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July 18, 2011

Craft Beer Brewers Turn to American History for Inspiration

The brewing industry in the United States has seen an explosion in recent years in what are known as “craft beers” - innovative beer styles produced by small, independent breweries. In fact, the craft brewing industry grew last year by 11 percent in volume, and 12 percent in dollars - compared to the previous year. One of the newest offerings even takes its inspiration from the nation's founding fathers, including George Washington.

It's yet another indication that more small brewers feel they can push the envelope, experimenting with taste and styles to accommodate a thirsty global market.

Around the world, more people have taken an interest in American beer. Specifically the so-called craft beers or microbrews. The beers tend to be brewed in smaller batches. They may use unusual or local ingredients.

Craft beers appeal to an adventurous demographic that's not afraid to spend a little extra on a pint or a bottle of beer .. to taste something different.

“American craft beer drinkers are experimenting with flavors in beer that they’ve never been able to get before," says Gregg Glaser, editor-in-chief of Yankee Brew News.  "Lot of hops for bitterness and aroma, and a lot of malt.  And they’re willing to spend more money for that. They can certainly buy mass-produced beer - Budweiser in a 12-pack - for almost less money than a six-pack of a craft beer.  But they’re buying the craft beer.”

A bigger flavor profile has been especially appealing to consumers in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. International sales of American craft beer jumped by almost a third (28 percent) last year. Domestic sales of craft beer, by contrast, rose 11 percent, while overall beer sales fell one percent.

Craft brewers in the U.S. have been busy supplying worldwide demand with products that keep pushing the boundaries of what people think of as American beer.

In the case of Shmaltz Brewing Company, that means going back to history hundreds of years, to the time of America's first president, George Washington, when flavorful beers were the norm.

“I get a lot of roasty brown chocolate malts," said Jennifer Dickey, who co-brewed what Shmaltz is calling “Fortitude Founding Father Brew.”  "There's a little bit of sweetness than you get a really intense hop profile. I'm tasting a lot of bitterness and on the finish I'm getting the tanginess of molasses.

Yes, molasses! That staple of colonial American life, and part of George Washington's original recipe, written in his own hand.

“In the early days of the United States, both colonial and post-colonial times everyone was brewing," says beer expert Gregg Glaser.  "This included the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin.  For about 30 years now in the United States we’ve had a craft beer revolution and we have Samuel Adams Boston Lager - Samuel Adams being a patriot in Boston during the Revolution.  And that’s brewed by the Boston Beer Co. and Jim Koch.

Koch started his business in the 1980s selling his home-brewed recipe to pubs and restaurants from his car.  Today, Boston Beer brews more than two million barrels a year. And it has more than 31 kinds of beer, including Utopias.

Available every two years in limited quantities, this beer has a deep ruby color. It was actually aged in sherry, port, Madeira and bourbon barrels. And it also tastes nothing like beer.

So says Grant Wood, a brewer with the Boston Beer Co.

"It's very intense. This big peak of flavor that comes out with the warmth of the alcohol that's in there," he said. "Malt, caramel, toffee, figs, raisins, dark fruit. That sort of thing. Then there's a long tapering finish."

The company bills Utopias as the world's strongest-brewed beer with a 27 percent alcohol content - more than six times stronger than a standard beer.  It's a rare brew and priced accordingly: $150 a bottle.

"Jim Koch, he's always pushing the brewers to come up with something different, something interesting," said Grant Wood. "Something unique to push the envelope on what beer can be."

And that aggressive innovation has proven to be a successful strategy. It’s helped many American craft brewers propel industry sales worldwide.