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Classic Beer of the Month October 2011: Samuel Adams Boston Lager

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Samuel Adams Boston Lager, 4.9%

If there’s one beer that has driven the craft brewing revival in the USA, it is Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

Samuel Adams Boston LagerOthers may argue that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been the most influential, arriving as it did four years before the Boston beer, or perhaps even the long-established Anchor Steam Beer, but I would insist that the widespread availability of Sam Adams has made it the key player in the development of the American beer scene.

I remember travelling around the USA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite a craft brewing sector that had begun to flourish once the New Albion brewery opened in California in 1976, it was damned tricky to find a beer worth drinking in many parts of the country.

Only one beer stood out from the crowd of bland, light lagers, and that was Sam Adams.

The beer was first brewed in 1984. The story has it that company founder Jim Koch put it together in his kitchen, based on a recipe handed down by his father and once used at his great-great grandfather’s brewery in St Louis.

He named the beer after Samuel Adams, an 18th-century revolutionary from a brewing family, who was one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence.

Immediately, the beer began to turn heads. Instead of yellow blandness in the glass, drinkers encountered a rich amber beer, loaded with toasted malt and spicy hop flavours. It was never so full flavoured as to frighten off the less committed but nevertheless delivered taste and satisfaction that few beers in the country were able to at the time.

Masterful Marketing

Apart from actually brewing the beer, Koch deserves recognition for this masterful handling of marketing and distribution. As I meandered around the States, Boston Lager became a constant, an obvious first choice at the bar or in the supermarket/gas station, sometimes even when there was actually some local brewing colour on show.

For me, it was the first proof that American brewers could deliver flavour. It must have had the same response from Americans themselves, who not only reached out for the beer but also turned their minds to what else might be out there of interest.

What’s really good about this story is that Boston Lager remains a top beer today. It’s just picked up a gold medal in the International Beer Challenge for which I am chairman of the judges, so I know I’m not alone in confirming this.

And I know beer enthusiasts who always make sure they down a pint of the beer whenever they travel to the USA, despite the remarkable choice that now exists there.

No doubt it is a commitment to quality throughout the brewing process that is responsible. The beer is brewed using two-row pale malts, alongside caramel malt.

These are subjected to a continental-style decoction mash that not only extracts more sugar from the grain but also adds to the toasted quality as the mash is raised to searing temperatures from time to time.

Vienna Comparisons

The use of caramel malt for a darker colour draws comparisons with the historic Vienna style of lager, although the emphatic hop regime, including dry hopping as the beer matures, definitely imposes an American stamp.

The hops used are German. More than that, they are Hallertau Mittelfrüh and Tettnang, two of the so-called ‘noble hops’ that have gained a reputation over centuries for the subtleness and refinement they offer to a brew.

Unlike the raging hop quality you find in a lot of American beers, the flavour they provide here is a relatively restrained but highly effective balance of herbs and citrus fruit.

Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company is today by far the biggest of the USA’s craft brewers, turning out close to 2 million US barrels a year – that’s roughly the equivalent of the output of Fuller’s, Hall & Woodhouse, Shepherd Neame, Thwaites, Wells & Young’s, Everards, Black Sheep, Wadworth and Hydes put together.

Its beer range is now extensive, touching base with all corners of the brewing world in its array of wheat beers, dark lagers, ales, spiced beers and wood-aged creations. But Boston Lager remains the cornerstone of its success. It’s easy to see why.

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