Bakshian on Beer

Washington, D.C.-based Aram Bakshian, Jr. is a writer, consultant, broadcaster, and Harvard University Senior Fellow. A Washington insider par excellence, he was speech-writer and advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, among numerous other governmental roles. His biography on Wikipedia gives a good overview of his career. He has also, for some 45 years now, written on gastronomic subjects, often in American Spectator, a long-running political magazine that is now a news and commentary website.

Starting about 1974 American Spectator introduced its Great American Saloon Series, dealing with bibulous and related matters: so cocktails, types of drinking establishment, wine, cigars, et seq.

Back in 1976 Bakshian wrote a superb piece on beer, “Confessions of a Beer Snob”. In many ways it is a highly condensed “world guide” of the sort beer guru Michael Jackson (1942-2007) later issued that helped fuel the beer revolution.

You can read “Confessions of a Beer Snob with other articles of Bakshian archived on the website of American Spectator, see here (posted in 2012 but authored and first published in 1976 by my researches).

The article takes its place among the significant pre-craft, pre-Jackson writing that aimed to treat beer seriously. That is, it adopts an elevated tone, showing erudition and critical judgement even as some of his judgements seem off-centred.

For example, he didn’t twig (sorry) to English bitter, finding it not much better than the run of English lager. However, serving temperature clearly played a role here, he was of the generation who couldn’t abide warm English beer.

After so many delightful samples of robust local beer specialties in Germany, the standard London “lager” tasted like tapwater. It took several days to adjust to it. As for the dubious fluid the British call “beer,” the orange-amber bitter produced by Watneys and so many other firms, it has a sharper tang but doesn’t taste all that good. And John Bull, with characteristic obstinacy, still insists on serving it tepid, thereby bringing out the full nastiness of the flavor.

Still, everyone has their blind spots. Creditably, he refused to endorse the outsize 1970s reputation of Coors:

… an impressive variety of beers, porters, and ales, both imported and domestic, are still available in most decent-sized American communities. Some offer historical oddities like San Francisco’s Anchor Brand Steam Beer(which tastes something like British bitter), and there are still a variety of interesting regional brands, though Coors and Olympia are much over-touted. It really is pathetically amusing the way trendies have inflated the price and reputation of Coors, a good but scarcely remarkable (in fact, to my mind, slightly watery) light beer.

His reveries are saved for German beer, noting on a trip there its “frozen beer”, hence Eis Bock, white beer of Berlin, and smoked beer in Bamberg. The German “baker’s beer” is also flagged, a style that has eluded the current crop of beer historians, we think, barring a misprint or misspelling here.

The odds are long that American Spectator, founding editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., Aram Bakshian, and The Great American Saloon Series would still exist in 2019, over 40 years later, but they do! Occasionally a Saloon Series article appears on American Spectator’s website, indeed the last by Bakshian dates only to 2017.

He seems after 1976 to have written mostly on bars and pubs, hotel bars in particular, as apt for Washington, D.C. But at least one article, from 1991, contains appreciative comments on a dark beer from Oxford Brewing Co., an early craft brewery in Baltimore. (Its brands were later absorbed by Heavy Seas Brewery in the same city).

So he seems to have welcomed the craft revival although I cannot find an article from him dealing with it as such. Perhaps his interests in gastronomy tended elsewhere after the 1970s.

Once again we see that interest in good beer existed before craft, before Jackson, before modern I.P.A. The record exists to prove it. I showed this in detail as well in my Brewery History article on four influential 1970s American beer writers, and continually elaborate on it here.

The pre-history so to speak applies in Britain no less but has been chronicled by writers there. Much less is understood of the analogous situation here, which I have set out to cure.

In every way this pre-history helped inform, or pave the way, for what came later – for what we have today. Do not forget that.

There is a coda to Bakshian’s article, more soon.

Note re image: Believed in public domain, sourced from the Wikipedia entry on Aram Bakshian, Jr. linked in the text.



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