Pasteur, Piel’s, and Pale Ale

One of the landmark American craft breweries, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Brewers and engaged consumers everywhere are justly lauding the achievement. Its Pale Ale (available in Ontario), Celebration Ale, Porter, Bigfoot, and the many line extensions since inception need no introduction to friends of brewing.

The founder Ken Grossman, a southern Californian still only 65, wrote a memoir a few years ago, Beyond the Pale. It combines autobiography, company profile, and business guide. In the book he explains his stance against pasteurization of beer, you may read it here.

He almost casually mentions that he also eschews “sterile filtration”. Molson-Coors Beverage Co. probably was the first to introduce non-pasteurized, sterile-packaged canned beer, in 1959. I discussed the history in this post, based partly on detailed, contemporaneous press coverage.

A small exception to no-pasteurization at Sierra Nevada is for barrel-aged beers. They get a dose of the pasteurizer, as wood barrels can introduce a cocktail of bothersome organisms in the brewery. Long-time Sierra Nevada brewer Steve Dressler five years ago explained the rationale.

Coors still uses, at least in the United States, a combination of sterile filtration and asceptic packaging. While costly and tech-intensive, the company feels it gives the beer a leg up on taste – keg up, to coin a phrase. Whether it does or not is a matter for consumer assessment.

The outsize success of Coors Light seems to bear out the logic, at least in part. Yet Bud Light, say, is pasteurized and also has enjoyed good success.

Molson-Coors periodically updates and improves its processes, like all industrial companies. A 1985 article abstracted by the Master Brewers Association of America shows how cost factors, in particular, impact its technology. As explained by the author M.H. Beckett (again, as of 1985):

A charge modified cellulose filter mass, designated Cuno ZP820, has been developed to replace the cotton/asbestos Enzinger pulp pad used for sterile filtration of beer. The Enzinger pulp pad is prepared by hydropulping the filtration material and processing the pulp through several washing stages.

In contrast, Sierra Nevada bottles and cans unpasteurized beer with a measure of yeast to promote a gentle bottle- or can-conditioning.

Whether re-seeding is done to roughly filtered beer, versus using the original fermentation yeast, I am not sure, but the beers – Pale Ale, Celebration, etc. – all contain a small charge of yeast that keeps the beer “live”. Coors beer is not pasteurized either, but is not live in the can or bottle due to the micro-filtration that eliminates virtually every yeast cell from the package.

All beer, before pasteurization became generalized in industrial brewing, was unpasteurized. With the onset of new small breweries in the last 40 years, most brewers dispensed with the process, although not all, e.g. Anchor Brewing in San Francisco (founded 1899 but re-set on a craft vector by Fritz Maytag in the 1970s).

Most crafts sell beer for consumption within a few months in a local market, and justly dispense with the need to pasteurize. Like Sierra they want neither the expense of pasteurization nor its flavour-dampening impact (due to application of high heat whether for tunnel or the less intrusive flash pasteurization).

Yet, in our post on Hoffman Brewing of New Jersey, we showed that even in the 1930s – well after pasteurization was standard in American brewing  –  some beer was bottled unpasteurized. This is a kind of analogy to the standard today of craft brewing.

I’ll record now additional 1930s references for such unpasteurized (non-draft) beers. Then I’ll reach over to the 1960s, after Coors’ innovation, when another canned draught entered the market.

I mentioned in the Hofman’s post that its unpasteurized bottled beer, introduced in 1933, did not apparently enjoy a long run. The brewery itself was bought by Milwaukee’s Pabst in late 1945.

Yet, the beer lasted at least until the autumn of 1938, when an advertisement appeared in a Batavia, N.Y. newspaper. The ad was unusually frank on the characteristics of Hoffman’s beer. It noted the beer contained “active yeast” and this was “good for you”. It also stated:

 

… Unpasteurized beer and ale have been supplied in this territory for some time in half-gallon bottles, under refrigeration and sold with a warning for immediate eonsumption.

Further:

For more than two years the Hoffman Beverage Company of Newark, N.J., has produced unpasteurized beer in 12 and 29-ounce bottles for shipping and sale without constant refrigeration.

Such a process requires absolutely aseptic conditions, sterile bottles, and hermetically sealing with sterile crowns. Thus Hoffman’s guarantees you real purity as well as better flavor and all the benefits of draft brews.

In the summer of the same year, 1938, a news story in Schenectady, N.Y. described different-size beer bottles in the market. Among them was a quart-size and “giant”, or 64 oz., both for unpasteurized beer. The 29 oz. bottle in Hoffman’s ad was perhaps this quart – not quite 32 oz., then.

This array of bottles for unpasteurized beer suggests Hoffman was not the only brewer in the game. And it wasn’t. In August 1936 in Jamestown, N.Y. Lang’s Brewery in Buffalo, N.Y. advertised its Lang’s Draught Beer in the half-gallon “giant”. A picture is included showing a pot-stopper closure, mentioned in the story on bottle sizes.

(You know, I can almost see the old burg across lake and plains of Ontario from my apartment perch in Toronto).

The bulbous shape brings to mind the old saying, “a face only a mother could love [the industrial designer]”. It’s hard to parse the aesthetics of past ages, sometimes.

If Lang’s too was selling bottled unpasteurized beer, there had to be others. The Lang’s ad stressed the “old time tang” of the beer. No doubt veteran beer types in Lang’s market knew the real deal from back in the day, the pre-Prohibition day for some.

How did Hoffman’s beer, at any rate, differ from Coors’ over 25 years later? Aseptic packaging is generally considered to have gained legs since about 1960. Yet it was clearly known in the ’30s. As was sterilization of bottles and crown caps.

I suspect the difference was the beer itself. Hoffman’s beer, as the ad quoted shows, had live yeast. It was probably filtered as closely as technology permitted then, but nowhere near as efficiently as the micro-filtration Coors has used since 1959. Then again, maybe Hoffman’s beer tasted better as a result.

In the canned/bottled draught beer stakes, another historical entrant is Piel’s Draft, introduced in 1965-1966. Your humble (?) scribe remembers buying this in the 1970s, on visits to alluring locales (they were, to us) like Plattsburg and Albany, N.Y. And Cape Cod – no need to sell that one.

A January 1966 ad in Troy, N.Y. vaunted Piel’s new beer as follows:

The biggest news for beer drinkers in 50 years comes from Piels. Real Draft Beer in a can. A 12-oz. can of beer that tastes just as if it came from the tap. That’s right, straight from the tap. We worked long and hard to bring you this remarkable new development.

The “biggest news” for 50 years? Well, not really. Coors had done the trick a few years earlier. Then too in the 1960s, Coors was not distributed on the East Coast. Piels, of Brooklyn, N.Y., possibly had the first canned draught beer on that coast, so fair enough.

Piel’s Real Draft was introduced some 20 years before Miller Genuine Draft (1985), we may add.

Just as for craft beer tout court, everything comes from somewhere. Even a phenomenon as daring and romantic as craft brewing had progenitors, and not only distant ones like the apprehended practises of Dickensian red brick breweries. Breweries from the anodyne 1930s-1960s had an impact too, when plants stretching blocks, mass production, and the pocket protector ruled.*

The seeming bad days for beer, when palate was uniform due to remorseless corporate raiding and cost-cutting, laid the basis for our funky artisan brews no less than our gilded notions of Meuse Valley farm breweries, or stone-built English breweries with waterwheels.

In faceless post-Prohibition factories – or so they seemed – there were brewers wary of the taste impact of pasteurization. In their way, they tried and sometimes succeeded to speak up for the beer palate. Their counterparts today, mostly in craft brewing, work in a different time, but the spirit is the same.

And so, the beer palate is not dependent on country, time, or technology as such. It is dependent on taste. The real beer people get that, and always did. It’s an unshakeable constant in the long and winding road that is beer history.

………………..

*Of course, industrial draft beer was usually unpasteurized until relatively recently anyway. That too influenced the craft adoption of a similar standard for all packaging forms. In this post I am focusing though on bottled and canned beer.