The Growler: Getting crafty


Our beer reviewer is not a growler, he's The Growler. Photo: Beaufort's TheDigitel via Flickr.

Season’s greetings beer enthusiasts!  This inaugural edition of The Growler comes at an auspicious time. The increasing popularity of seasonal beers within the American craft beer industry offers a new range of taste choices. I’m excited to tell you more about them at the bottom of the column.

Craft beer is the primary focus of The Growler, so you may be wondering – what is craft beer?

Brew thru

The craft beer movement was in many ways a harbinger of the current trend favoring higher quality, locally produced food. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the craft beer movement was a reaction to the consolidation of beer production into a handful of large companies. Those companies made very limited beer styles. Prohibition and the subsequent industrialization of brewing cost America much of the proud brewing tradition brought by immigrants from all over of the world. Gone were the many local choices of a few years before.

A home brewing culture emerged to preserve these styles and offer them to avid beer drinkers.  Slowly but surely pioneers of taste and technique, including many home brewers, opened up small commercial brewing operations. They focused on quality and taste diversity.

In the mid-80s this “microbrew” revolution began to take hold. Growth was rapid; 8 craft breweries in 1980 became 537 in 1994 and 1,501 in 2008.  While still only 4% of US beer sales in 2008, the microbrew success changed American beer culture. Soon some microbrewers became successful enough to surpass “micro” status. Craft brewing was born.

Defined as “small, independent, and traditional,” the hallmark of craft brewing is innovation in interpreting traditional beer styles. It’s also about making new beers. The Brewers Association says that most Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery. In a time of energy challenges we’re fortunate to have access to such high quality brew at the hyper local level. Drink up!

Hop to it

Traditionally brewed beers use malted grain to produce the sugar that ferments into alcohol.  Malt also adds body and sweetness to the beer. It’s an important element of the beer’s overall character.

The other key ingredient is hops.  Hops were important back in the day for their preservative characteristics. But they also impart aroma and bitterness, balancing the sweetness of malt.

Malt and hops are the two most critical aspects of flavor (along with any brewing spices).  As an informed craft beer drinker you’ll want to note the sweetness of the malt, the bitterness of the hops, and how they combine to give a pleasing drinking experience. This is the art of brewing. No two palates are alike and you should never apologize for yours!  What you do and don’t like is up to you; your only responsibility as a conscientious drinker is to sample widely and take note of what you prefer.

Very generally, a thick, rich flavor is characteristic of malty brews, while a beer higher in hop aroma and bitterness is considered hoppy.  Years of craft beer consumption often turn normal beer drinkers into “hopheads” – enthusiasts of highly hopped beers.

Confessions of a hophead

The topic of hopheads seems a good place to introduce myself.  A professional environmentalist by day and avid home brewer, gardener, and glassblower by night, I believe in the power and joy of making things with your own hands. There was something immensely satisfying about the first time I drank my own brew from a glass that I also made.

Home brewing is easy (90% of it is sanitation). Encouraging readers to home brew is one of my goals for this column. Another is to take you on a tour of the wonderful world of craft beer. So let’s finally turn our attention to the seasonal beers mentioned at the beginning of this column.

‘Tis the season

Eco-conscious breweries are a logical place to start our craft brew adventures.

Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale

Holidays are the best time to sample an unusual brew. Photo: Siera Nevada.

One of the oldest, most famous and most successful craft breweries, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., is also one of the most environmentally responsible.  One of the largest private solar arrays in the US combines with onsite fuel cells to generate nearly all power needed by the brewery. They’ve also extensively modified the brewing process for water, energy, and heat efficiency.  Impressive!  Vote with your wallets, drinkers, because their beer is excellent, too.

On tap this month is the Celebration fresh hop ale, a popular long time seasonal offering of Sierra Nevada.  This is an extremely well balanced beer, with a full malt body, a nice hoppy aroma, and great hop character.  Celebration is definitely hoppier than average, but not extreme enough to be a hophead.  Though higher in alcohol, at 6.8%, this remains a very drinkable ale likely to please most.  With its richer hop character it could be a good “gateway beer” to the highly hopped beers for which the American craft beer market is becoming known.

Now I turn to the pride of my hometown – Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio.  The cornerstone of their operations is a Triple Bottom Line philosophy emphasizing economic, social, and environmental practices to achieve a sustainable yet profitable business.  Sustainability efforts include: partnering with an organic farm, supporting Cleveland’s largest urban farm (almost next door to the brewery), using spent grain to produce menu items and feed local livestock, and a commitment to becoming a zero waste facility.

Christmas Ale by Great Lakes Brewing Company.

Forget the milk and cookies, leave Santa some Christmas Ale. Photo: Great Lakes Brewing Company.

Great Lakes was also chosen for the wild popularity of its Christmas Ale, a four-time gold medal winner at the World Beer Championships.  Every year they produce more of this prized brew and every year supply outstrips demand.

Christmas Ale is brewed with honey and spiced with a cinnamon and ginger, producing a warm, zesty brew that’s perfect for a cold winter’s night.  The spices may be a little different to the average drinker but they’re fairly subtle, with a nice malt character that most folks will like.  And it’s becoming the stuff of legends in the craft world.

I can even share a tale of my own. An out-of-town friend asked another friend still local to Cleveland to ship him some Christmas Ale. The Clevelander agreed to the hassle in the spirit of the season, but when he arrived at Great Lakes to pick up the shipment he discovered four full cases of Christmas Ale waiting for him!  After individually wrapping 96 bottles of Christmas Ale in bubble wrap and shipping them off, my buddy had a bit less of that holiday spirit. Until he threw back a Christmas Ale.

Hopefully it wont be that way for you. Get some Christmas Ale if you can, or check for a local holiday brew in your neck of the woods. Happy hunting!

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  1. says

    Brent, I enjoyed your tales of craft beer, home brewing and glassblowing, and your story about having to individually wrap 96 bottles of Christmas Ale to ship to a friend. Now, that’s dedication to quality! You might even have inspired this dedicated wine aficionado to try a seasonal craft beer. (I’m also a Cleveland aficionado to boot.)


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