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Boston Beer Company, Boston (perhaps) and elsewhere

by Markian Gooley

There's at least one lie on the label of every bottle of Samuel Adams beer. Draw an analogy, depending on your views, to some figure in or near American politics, who lies again and again yet retains a following. (You'll find someone no matter where you are on the political spectrum.)

Don't misunderstand. I have never tasted a Samuel Adams beer that I thought undrinkable, and some varieties are excellent. The generic "Boston Lager" is almost ubiquitous now. Until about a year ago I would take part in a little dialogue again and again at bars and restaurants:

Gooley:       What do you have on tap?
Hireling:       Bud, Bud Light, Lite, Coors, [regional monstrosity such as Rainier, etc.].
G.:       Oh. [Pause.] In bottles?
H.:       Bud, Coors, [regional monstrosity], [anti-beer such as Zima], Heineken, and Sam Adams.
G.:       [Sigh of relief.] Sam Adams, please.

Microbrews are more common now, but for several years Sam Adams beer saved me from having to drink ice-cold Hardly Burgundy, or, Heaven forbid, nothing but water. I was grateful, despite the habit that Jim Koch, who runs Sam Adams, had of suing anybody who tried to use the name "Boston" in association with any other beer or brewery. Little of his beer is brewed in Boston, anyway: it's contract-brewed in Pittsburgh and Portland.

Lies. Well, Samuel Adams was probably not a brewer but only a maltster, the generic Sam Adams beer is a lager (something that probably didn't exist in 18th-century Boston -- they drank ales), and no "special" Sam Adams beer is quite true to the style on the label. The bocks are all worth drinking but far too strongly hopped: a bock is supposed to be rich and malty without too much bitterness. The Cream Stout is one of my favorite beers, with almost a chocolately taste combined with the texture of a lager, but Koch's explanation -- that in the past other stouts were thought of as analogous to milk but a stout of this style "was the cream" -- is pure buncombe: a cream ale is so called because it is fermented with both ale and lager yeast, and forms a peculiar creamy scum on top during fermentation. (I've never heard of the cream-ale method being used for a stout before, either, though it probably has been in the past.) The Cranberry Lambic was simply a good wheat beer with a touch of cranberry flavor, not properly thin and strong and sour from the action of "wild" lambic yeast: as much like a lambic as I am like a supermodel.

Golden Pilsner is new to me, and unless I argue that "pilsner" indicates not a style but a place of origin, perhaps the first Sam Adams beer without a glaring lie on the label. It's golden, at least some of the aroma hops are Saaz, the level of bittering hops is about right, and it's a tasty, well-balanced beer. And yet...some pundit with more experience will probably correct me, but this beer just doesn't taste like a Pilsner. There's a slight fruitiness, as produced by an ale yeast, or by a lager yeast working at too high a temperature, as with a steam beer. Shortly after the Communist government fell in Prague, my local liquor store was selling Czech pilsners at under a dollar for a half-liter bottle. I drank a lot of them, and this beer is roughly the right style but clearly different, clearly American. It's better than the generic Sam Adams lager, and well worth a try.

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