless that is of the style produced.

By the mid-1980s, only a dozen years after Don Berger spoke, beers of the type he considered of the distant past had returned. He must have been amazed to see it happen…

The presentation is unusually “vernacular” in the sense of being largely free from the daunting technical and mathematical intricacy of modern brewing science. The reason is almost certainly not that Berger was a “practical” brewer – the article gives every indication he was a highly-educated production specialist. Rather, he was speaking to professionals in another field of food science, hence probably designing a presentation that was clear to intelligent people not familiar with brewing.

His Table 2 is of particular interest. Sadly, the bitterness units in the first column are not listed as that measure, for IBUs that is, did not exist then. But his article leaves little doubt beer had become less bitter in the interval. Today, Budweiser has about 8 bitterness units – half even of the 1972 average. As Bud was a premium beer then, there is reason to think its IBUs were even higher than 15. (So when people, like me, tell you Bud was better then, there is a logic to it).

His figure of 62% attenuation puzzled me initially and his other numbers don’t work with it, but then I realized that number is real attenuation. The apparent number was 78%, higher than c. 1950. Beer was getting dryer, in other words.

Perhaps due to the de-emphasis in his time on hops, Berger doesn’t discuss them except to note the trend away from hop flowers and cones. He focuses more on malting barley and continual improvement in its types. There is no discussion of barley malt adjuncts except to imply that use of adjuncts such as corn and rice had risen. In consequence, beer was toning down in flavour – again not something one would want to focus on unduly in that context.

Speaking as he was to a group of dairy products professionals, it would be the equivalent of stating that America’s surviving dairies had decided to market a 1% milk as the new standard (which has kind of happened, when you come to think of it!).

I think Berger was one of the real beer people then, real not just in mastering the technical innovations and keeping on top of it, but in appreciating beer’s history and the classic tastes that had largely been erased by his time.

I’d guess when Don Berger had his first taste of Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale a smile came to his face.

Note re image: the vintage Schlitz beer advertisement above was sourced from Pinterest, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Innis & Gunn The Original Barrel Aged

My post yesterday previewed Innis & Gunn’s Blood Red Sky, a strongish red beer using the company’s new Barrel Aged system which puts the barrel in the beer as it puts it, and discussed the new system.

The revamp applies to Innis & Gunn The Original as well, and I was provided, without cost, I mean, a can and bottle each to preview as well. Original comes in both formats.

The beer retains the same medium-gold colour as before, and the same maltiness and non-aromatic but evident bittering. But the oak flavour is better, cleaner and more natural-tasting to my mind.

I’m not sure the typical drinker would notice, but as someone closely attuned to the beer palate I feel I see a difference and it’s for the better.

Generally I drink almost any beer now at the lightest chill possible and I tried the Original both that way and cold. I actually preferred the latter, the maltiness seemed to come out more.

The beer retains its 6.6% ABV, not weak by any means. Maybe draft Original features a lower abv, I’ll check the next time I see it here. Anyway I’ve never been shy to pour in a few ounces of sparkling water to knock down the abv, I wouldn’t do it for the first beer but I would for the second, as in general I find 5%, or between five and six percent abv, an ideal strength for beer.

The company states in the website that the barrel pieces are toasted to different levels. I think probably a deeper toast is used for Blood Red Sky than Original. The BRS has a lightly smoky aroma and undertone in the beer, whereas in Original the wood notes seem milder. I don’t think the type of wood taste in BRS would suit Original, though. There is also the factor that Original uses bourbon barrel wood and rum barrel wood was used for BRS.

I’ve often said that new breweries usually get better over time, refining their recipes and just getting better at the technical job of producing consistent, high-quality beer. Innovation and change are the key here, especially in today’s fast-moving environment.

In the pre-craft era producers often said little or nothing about their products. Today, it’s different as consumers are more engaged. Companies see that consumers want information and most, at least in the craft space, provide it today.

I&G are right to do it especially here as the results redound to the quality of the products, IMO.



Innis & Gunn Blood Red Sky

I was recently provided the opportunity to preview the new Blood Red Sky, a barrel-aged, 6.8% ABV “red beer”. This will replace the current standard rum-finish product.

The use of oak has evolved at I&G. Its first run some 15 years ago, the Original that launched the line, was stored in oak barrels. Famously the containers were intended for use to finish Scotch whisky. The beer was simply part of the processing, not intended for commercial release.

It turned out people liked the beer too and Innis & Gunn Original, and many extensions to the line, followed.

Producing beer on any decent scale in oak containers obviously became an issue in the last dozen years since barrels of any kind (new, used, etc.) now come at a premium. This is due to high demands for barrels to age whisky, wine, and some beer and cider.

So I&G turned to oak chip aging to supplement (by blending) the original process. The original process is also still used 100% for some special releases. I & G has now has introduced its “Barrel Aged” process to replace the chips. Barrels that held say bourbon or rum, are broken into pieces, toasted and the flavour imparted by coursing the beer through sacks holding the barrel pieces.

A description of Blood Red Sky, and note on the new barrel-aging process, are set out at the company’s site here.  The company refers to it as putting the barrel into the beer.

Some may consider this isn’t really barrel-aging, an issue I don’t tarry on as first, any interested consumer today can find out what the company is actually doing, the website makes it all clear. Second, real barrels are used, albeit unconventionally. Oak chips generally are made from oak planking of some kind, toasted or treated in some way but not sourced from a barrel.

(When barrels are broken down to staves and then re-formed into a barrel, often combining staves from as many barrels, that is considered a barrel; so why not this other way?).

I’ll say straight off that this is the best use of oak by the company since inception. I’ve always said that use of barrels in the usual way, especially of North American oak, to hold beer for any length of time seems to impart an oxidation note. Just as it does for wine, or whisky. Some people like that for beer, which is fine, but it’s a taste that can be off-putting when pronounced. The effect for whisky and wine is different somehow; perhaps because of their alcoholic strength or simply that they are different drinks.

With the new I&G barrelling approach, I find the oak taste more subtle and without the oxidative note that accompanies much conventional barrel-aged beer. A strong beer can get away with it if aging is not prolonged and the beer is made right – high hopping helps.  But for anything in the mid-range of ABV certainly, this new way to flavour the beer with the barrel seems ideal. I don’t know if the pieces of barrel have residual oxygen, but in any case this new red beer has no oxidation notes I can detect.

The beer has a nice body and good malty flavour, with good hopping too. Nor is there any strong vanilla or coconut taste, perhaps due to the rum barrel origin, I’m not sure.

It’s an excellent taste and nice to see in a red beer iteration. The colour is very attractive and there aren’t that many beers that offer the red hue really (versus, amber, brown, dark gold). Broadly I’d call it an Irish red ale, a style somewhat unclear in its origins but part of the modern beer lexicon undoubtedly.

A beer to try certainly when generally available here and I believe most beer fans will like it not excluding the hard core crafterati.



India Pale Ale: Icon Sprung From Invoice

  1. A Transformation by Circumstance and History

Dr. Alan Pryor, who holds a M.Phil. and Ph.D. from University of Essex in Colchester, U.K., has published numerous papers in recent years on porter and India Pale Ale history. A number have appeared in the journal Brewery History. His work is compelling with real insights and some novel information.

In his 2009 paper, “Indian Pale Ale: an Icon of Empire” the following appears:

… Indian pale ale followed the trade routes of the growing British Empire, a reassuring symbol of the mother country in remote areas of foreign lands, gaining a brand identity that would be envied even today. The use of the Anglo-Saxon‘ale’ united the ancient tradition of Britain with the unfamiliarity of India, encapsulating the concept of metropole and colony in a single phrase. The development of brand names allowed devotees of a particular product to attach iconic status to their particular preference, whether it be from Hodgson, Allsopp or Bass. In Britain,the idea of empire could now be ‘packaged’ into products where the strange and exotic had been tamed, where India could be experienced with the consumption of a curry, pilau rice and a bottle of IPA.

This is a key insight – that a term, India Pale Ale or East India Pale Ale acquired a resonance beyond the original, prosaic trade signification.

These terms were not initially devised for marketing or romantic appeal. They were descriptive, commercial formulations. Formulations that helped traders and consumers understand that the beer in question was a type suitable for India, sent of course by sailing ship then. Before pasteurization and mechanical cooling, beer was famously fragile. Even strong beer, and well-hopped beer, could go downhill fast under stresses of climatic change and disruptive transport.

In the 1850 Hodgson’s ad I discussed recently, see here, the brewery explained the special quality that made its beer different: more “body” and a special fermentation treatment. This can only mean it was made relatively strong and fermented at the brewery as low as practicable to remove sugars that might become vinegar by uncontrolled further fermentation(s). It is possible too that “body” connoted the idea to maximize, e.g. through mashing temperature, dextrin content. This would increase the available starches for degradation by secondary yeasts (Brettanomyces), favouring yet more alcohol and special flavours at destination.

Of course too, as Dr. Pryor notes, Hodgson’s IPA was extra-hopped, a factor not mentioned in the 1850 ad but understood by most people then having to do with beer internationally.

For drinkers in India in the heyday of IPA, 1780-1880, the beer type and its name would have remained utilitarian. No additional romance was needed, they got enough merely by living and working in the sub-Continent. India Pale Ale or IPA was an English or other U.K. beer they could rely on locally as efficacious, no more.

But from about 1850 in the U.K. although starting earlier, to ex-Raj soldiers and administrators now retired or on re-assigment, and finally to others, these terms acquired a deeper connotation, the one noted by Pryor. This was an accident, although later by evocative labels and advertising the producers took advantage of it.

The story was similar for, say, a dish like kedgeree, based on the Indian rice dish kichiri. The bits of smoked haddock were a U.K. flourish, so the dish offered something familiar and yet different: exotic. The same thing for curries, as most were based on lamb and beef, familiar to the Briton. That beef was proscribed to most of India, and meat of any kind a luxury to most native Indians.

And so Bass, and the other pale ale brewers who superseded Hodgson, benefitted from a new association, at home. This was reinforced by the reports of travellers that Bass Pale Ale, and often Allsopp’s or Salt’s beer, were available almost anywhere one could journey. They were markers of Empire, or at least of Empire trade, when they appeared by reports in Brazil, Patagonia, Quebec, or Peking. Hodgson’s beer was the first to acquire such global reach, and became iconic. Later Bass took that over, indeed expanded it.

Products like IPA had an ineffable quality from being both foreign and domestic. There wasn’t a single (eastern) foreign material in IPA, but it didn’t matter: foreigness resulted from the product being designed for India and other far-flung markets. Guinness was different because when exported, Guinness was not the same product (more or less) as valued at home. Rather, stout of a lower gravity and different taste ruled the home market.

Anyway, the terms Foreign Extra Stout or West Indies Porter, evocative as they may now sound, never caught on in Ireland or the U.K. People were satisfied with plain porter, single stout, and extra stout at most.*

I apprehend that this special quality attaching to IPA disappeared in Britain after WW I. Bass advertising in the 1930s and after seems more “domestic”, focusing on humour, sports, and the usual modern formulae to shift beer off shelves.

Then came the beer renaissance.

Author and journalist Michael Jackson may have created – did, IMO – the idea of Imperial Stout, with its evocative Catherine the Great and Florence Nightingale/Crimean War associations. He didn’t do that for IPA. In his original (1977) and later (1988) world beer guides he discusses IPA briefly, in the pale ale chapter. This is completely correct from a historical standpoint.

Only when American Bert Grant in the early 1980s put an evocative Taj Mahal design on his Grant’s India Pale Ale bottle did the idea slowly develop that IPA was something special, exotic. He of course was abetted by the long reputation pre-craft Ballantine India Pale Ale had with its buff-coloured sailing ship and script how the rocking improved the product.

IPA is so successful today that, finally, it has lost that romantic angle, few of its drinkers know anything about that history. But that is only after some 40 years’ development. Mythos helped put IPA on the world stage and something similar preceded that in the U.K. in the 1800s. While the U.K. mythic appeal died out as noted – from then on the type was known as “bitter” in the pub and pale ale tout court on the bottle – the Americans re-created the legend in the last 40 years.

Bass Pale Ale was the global follow-up to Hodgson’s beer. It was so famous, so ubiquitous, that people who didn’t love beer became annoyed to see it “everywhere”. In 1875, Edward Young, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, wrote a book about labour and wages overseas.** He noticed the great amount of drinking that went on and discussed the importance of breweries, Bass of Burton-on-Trent in particular. He wrote this of Bass (see pp. 400-401):


Throughout Europe and America, and in countries which the traveler rarely visits, the name of Bass is well known. In places where the immortal works of Shakespeare are unread, the products of Bass are familiar; ears which have never heard the classic name of Stratford-upon-Avon, are not unused to Burton-on Trent. It was hoped by an inexperienced American, when leaving London— whose placarded houses and walls proclaimed the virtues of the ale or porter of different and rival brewers—that by crossing the Channel he would escape from the ubiquitous Burton brewer, but the first English words that met his eyes as he sat at breakfast at Dieppe were “Bass’ ale.” At the far East this ale was seen not only in the modern but in the renowned ancient capital of Russia,[1] and at the great fair at Kijni Novgorod on the far off Volga, as well as in the usual routes of travel in Central Europe; at the West, in the floating palaces which traverse the Atlantic, and in New York, Washington, and throughout the United States, even to the shores of the Pacific, Bass’ ale can be procured. And it may be doubted whether there is any spot upon the globe, where civilized people dwell which is unsupplied with the malt liquors of Bass, Allsopp, or other English brewer. Although the evils resulting from the continued use of strong beer are painfully apparent in Great Britain, yet it does not easily intoxicate. Taken at meals or with bread, forming as it does a chief article of consumption, it is apparently harmless; but its excessive and long-continued use, especially at night and when taken by itself, produces most injurious effects. The beer of Germany, especially of Bavaria, which forms a staple article of consumption, must be much lighter, for in that country intoxication is infrequent. Indeed, the consul of the United States at Chemnitz remarked, “Judging from the quantity a native can consume, I apprehend that one will stagger quicker from the weight than the strength of the potion.” In England, small or light beer has been in general use for many centuries, and was a common beverage long before the introduction of tea. Indeed it is a little remarkable that while the use of beer does not diminish, that of “the cup which cheers but not inebriates” has greatly increased, until the average consumption, in that country has reached four pounds per capita. To those who need or think they need some stimulus, the use of malt liquors is far less injurious than spirits. The intemperance which so generally prevails in Liverpool, Glasgow, London, and Antwerp, where West India rum and other spirits are largely consumed, attests this fact.


[1] In 1789 a consignment of twenty half hogsheads of ale, containing 789 gallons, was made by a Burton brewer to Saint Petersburg, and in exchange requested the shipment of pipe and hogshead staves. Mr. Bass, like Mr. Guinness, in Dublin, and the late Mr. Vassar of this country, has distributed large sums in benevolence. A church was pointed out to the writer in Burton, costing some £25,000, and another situated elsewhere, which were built at his sole expense. Possibly there is some connection, other than alliteration, between beer and benevolence.

   2. When Domestic Products Succeed Internationally

I’ve got something to say that might cause you pain
If I catch you selling overseas again …
Because I told you before, oh
You can’t do that***

In a later period, not a few bien pensants took, say, McDonald’s to task for selling burgers in places they thought should hew to their local cuisine (the better for roaming tourists, or subconsciously, I’d guess). They said it of Starbucks too, of Coca Cola – probably the first actually to encounter such opprobrium – and more. Has anyone noticed the chatter has shifted today? Maybe because when it came to Apple and Microsoft, and the obvious advantages global expansion brought, such jibing seemed irrelevant, even petty. Some would say its superficiality was exposed for what it was.

Anyway, the spread of Cuban cigars, or Russian vodka, was never considered as unmeet as encountering Coke or KFC in Polynesia. I wonder why that was.****

Coke there is still in plenty around the world. Bass ale, not so much, and Hodgson’s of course, finis. Tastes differ, times change too. Even Coke’s day may come nigh, and not just abroad. But it’s not that Asia didn’t like the flower of England’s ale: it’s that it preferred finally another form of beer: blonde lager.


* I allow a limited exception for Imperial Stout but its market was so tiny as to be imperceptible.

** Young was actually Nova Scotia-born, and returned to Canada at one point to help negotiate the financial terms of Confederation.

*** With apologies to Lennon & McCartney.

**** Japanese autos, recording equipment. You name it. Oh, that Dutch beer, what’s it called … Heineken.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced at this puzzle library site, the second from this Falstaff history website, and the third from a beer label collector’s site, here. The quotation is from Edward Young’s book referenced and linked in the text. Images and quotation appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs to their sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.





Hodgson’s India Beer: Today’s Double IPA

The great unresolved issue of beer history, well, one of them, is what was Hodgson’s Pale Ale like in its India heyday. London-based Hodgson’s beer had a near-monopoly on pale ale in the early Raj and was progenitor of the IPA style.

IPA was famed in the 19th century, it conquered markets near and far ultimately. It had a long decline as a bottled beer but is today again a world citizen, this time due to attentions by American craft brewing.

18 months ago ago I found a 1850 advertisement by Abbott & Son brewery* in England giving pricing for different qualities and indicating characteristics of the beer that made Hodgson’s reputation in India.

Parsed correctly as I think I did, the ad suggests the beer was quite strong, 8-9% ABV if not more sometimes. You can read about it, here.

This conclusion is reinforced by other evidence, recounted in the post, stating or implying the beer was uncommonly strong. The Burton brewers later made a less potent version which did very well of course, but the 1850 ad suggests Hodgson’s India export beer was heady stuff. Given alcohol content is rarely the least of beer’s virtues, especially in the Britannic conception, the strength of the beer may well explain its early fame.

Then too, more alcohol never hurt a beer’s stability.

The beer shown here, a strong IPA from Brasseur de Montréal Inc. in Quebec, is based on American hops. Still, it has a colour, strength, and taste I feel are proximate to Hodgson’s India beer. The Amarillo hops in particular with their Kentish, orangey note reinforce this. An American cousin so to speak, shipmate if you will with a hard-to-place accent.

For those who need to, bear with the technics in the post, it’s worth the ride.

Here is the ad itself:

Abbott and Son, East India Pale Ale Brewery, Bow. – From a peculiar mode of fermentation instituted at the above brewery, it has been celebrated for nearly a century in supplying India with its choicest beer; but, from the necessity of giving it a greater body to bear the changes of climate and high temperature, its cost, viz., 30s. the 18-gallon cask, has hitherto prevented private families in England from enjoying it  at their daily tables. The objection is now obviated by Messrs. Abbott having succeeded for use of families, clubs and public institutions, a lighter description of their Pale Ale, brewed upon the same principles as for Indian consumption, at the cost of ordinary family beer, viz., 18s. the 18-gallon cask, which they trust, from its being so highly recommended not only as a wholesome luxury to the healthy, but as a most appropriate beverage to the more delicate, will meet the approbation of the public. It is necessary to order a supply in March as, from the lightness of and delicacy of the ale, removal in warm weather injures its qualities.


*Abbott and Son were successor to Hodgson’s original concern in Bromley-on-Bow, London. As to the physical location of the brewery by 1850, it may have changed, closer to the Thames: see more on this in another post of mine, here.

Charles Bronfman’s Memoir, “Distilled”

Charles Bronfman (CB), now 86, son of Distillers Corporation-Seagram czar Samuel Bronfman, wrote a memoir, Distilled, about a year ago that I caught up with over the holidays. The book is written in a clear, accessible style with Howard Green, an author, business journalist, and broadcaster. (It is published by HarperCollins, see Amazon listing here). The book was well-reviewed and below I give my own reaction (in summary, not to be missed by enthusiasts of distilled spirits history or business biography).

Green states truly in his introduction that the Bronfmans, “by virtue of their enormous wealth, were equivalent to Canadian royalty”.

The Bronfman family was a legend in Montreal when I grew up, not just for being highly successful distillers of Crown Royal, Seagram VO, Chivas Regal, Martell Cognac, and other fine liquors but for their strong identification with the Jewish community, and Israel, and related philanthropies.

The book makes clear that the Bronfmans’ charitable activities extended beyond Jewish causes, particularly in the area of Canadian history, but support of Jewish need especially in nascent Israel was always a focus. CB’s late brother Edgar also played an important role in this respect, e.g., by heading up the World Jewish Congress. I mention this as both commendable in itself and something not seen as much today, unfortunately.

In addition to his management of the Canadian Seagram business CB was also majority owner of the Montreal Expos, a newly-granted baseball franchise in the late 60s of the National League. His introduction and stewardship of professional baseball in Montreal is still remembered and is conveyed well in a separate chapter. It was also a successful investment for him.

CB describes growing up on the hill in Westmount, the carriage trade section of Montreal then and now. The family resided in a large house and the four children were raised with benefit of retainers such as drivers, maids, cooks, and butlers. They attended private schools either in Quebec or for CB a stint in Ontario.

He describes well the characteristics of father Sam including his legendary temper, great business ability, and less well-known interests such as an addiction to English verse. While the complex mind of Sam Bronfman, e.g., to retain financial details of the business even at a micro level, is well-illustrated, CB also points out his business ethic was based on simplicity and common sense. He believed for example in making products easily understood by people who could buy on a yes or no basis.

Edgar was early seen as the natural heir to the Seagram executive office. Elder brother is described by CB as strong-willed, a natural leader, good-looking: both seem to have known early that Edgar’s fate was to lead Seagram’s business from his office in New York, where he moved in the mid-1950s (era when the famed Seagram Building, a project of sister Phyllis, was erected). This is significant as the book states 90% of Seagram’s liquor business was in the U.S. As CB puts it at one point, Seagram was really an American company run by a bunch of Canadians.

There is relatively little in the book about whisky itself. CB refers to the fact that blending whisky was a mantra of Sam, who was always involved in tasting and formulating the products. Sam was intent on not entering the bourbon business as such and resisted investing in a bourbon distillery when proposed to him by his sons. Of course the business did make those investments in the shape of Four Roses in Kentucky and a distillery in Indiana although this is not covered in the book.*

CB’s career with Seagram started after leaving McGill University mid-course at 19. He was first put in charge of Adams Canadian whiskies, the smallest division, the other two were Calvert and Seagram. Adams derived from a 1950s purchase in Vancouver of a distillery. (As CB puts it later in the book, Sam once said, “I don’t sell businesses, I buy them”).

CB states when the Adams line was acquired the whisky itself “wasn’t very good” but he doesn’t elaborate, e.g., was it too young, too old, not blended properly, etc.? He doesn’t say. His mission was to make Adams a successful brand in the company’s portfolio, which he did.

The whisky discussion emphasizes the importance of sales of course, but also things like labels and bottle shape. Sam was of the view all bottles should be round except Crown Royal. He did finally agree though to an innovative square bottle for Adams which did well. CB mentions the entirely practical approach of the Canadian whisky business then to aging: as he phrased it, the younger the whisky, the more the term old was trumpeted. The idea always was to vaunt tradition and heritage behind the product.

He states there were only two persons in the liquor business whom Sam regarded as fierce competitors: Harry Hatch of Hiram Walker and Lew Rosenstiel of Schenley, both also driven, super-achievers.

The Adams discussion also revolves around executives CB worked with, how to control expenses, how to meet competition firmly but not engage in dirty tricks. If a Seagram account placed Seagram whisky in a competitor’s bottle he ordered it stopped, but the story gives an idea of the (presumably!) wilder days of Canadian whisky. (I’ll discuss the Prohibition era further below).

CB also worked for a time in blending so he clearly knows a lot about distillation and the different types of whisky but this isn’t discussed in the book. If I could ask him one question, it would be:

Did the family ever consider selling one of the straight whiskies used for blending on its own in Canada, say a straight rye? The Pedigree brands qualified circa-1950 but these were only sold in the U.S., correct? Why was no straight rye ever sold under the Seagram banner in Canada?

The answer may be simply what I indicated earlier, that Sam was an ardent proponent of blended whisky, but it would be interesting to plumb CB’s deeper thoughts on this. (True, Distillers Corporation had major interests in Scotch distilling but Chivas Regal was always the main brand, not any of the malts then).

CB comes across as a decent, practical, certainly capable executive, someone as he acknowledges born to great wealth and privilege but who assumed his position well once past the insecurities of youth and inexperience. His success with the Expos shows that, as did his running of the liquor business in Canada for years.

As the book is memoir, not just a business autobiography, there is interesting family history related as well, his marriages, children, travels, etc.

As whisky sales slowed in Canada in the 1970s, Seagram really became a different type of company, and this is well before the debacle with Vivendi. It was 25% owner of Du Pont and received the greatest part of its revenues from that source for many years until the stake was sold.  The need to reinvest company profits in different businesses meant from the 1960s on diversification, starting with the natural resources sector, which lead to the entertainment industry (MGM, later MCA and Polygram), chemicals, and finally communications.

The chapter describing Vivendi, a three-way merger with two French companies in 2000 which resulted in the liquor business being sold, is the heart of the book surely.

That sale was led by Edgar Bronfman and his son Edgar Jr. with CB a reluctant but consenting director. The merger was intended to make a 21st century super-communications company that in many ways, as CB acknowledges, was ahead of its time. But the lack of success of the merged company (the post-merger share price declined steadily and the family sold all its shares) resulted, by CB’s estimation, in a 50-75% loss of the family fortune. He explains in retrospect why the Du Pont stake should never have been sold.

Of course, the family was still very wealthy and this enabled CB to pursue his philanthropic work well-described in the book.

Bronfmans are still in the news, CB’s son Stephen is well-known for his affiliation with Canada’s Liberal Party, which extends to fund-raising, and his friendship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Before I conclude, the Prohibition question: CB acknowledges that Sam was rankled through his life by nagging accusations of being a “bootlegger”, meaning selling whisky that one way or another ended up in the U.S. during the Volstead era as illegal booze. He implies that the Canadian establishment never gave Sam his full due, via e.g. senior board memberships and a Senate appointment, due to this shadow.

CB argues that the whisky sold by Seagram in that period was sold legally, and Canadian distillers even before Volstead parried similar challenges in Canada using legal means, e.g., shipping whisky to another province by mail.

He states that other Canadian distillers including Hiram Walker also sold whisky that ended up in the U.S. as did major Canadian breweries for their product, and further that the Canadian government never tried to stop shipments to the border, no doubt to protect the continuation of industries that fed tax revenues to the coffers.

He implies Sam Bronfman was later unfairly targeted for an unsavoury association with rum-running, and I find his reasoning persuasive. Still, there seems no rancour, he recites the story calmly and after all these are matters now well in the past.

Of the Canadian whisky business today nothing is stated, it would be interesting to glean his thoughts on the resurgence of brown goods as they are termed, whisky and rum – Captain Morgan was another Seagram/Bronfman property…

Final point: when Seagram Spirits and Wine was sold to Diageo and Pernod Ricard, CB states he “briefly” considered buying the liquor business from Vivendi. He does not explain why he didn’t, but perhaps by then he was too removed from it.

You should have done it, Charles!

N.B. I once knew a Seagram executive in Montreal, who, many years ago, brought me into the office Sam Bronfman had occupied in the baronial-style Peel Street headquarters. His large desk was still there, the dark-panelled room pretty much as in his heyday. That was the nerve-centre from which Sam Bronfman created the modern Seagram business. Of course, the Seagram distillery originated in the 1800s in Waterloo, Ontario, a history I’ve adverted to a number of times in the past, but this account deals with the modern (20th century) Seagram. Today, the Peel Street building is owned by nearby McGill University, called Martlet House.


*Used primarily to source elements for the company’s blends.








Reviewing the Trappist Chimay Beers

This is a quick follow up to my earlier post today on Belgian beer and the contemporary Chimay. In the first post I commented on Chimay Red but not the other two beers generally available.

Those interested in 1800s Chimay should consult my two posts in 2016 which uncovered the ABV of the beer – same as now for the Red Cap – and discussed the possible mash composition then.

I’ve now tried the other two beers in the gift pack that supplies Red, Blue, and White plus the Chimay glass or “chalice”. I like the glass and that was one reason to buy this pack.

The Blue Capsule is the best in the group, IMO. It has a full, malty taste and while the yeast background is similar to the Red it doesn’t seem as dominating. Instead, a herbal (not really hoppy) background emerges, one I recognize from Michael Jackson’s commentary in his classic books.

The British make a candy, it comes in green sticks, called horehound. That herbal note reminded me of that. White sage is another comparison that comes to mind.

So, herbal, malty, lightly spicy. While not my favourite taste in beer, it’s clearly good and deserves the wide reputation of the brewery. The White however was disappointing, with a huge yeasty character and little of the hops promised on the label (that I could find).

To my taste, in both the Red and White beers hops and grains play second fiddle to the yeast, which is not how beer should taste in my personal schema. In the Blue, the balance is much better.

So a mixed bag, as often in the world of beer.

I know there is a 5% iteration available, a golden beer, I’ve only had it once or twice and liked it. It seemed to depart from the house style for something more typically beer-like in general European terms. But it’s hard to find, I’m not sure it has ever been sold in Ontario.

My hope is that the new Trappist breweries will use yeast types that depart from the typical Belgian taste. Spencer in the U.S. makes a range of beers, some must taste as their label suggests, e.g., the Imperial Stout. The one I had, the inaugural Trappist Ale, while well-made was very much in the mould of Chimay, Achel, Rochefort, and the others save Orval.

I hope Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Coalville, Leicestershire, U.K. goes a different route and uses a classic English top-fermenting yeast, one that produces dark fruit notes. It would make them stand out, but there are also other reasons, as I’ve argued in earlier posts.



Belgian Beer and me; Michael Jackson

Recently I revisited parts of Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium. I have the first edition and the last issued in his lifetime, the fifth.

This is the only full-length book he wrote on the beers of one country. He is famous for having promoted the previously obscure (at best) beer tradition of Belgium, which caused a slowly growing importance of the genre in the beer revival.

I say “slowly” because while Belgian beer was reputed in beer circles immediately after 1977 (when The World Guide to Beer appeared), it took time relatively for craft brewers to emulate the styles in their brewing, or for importers to feature the beers in their inventories. As late as five years ago Belgian beer bars were still opening in New York for example.

And only in the last few years do you see a proliferation of Saison, sour or wild beers, abbey-style, and Wit from North American and U.K. craft brewers. It’s always thus, those who innovate are at first ignored, then given glancing recognition, then a broader one, until their work makes an impact as cultural change. (True in beer writing as in any area of culture).

My own tutoring in beer circles was mainly through, a) extensive reading of Jackson and other writers, b) sampling quality imports, and c) trying local beers on early foreign travels, mainly in the U.S. and Britain but also Belgium, France and later further east.

In terms of palate, the fine points of English pale ale and bitter and German and Czech lagers made the greatest impression on me. I still feel those beers are the best in the world.* Jackson’s promotion and adulation of these only reinforced it.

Yet, I never followed him as closely in the Belgian arena. In this respect I am atypical I think in the craft beer community where there tends to be an obeisance to Belgian styles.

I first had Chimay around 1980 and remember it being perfumed and flowery. I admired it more than liked it, though. The next Trappist I encountered was I think St. Sixtus, so not technically Trappist Westvleteren but brewed by an outside brewery. I recall its lush cinnamon, banana, and brown sugar note to this day – again not my thing.

I think that beer was not analogue to the famed “12”, but a lower gravity iteration. As issued by Westvleteren itself, I must say the 12 did make an impression a couple of years ago, with a subtlety and quality few Trappists and abbeys have IMO.

I just had Chimay again, the Red, and notes of yeast and cinnamon seemed prominent, a fresh hop quality lying below and the malt too. That spicy taste is surely from the yeast and typically high fermentation temperatures used in Belgian top-fermentation brewing.

It’s a taste I recognize in most Trappists except Orval, a taste I recognize in Antwerp’s De Koninck, in Saison Dupont from the Ardennes and other Saisons, in Leffe, in Grimbergen, in…

Most North American Belgian-style beer seems to have it, too. It pleases lots of people and taste is famously personal. I don’t knock it for others and if it helps the craft segment grow, great.

The Gueuze and Lambic styles don’t feature it, that signature tends to be lactic, acetic, and with a funky yeast background, not my cup of tea either.

The wheat-based Wits are probably my favourite taste in the Belgian range. I like it especially when coriander and similar flavourings are used. And good Belgian lager, especially Jupiler, is not to be disdained. Fresh Stella is quite good too although the flowery nose I recall from 20 years ago is gone.

So, I don’t dismiss a whole country’s beers. Occasionally I’ll run into a non-classified Belgian I just like for its idiosyncrasy, a stout here and there, a pale or Scotch ale. The sub-genre of Belgian beer that Jackson wrote about in 1977, Scotch Ale (before the La Chouffe era, theirs is more artisanal), was excellent: rich, malty, clean-tasting with a clear U.K. influence. Campbell’s, say or Douglas Scotch. I’m not sure if those still exist or taste the same.

What I really like about Belgian beer, finally, is how Michael Jackson wrote about it. How he singlehandedly created a pantheon of types that remains enormously influential. He just had that ability. He was and is a pleasure to read, and I was always happy to read him whether I liked the beers described or not – the sign of a good writer of course. Could a Jackson of today do the same for American adjunct lager? I wonder…

Note re images: Second image above was sourced at this excellent Belgian beer-label collector’s site. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*I would add some Alt Bier as well, from Dusseldorf.



Canadian Super-Premiums


Beers of this class in Ontario and Quebec in the 70s and 80s included Molson Brador (a contraction for Brassée d’Or, wrote Michael Jackson, or perhaps Brassin d’Or), c. 6% abv; Labatt Classic, an all-malt lager; the Frankfurt-licensed Henninger in Hamilton, ON; Heidelberg, released by Carling O’Keefe in a grenade-shape bottle in the early 1970s; and Labatt IPA at least after it shed the previous “grocery store” design for a nifty, embossed clear bottle. All these were 5% abv except Brador.

The Heidelberg may have been all-malt, and seemingly oddly, was initially an ale, at least in Quebec and Ontario. Heidelberg’s proximate origins seem to lie in Washington State, where a brand before WW I was called Alt Heidelberg. Since the beer was an ale on release in Canada, perhaps it was originally an Alt Bier in Germany – top-fermented. Or maybe it was always a lager with “old” meaning, old country. Anyway, it was an ale here. When launched in western Canada it probably was a lager there, as the west was always lager-land.

Heidelberg shifted a fair amount of coin but after being forced to adopt the standard industry stubby bottle sales dropped and the brand left the market. I recall it being not that different from the Canadian lager norm. Carlsberg, brewed under license in Montreal from the early 70s, was kind of similar except its success was long-lasting, to this day in fact when the brand is now a true import.

Some might include as super-premiums the porters and stouts of the era although they weren’t marketed as such, or marketed at all: Molson Porter, say, which tasted rather like Yuengling Porter, or Champlain Porter from Labatt which had a sweet-liquorice note.

Perhaps Labatt Extra Stock, a strongish beer, would qualify too. The odd other beer could be viewed in similar terms, Labatt had a tawny Super-Bock that was pretty good but it was seasonal of course. Molson had something similar. Here is a video by some fellow Canadians reviewing the Labatt one a couple of years ago, a 30-year-old bottle (the taste part starts at 6:16).

None of these are available today as far as I know.

All were a cut above the regular issue, but weren’t really like imports either. They were our version of the “Third Taste” American brewers tried to convince an upscale demographic to buy: Andeker, Erlanger, Coors Herman Joseph or George Killian, Michelob, Augsburger, etc. Even in the 70s I recall lore around Montreal that Brador wasn’t what it had been, it was no longer an “ale”. Michael Jackson’s first Pocket Guide in 1982 states the beer was top-fermented though, so maybe it always remained an ale.

The last time I saw Brador around Toronto was about five years ago, and the beer seemed quite ordinary by then, certainly.

The super-premium route didn’t work in the U.S. or here in any way comparable to the bread and butter brands of the brewers. People either wanted real imports, or finally craft brews, the part of the market prepared to pay more for quality. It’s always a minority but not insignificant, as craft brewing proved over the last four decades.

The craft share in the U.S. is around 12% now by volume but I’d think will be closer to 15% by end of this year or next. In Canada, the craft beer segment enjoys approximately half that share based on the most recent figures I’ve seen. Every percentage point though means lots of money and market share by revenue is almost double the share by volume.

The bigger imports in North America really were and remain takes on the standard domestic taste. Corona, Budweiser when new here (brewed in Canada but considered imported in character initially), Miller, Coors Light, even Heineken, now Stella, are not considerably different to the domestic norm.

In the U.S., Corona, Dos Equis, Molson, Labatt, Heineken filled a similar bill in the 80s and 90s. Bear in mind even Heineken was an adjunct brew in the 80s, it switched to all-malt only in the next decade.

Hence, one can argue that, either side of the border, super-premiums – the Third Taste in which some brewers invested much hope – were bested by the import class. Imports have grown steadily since the early 1970s with barely a dip as the table in Beeronomics showed I referenced yesterday.

As the established brewers did not until recently offer the “Second Taste” – European-tasting blonde and dark lagers, pale ale, porter, wheat beer, etc. – the field was left to craft brewers. It’s been mantra since the 1970s that the domestic beer market in North America is flat, but the bright spots belonged to other players, not the big local brewers.

Due to ongoing consolidation internationally the import incursion is now considerably parried, factoring too distribution deals. Bud Light and Coors Light in Canada are part of Labatt and Molson, Stella Artois in the U.S. is now part of the old Anheuser-Busch…

But the craft advance was not addressed until large breweries started to buy crafts in earnest, which is relatively recently. And the current 12% + share of the crafts is out of their hands, excluding that is craft brands owned by the majors.

Even in 1922, a Molson scion confidently explained to English brewers that stock beers and other 1800s-style beer types were no longer produced. You can read his remarks here (see especially pp 537-538). He stated the new-style beers were lower in alcohol, chilled, and force-carbonated.

Canadian ales were all-malt before WW I but it wouldn’t be long before adjuncts were added, too; in fact Col. Molson implied they were in use by the date of his presentation.

Almost 100 years later, the large brewers still make most of their money in that space.

Why did Molson release Brador in 1969, a slightly more malty, higher-alcohol version of a Canadian ale, when it could have re-introduced highly-hopped Molson India Pale Ale or stock porter from an 1800s recipe? Is it that those beers were completely lost to the corporate memory by then? Or was Molson convinced no Canadian would ever drink such things again? If the latter, they were wrong. If the former, it shows how any industry once matured and on a path for many decades can lose touch with the origins.

Even after the craft era was well underway Molson and Labatt did not release beers in that style. And I do remember, if objection be made, the (brief) Molson Signature period: the products included a Cream Ale but were quite ordinary IMO. Yes, Molson bought Creemore Brewery some time ago, but that is one beer basically, one style.

A few years ago, Molson Coors did finally issue a creditable IPA from around 1908. It was brewed once and hasn’t been seen since. Now of course too, apart from Creemore, there is Granville Island, Batch in Toronto, Blue Moon. It’s something. As well the Mad and Noisy India Pale Lager, now available at The Beer Store and, IIRC, LCBO, is an excellent product.

But much more could have been done especially in earlier years IMO –  to help the bottom line, that is. As a consumer, I have nothing to complain about, but looking at the business side of it I see opportunities missed.

Note re image: above image was sourced from Kijiji, here. All intellectual property belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

A Competition to Ponder

In 1985 Chicago Tribune writer Jay Pridmore described a tasting of numerous Midwest beers.

Two panels did the judging, one of “professionals” – restaurant managers, wine writers, a brewery owner, Fred Huber of Huber Brewery – and the other composed of ordinary drinkers who liked beer, a lawyer, architect, etc.

There are numerous interesting results, for example, Huber did not identify his own beer, called it “musty”, and elected a competitor as best in its class, Hamm’s. (Still, his terminology is interesting, e.g. “bready” was a pre-Prohibition term to describe the staleness resulting from excess or improper pasteurization).

Pridmore noted as well:

Because the super premiums are brewed with high-quality ingredients but for mainstream tastes, one might have thought that these beers would garner high scores. Interestingly, in both tastings, the super premiums did no better than the lower priced premiums. True, the tasters in both groups, amateur and professional, detected “richer color,“ “good aroma,“ and “hoppier“ and “full tasting“ flavor. But the word “bitter“ was used by several to describe either flavor or aftertaste.

The same surprising result was true in the amateur tasting.

Schlitz won in the premium class. Augsburger won in the super-premium.

Numerous reputed super-premiums didn’t make the taste-off, such as Michelob, Erlanger, Stroh Signature.

In the “boutique” class, being the emerging microbrewery beers, Rhomberg Pale Ale got the nod, from Dubuque, Iowa. The Rhomberg tasted was all-malt and clearly was felt to be what is now called a craft beer.

While this is one poll and subject to all the limitations inherent in that, the failure of the super-premiums to trump the premiums bears out what I discussed in my last post: the so-called Third Taste just didn’t have a wide-enough appeal. Too many wanted the usual taste, e.g., one taster, in the professional class too, praised Miller High Life because it was “low-hop” – or found the super-premiums too bitter. This was said of Lowenbrau as one example, by then brewed for some years in the U.S.

One might think the super-premiums would have stood out as gateways, to use today’s term: not so. This makes sense though, otherwise the craft segment that now has upwards of 15% of U.S. beer volume never would have got there.

This is not to say of course some super-premiums didn’t make money for the brewers. Michelob always did. I mentioned recently Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve on the west coast. But even their volumes were never close to mainstay brands such as PBR, Miller High Life, Budweiser, Busch, Coors, and similar. The others were niche products.

The super-premiums would have done far better IMO had they emulated closely the “Second Taste” (European), as American craft brewers did. I’m referring mainly to the large brewers and numerous of the regionals but not all. No question the Saranac beers in Utica, NY, say, are genuine craft, but F.X. Matt was unlikely to grow even with that success to the level of a Anheuser-Busch or Miller. Yuengling is perhaps a similar example, of Latrobe, PA and (now) elsewhere.

While it is true the craft segment took 40 years to get to a c. 15% share, I’m sure Anheuser-Busch would have liked to have a piece of that market, it still means lots of profits, especially now when their North American sales continue to slide (same for Molson Coors). Did their 1980s-1990s execs read Michael Jackson, did they make beer at home, attend the early beer festivals…? If their brewers raised the alarm, did anyone listen to them?

In this regard, I’m not sure how often the brewers spoke up as so many were attuned to the style of beer made for generations in North America. I once met a man who had worked decades ago for a large brewer in marketing. He told me, he once said to the company’s brewers, why don’t you make a product like the little microbreweries are making? They told him: “We make the beer, you sell it”.

But finally large breweries saw how craft products were appealing to a broader demographic than beer nerds. That’s when they started to buy craft breweries in earnest.

Note: Sadly, Rhomberg in Dubuque and Milwaukee didn’t make it, the brewery closed not that long after the story mentioned. Probably they were, as so many early crafts, ahead of their time. The brewery started up again a couple of times after but finally closed for good about 20 years ago.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the invaluable brewery history and label website, www.taverntrove.com. Image appears for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the image resides solely in its lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcome.