The Third Taste

I adjusted my post of yesterday, not in any essential, but to align correctly the beers mentioned to the brewer’s name or town. So again:

  • Augsburger was from Huber in Monroe, Wisconsin, the brewery now owned by the Canadian Minhas family
  • Rhomberg was from Dubuque/Pickett’s in Dubuque, Iowa
  • Andeker was (and is, of a fashion) from Pabst
  • Erlanger was from Schlitz/Stroh, and by 1987-1988 was brewed at Dubuque
  • Stroh Signature was from Stroh of Detroit
  • Anchor Liberty Ale was (and is) from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, CA
  • Michelob was (and is) from Anheuser-Busch, now Anheuser-Busch InBev
  • Christian Moerlein was from Hudepohl in Cincinnati (and still bottled I believe by a brewpub holding the name)

Some of these were introduced after the debut of the craft era, some before, but they shared a certain something, namely an interest to offer a superior taste to the public. And that taste came with a higher price often, hence the moniker super-premium, a trade term.

At the time (c. 1980) in the U.S., there were standard beers, premium, and super-premium. Budweiser, or Miller High Life, were premium, so the mid-point. A regional such as Genesee Lager would be standard price and IIRC there was a fourth, very cheap category as well for high-adjunct, so-called 7/7 beers: seven days to mash, ferment and brew, seven days to age, then out the door.

Most of the super-premiums were not all-malt but some were, possibly Matt’s Premium in Utica (West End Brewing Co., now F.X. Matt) and Erlanger from all reports. Christian Moerlein was too. For super-premiums launched after Anchor and New Albion et al started to penetrate the beer consciousness, all-malt probably took some inspiration from them, but all-malt usage in American brewing well-preceded the crafts.

Michelob was all-malt from release as a draft beer in 1896. It remained so until bottling started around 1960, when rice adjunct was added, but less than for Budweiser (one report stated 25% vs. 30%). Andeker was all-malt on release c. 1939, but by the 70s or 80s switched to a malt-and-corn grist (see my post of yesterday).

American industrial brewing hadn’t quite forgotten what all-malt was, and the onset of craft brewing helped remind them, to sum it up. On the other hand, all-malt didn’t guarantee great taste. All-malt meant something, and still does, if final gravities were not extreme. But any beer can be made to taste thin if you push the attenuation too far and keep the hop rate down. Matt’s Premium to my own recollection was fairly ordinary tasting, so was Erlanger.  So was Labatt Classic lager in Canada, or Molson Stock Ale. Michael Jackson’s 1980s pocket guides tend to reinforce these memories.

Andeker was about the best of the group, and Christian Moerlein, as I recall it.

But here is the thing: it was not large-scale and old-regional breweries who led the beer revolution, it was new small outfits led by Anchor Brewing.

Why was this? American brewing as it was in 1975 could easily have led the way with its all-malt or high-malt super-premium beers. It didn’t. The simple fact is, the consumer did not buy the super-premiums in large-enough quantity. Michelob was the best seller of all them, but even that was insignificant compared to Budweiser and Busch, the main brands, and later Bud Light.

Why did the super-premiums fizzle, leaving the way for the craft segment to trump them?

This is a complex question, as of course it took many years for the craft segment to grow to any significance and it is still, depending how you calculate it, about 15% of the total market – after 40 years of trying. So you can argue it wasn’t worth it to the established breweries to go the full monty, to make rich-tasting all-malt beer that became the hallmark of the first decades of craft.

But another part of the answer is, taste. The super-premiums never really tasted like the good imports or, say, Boulder Pale Ale when it came out, or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Young’s Special Bitter in London. I know, I was there and can testify to this. Moerlein’s was perhaps the closest, but IMO it was a quasi-craft beer and came out after Anchor Steam Beer had made a dent in beer consciousness in the later 70s with adulatory stories in nascent beer publishing and the business press too.

What was wrong with the super-premium taste? Too light. By comparison to the norm of American brewing the beers had more impact, but not that much in relative terms.

One way to understand why this was is to look at two things that happened in U.S. brewing between about 1960 and 1980. The first, was that the super-premiums either were made with adjunct or if all-malt (not the norm) were fairly dry-tasting, and in either case without a marked hop character.

Second, famous imports were localized by being brewed in America but with adjunct added to them. Lowenbrau was an example, brewed in the U.S. by Miller from the mid-70s. Tuborg was another example. Carlsberg in Canada IIRC.

Yet another was the popularity of Canadian exports at the time, Molson’s beer, then Labatt’s and Moosehead’s – all used adjunct, all were viewed as quality imports but did not approach craft brewing, or surely pre-Prohibition all-malt North American beers, in character.

So, more taste than the norm, but not the full monty, not what you’d get in a cask beer in London, not what you’d get in Munich.

One brewer, Hamm in Minnesota, gave a name to this perspective on how super-premium beer should taste, it called it “the third taste”. Hamm’s brewery in the late 1950s released its Waldech, another Germanic-allusion name intended to convey traditional quality. About the time the family sold to Heublein, the cocktail mix people, ads appeared in newspapers giving good detail on this beer, a push was being made with new money (I apprehend) to make the beer a bigger seller, probably to challenge Michelob.

It’s very interesting to read the ads, an example of which you can see here from Life Magazine in 1964. The brewery used the term “third taste”. As the ad states, the third taste was the European taste lightened to the American palate. So not the inherited American taste. Not the European taste. Something in between. Fine Tettnang hops, and 2-row Hannchen barley, were specified, with an implication the beer was all-malt, but I’m not sure it was. Or if it was, something was done to it to make it more like what Americans were used to.

No doubt the flavour was a cut above, but I doubt the beer tasted like Sam Adams Boston Lager, say, or New Amsterdam Beer, another early craft lager, marketed in New York around 1981.

You can see the mantra of the third taste in everything I’ve said earlier about the super-premiums: they used adjunct, or if not rarely had the full flavour of a good import or craft beer. When Lowenbrau was made in the U.S. after 1975 they put corn in it, presumably convinced the American drinker wouldn’t buy, or pay for, the real thing.

Was cost accounting really behind it, given corn has a higher starch content than barley and is cheaper to use from an efficiency standpoint?

Perhaps, but one would think an established American brewer somewhere before the craft era would go all-out with a Munich-tasting lager or English-tasting ale. The few pennies more per bottle an all-malt, high-hopped beer might cost couldn’t have made the difference.

The brewers just didn’t go there, the beer closest in character to this norm of quality, Ballantine India Pale Ale, was a tiny seller and was never promoted on the level of Erlanger/Waldech/Andeker/Moerlein let alone Michelob. (And even it used adjunct then).

When you net it out, I think taste was the final arbiter. The pre-craft American brewing industry had convinced itself, for generations, that beer had to be relatively light-tasting, not too sweet and certainly not too bitter: the opposite to a Liberty Ale, say, from Anchor Brewing. It took strong-headed entrepreneurs to chart a different path, many with a home brewing or foreign travel background.

But it could have been different. Had the super-premium group been made to taste like the European progenitors, had more styles too been introduced (not just Munich Helles/Czech Pilsener but different ales, wheats, stouts), the pre-1980 U.S. brewing industry could have engineered the brewing revolution on its own. It was too hidebound, wedded to an ethos that had become outdated. Most small regional brewers, most of whom expired, were no different to the majors in this respect.

An exception was F. X. Matt in Utica, NY who early on saw the importance of the craft segment, no doubt through making beer under contract for emerging craft brewers such as New Amsterdam Brewing and initially, Sam Adams. Matt released fairly early its Saranac craft line, which helped save the brewery. A couple of other regionals did re-invent themselves in this way but it wasn’t the norm. And certainly the large brewers didn’t want to know despite half-hearted early investments in the boutique segment or releasing their own craft-like products e.g., the early Michelob line extensions, most anodyne to my recollection.

Perhaps when you are part of a long-established tradition, whether big, medium, or small, you don’t see the forest for the trees. It’s difficult to stand against the trend. Was there a brewer at Anheuser-Busch in 1960 who said, why are we putting 25% rice in Michelob, what are we doing…?

Anyway, Hamm’s bet wrong: Americans didn’t want the third taste. They wanted, in the result, the second taste.

N.B. I don’t want to be understood to suggest there were no truer antecedents in the 1970s for craft brewing. Prinz Brau in Alaska, a venture of the Oetker Group in Germany (Radeberger, various foodstuffs), made all-malt beers from 1976-1979 – in vain, the venture didn’t last long evidently. Why did Oetker go to remote Alaska though, why not New York, or San Francisco…? In Canada in the 70s a group in Hamilton, ON with a license from Henninger in Frankfurt made authentic-tasting (I recall) German lagers, all-malt again. The venture did not succeed, finally.

Were these too early, or in the wrong market? Did they still not have the right product, or taste? Whatever the answer, they didn’t have the secret the early successful craft brewers came up with only a few years later. And they were exceptions certainly, mainstream North American brewing did nothing similar until big brewers started to buy craft brewers in earnest, decades later.








2 thoughts on “The Third Taste”

  1. To get an insight in how the big US brewers were trying to stick their toe into the waters of European style beers while maintaining their conviction that US drinkers would never accept anything strong tasting, take a look at this commercial from the 1980s with Martin Mull for Michelob Dark:

    He promises it won’t be a dark beer that “is bitter, for thick necked guys named Gunther.”

    • Yes, good point, thanks. They were trying to cover too many bases. When you slice it so thin, you end up neither fish nor fowl. That’s three mixed metaphors, but there it is. The people who wrote that narrative must be amazed today to see how the ur-bourbon barrel stout, Goose Island’s, is now a A-B-InBev property…


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