Sunday, October 15, 2017

A case of fruit beer

About 50 years ago, I read about fruit beer, but it was decades before I ever saw any. If ever there was a monoculture, it was American beermaking between 1945 and about 1976.

But eventually, I found myself in  an Austrian restaurant on Long Island which had raspberry beer on the menu. They lied. What they served was lager with raspberry syrup. Ugh. Worst quaff ever.

All along, of course, Europeans had been enjoying excellent fruit beers, particularly the lambics brewed in Belgium. Nowadays, thanks to Lite beer, you can get these even on Maui, though they are pricey -- about $17 a bottle.

What happened was this. There's a lot of talk among business journalists these days about disruption, as if this is something invented in Silicon Valley. It's been going on a long time.

In the '50s and '60s, local breweries were closing or being absorbed by regional brands, and by the late '60s the people analyzing the brewing sector predicted that soon there would be only 4 or 5 brewing companies in the United States: These were going to be Anhueser-Busch, Schlitz, Coors (then only a regional brewer), perhaps Pabst and Anchor, a specialty brewer in San Francisco.

Everyone else was going to be swallowed up and homogenized; and in America, unless you brewed your own (as I sometimes did), your only choice would be thin light lager. Then Miller introduced Lite (actually developed by Rheingold, a New York regional). That was disruptive.

Americans, knowing no better by this time, drank that swill, by the tens of millions of barrels, and Schlitz disappeared. The consolidation continued, although never quite to the level of 5 companies, but a funny thing happened.


Perhaps enough Americans traveling abroad discovered real beer to create a demand at home, but in any event, as the majors made beer lses and less desirable, here and there, and soon everywhere, small companies began brewing and selling loclly -- just like in the 19th century. As in the 19th century, the quality was varied and a lot of the stuff was pretty bad. But eventually, the brewers began to get the hang of it, and good beer was available.

Not fruit beer, though. Some guys from Idaho opened an undercapitalized brewery in Kahului in the '90s. They liked an extremely dry beer, which did not suit local tastes, and soon went out of business. But not before experimenting with a raspberry beer using 3,000 pounds of raspberries grown at UlupalakuaRanch.

This was good beer but no one would drink it. In the end it was sold for $2 a cup at semipro baseball games.

It took a long time but the craft brewers finally got around to fruit beer, and it took even longer to reach Maui. In fact, I'm pretty sure "craze" does not describe what's happening on Maui where a night of relaxing beer drinking still means a suitcase of New Zealand lager and a pack of cigarettes to most locals.

I was surprised, yesterday, to see a white and red can of beer labled "Raspberry Sour" tucked amid the welter of cutely-named craft beers at Whole Foods. Whole Foods and, to a lesser extent, Tamura's, have been selling a limited selection of fruit beers for some time, but they make up a tiny fraction of demand if shelf space is any indication. (Maui Brewing Co. makes a beer with a bit of pineapple, but it is not a fruit beer.)

From the can I learned of the "sour craze" for the first time. Raspberry Sour made by 10 Barrel  Brewing Co. in Bend, Oregon, and it's the McCoy.

Comparatively cheap too, at $3 a can.

There is, I think, a simple economic lesson in this, and it's nothing to do really with beer snobbery or back-to-the-simple-days-of-yore.

It's just that we are a very rich nation now, or some of us are. Joe Sixpack will continue to drink thin lager, sometimes paying a bit extra for a foreign label. though the stuff inside might as well have come from Grain Belt (a brewer of extremely cheap beer in the last days of the consolidation of the lager business, though I see that today the Grain Belt name is being applied to a craft brew, an unlikely ploy to anyone who drank Grain Belt back in the day.) Those of us with a little extra income can patronize bespoke beers and there are enough of us to support a small (in comparison to national consumption) fine beer sector.

Even, it now appears, a bespoke fruit beer sector.

Paul Krugman has a column today about lies the rightwingers are telling about taxes. He mentions, just in passing, the economic factor behind everything, from beer to cars, although so far as I know even Krugman has not cottoned on to the big news: we have too much capital. For the first time in history, there is more capital available than anybody knows what to do with. Enough even to bring good fruit beer to Maui.

Here's Krugman, almost coming to grips with the revolution in economics:

Many of the companies with big overseas hoards also have plenty of idle cash at home; what’s holding them back is a lack of perceived opportunities, not cash flow.

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