I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at the latest meeting of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, one of the oldest and most venerable homebrewing clubs in the United States (its alumni include Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, as well as not a few others who turned pro on a smaller and just as bold scale). The meeting was Tuesday, April 16, at the fabulously anachronistic Burp Castle in the East Village (you will be shushed should you get too boisterous) and my talk came after Guild president Ed Kurowksi hosted a tasting re: the fruits of an interesting dry-hopping experiment.
Ed had put different hop varieties in different bottles of Bud Light to test the effects of hops on even the thinnest, dullest American beer around. It was an illumining test; try it sometime.
O.K.: the story.
One of the reasons homebrewing clubs like the Guild flourished was because their members were devoted to a different kind of beer: tastier, more varied, creatively and joyfully made. And remembering that notion (as well as Ed’s hops experiment) got me to remembering Mike Royko’s famous 1973 blind taste-test.
Early that year, Royko, famed for his Chicago Daily News columns about Windy City politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) and the recipient of the previous year’s Pulitzer Prize for commentary, lamented that “America’s beer tastes as if it were brewed through a horse.” The column touched a national nerve. How dare he criticize the national drink? One reader gave him a Plan B: “Go to hell, if you don’t like this country’s beer. Maybe you’ll like what you are served there.” Etc.
So Royko organized what may very well have been the first blind taste test for beer in an American newspaper. The results, printed on July 9, 1973, were telling: Of the 22 beers, including imports, tasted by Royko’s 11-member panel, Budweiser, the signature brand of the nation’s biggest brewery, finished dead last, with Schlitz, then the No. 2 brewery, just ahead of it (judgments regarding Bud: “a picnic beer smell,” “lousy,” “Alka Seltzer,” “yeccch”); no brands from the nation’s top five breweries, in fact, finished in the top five.
The overall winner was a West German pilsner, followed by England’s Bass Ale; and the domestic champ was Point Special, a pilsner from the regional Stevens Point Beverage Company in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “Great flavor and a great beer smell,” as one judge put it; “light and lovely,” said another. The 116-year-old brewery enjoyed a 20 percent sales bump from the win. But it turned down a request by airline TWA for 200 cases a week because the request would deplete their supply and hurt local distribution; and when a liquor store in the Rockies requested Point Special, it got the same answer.
There were consumers out there; there just wasn’t that much variety available—unless you homebrewed.