Beer Without Fear
Eagle Rock Brewery is one of the latest and most heartening chapters in the long history of beer.
By Bradley Tuck 03/01/2011
“Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in a letter addressed to Andre Morellet, in 1779
And so it would seem that those who erroneously have Ben Franklin waxing lyrical about his love of the amber nectar are sporting their beer goggles. Indeed, if one were to look at the lackluster state of some of the most popular beers produced in the U.S., it’s a wonder that this myth was not debunked long ago. Franklin certainly wouldn’t have recognized what passes for a brew in most fridges. Watery, fizzy and insipid beers have pretty much been the ale of the nation. There’s a reason for this sorry state of affairs, and it requires us to look at history. What better place to start than at the beginning?
Beer has been brewed pretty much since civilization began. The earliest accounts of brewing date back 6,000 years ago in Sumeria, which lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Who knows how yeast and barley ended up in a liquid mash, fermenting to make beer? But like most of mankind’s great moments, it was likely an accident deemed to have good results, which was then repeated deliberately and perfected.
The Babylonians of the second millennium B.C. were perhaps the original boozehounds, as they were able to brew as many as 20 types of beer. (It no doubt kept them cheery while pruning the Hanging Gardens.) Interestingly, the Sumerians and Babylonians drank their beer through straws, made of, yes, straw. Their beer was unfiltered and the flavor bore little resemblance to modern beers. The brewing by-products, which had a strong bitter taste, were left in the brew, so the straw kept those nasty bits out of the drinker’s mouth.
Beer-making continued in ancient Egypt and was an important part of daily Egyptian life, with locals adding dates to their brew to improve the flavor. When the Romans ruled the civilized world, they preferred wine and viewed beer as the drink of the barbarians to the north. Over the centuries, beer production followed the cultivation of barley and mirrored the spread of the Christian abbeys across Europe. In what now seems an ironic arrangement, the abbeys brewed beer for the monks and even sold their brews commercially in order to finance their religious orders.
The main preservatives in beer at the time were bark and leaves. However, at some point in the 15th century, hops came into use as a preservative, in what was a major step toward shaping the flavor of beer as we know it. Perhaps the greatest refinement was that century’s introduction of the Reinheitsgebot,
a German standard for beer brewing dictating that only four ingredients — water, malted wheat, malted barley and hops — could be used in the making of beer. (Yeast was already understood to be a naturally occurring ingredient needed for fermentation, although it was later added as well.) The final step in creating what we think of as modern beer came with the understanding of how yeast worked and the refinement of cooling techniques that removed the cloudiness from and imparted stability to the brew.
If you want to look for the real culprit responsible for the insipid brews for which America became infamous, look no further than Prohibition and World War II. Prohibition dealt a huge blow to thousands of small breweries across America, forcing them to close down, while larger breweries were able to diversify into the production of non-alcoholic beers and other cereal malts. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but with America’s entry into the war eight years later, much of the drinking-age male population joined the military and went abroad, leaving behind a U.S. work force consisting mainly of women. A shortage of the ingredients for malt, which adds depth to beer flavor, combined with a female-dominated market that preferred lighter beers, led to the predominance of the pale, refreshing but somewhat bland beers that are the biggest part of the country’s drinking landscape.
Thankfully, all is not lost. In recent years, true beer lovers have fought back, and microbreweries — small production breweries devoted to the craft of making unique and interesting beers — have been flourishing. Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and San Diego have all had great beer scenes for some time. Los Angeles was seen as a black hole of antimatter when it came to ale. But not any more.
When Eagle Rock Brewery was launched by the father-and-son team of Steven and Jeremy Raub in January 2010, it became the first new Los Angeles brewery in more than 60 years. The demand for good beer has been growing enormously over the past few years in L.A. Bars like Verdugo, with its emphasis on a regularly rotated selection of artisanal beers, and Pasadena’s own, now sadly shuttered Brix 42, helped fuel an interest in and appreciation of genuinely interesting beers. The blog-osphere has helped foster that community with beer events, blogger bar crawls and regular blasts of who’s-serving-what-and-where. Beer bulletins can be tweeted furiously, feeding the frenzy when a hard-to-find brew hits a bar.
Steve Raub started home brewing 14 years ago and has won numerous awards for his brews in homebrew competitions. His son Jeremy learned the craft from his dad in 1994 and has been brewing here with fervor for six years.
A visit to the brewery, in an unprepossessing semi-industrial pocket wedged in a corner off the 2 Freeway, seemed unpromising. There are no signs to indicate the treasures that lie within the unadorned grey walls that could just as easily belong to a paper storage warehouse. But opening the doors at 4 p.m., Ting Su, Jeremy Raub’s wife and the business manager at ERB, leads me into a small L- shaped tap room with a long counter and walls lined with framed posters of bright modern beer graphics, perfect accents for this equally bright, modern brewery. It’s truly a family operation, with Ting Su’s sister, Lin, behind the branding of merchandise, glasses, labels and such. Perched atop shelves at head height is a row of Growlers, refillable half-gallon bottles that can be taken home, then brought back and refilled with your brew of choice. On a low counter are large bowls of pretzels and peanuts in their shells. Benches awaiting the thirsty line the walls.
The brewery itself is clean as a whistle and houses an array of stainless steel tanks used for making the mash — a mixture of malted grain and warm water. Different sets of tanks are used for boiling the wort — the liquid drained from the mash — and then hops are added. In another set of tanks, yeast is added to the cooled wort and fermentation begins, a process lasting seven to 14 days. The liquid, which now has alcohol and CO2, is then transferred to yet another tank for aging, which allows any sediment to drop to the bottom while flavors blend together and mellow. Finally, the beer is carbonated by forcing air into it. At any of these stages, the brewer has control of the parameters — the amount and type of hops, different blends of malt and length of time aging — that will affect the final flavor. That’s what makes each brew unique and interesting.
Stepping back in after a 15-minute tour, we find the tap room full — like bar-on-Saturday-night full. Hipsters, bicyclists and older patrons all chatter noisily, while sipping from flights of four beers or grasping pints with one hand and pretzels in another. Some have brought in their own food to help wash down the beer. It’s a truly extraordinary scene, people lured to a room in the middle of nowhere by their shared love of great beer. Jeremy passes me a flight nestled into a wooden plank whose drilled holes clasp small glasses filled with liquids ranging in color from a light frothy yellow to a deep burnt mahogany. “My dad made these,” he says proudly. Ting Su is jovially manning the taps and filling the reusable Growlers, tying the tops with a plastic tie, so as to pass open-container muster.
The selection of beers on offer in the tap room changes periodically. The Populist IPA was a particular standout, with lively, bright hops in a robust but smooth body. It felt elegant but also, dare I say it, manly? At 7 percent alcohol by volume, it would be easy for a drinker of this beer to over-enjoy and become anything but elegant. But no doubt about it, Ben Franklin would have approved, as would God, who sees that we are finally happy.