Red Beers

This article appeared in the Syracuse New Times, February 15-22, 1995.

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Red blooded, red phone, red lips, red hot. Heat! Alarm! Passion! Beer!

Beer? Yes, prodded by flat sales of traditional brands and envious of the Coors Brewing Company’s success with Killian’s Irish Red, the followers in the brewing industry are saddling up and chasing red flags. What this means to you is a daunting selection of red beers, and you’d better be ready.

On the horizon, Red Wolf Lager and Elk Mountain Red from Anheuser-Busch, Red Dog (which isn’t red) and Leinenkugel’s Red (which is) from Miller, Henry Weinhard’s Boar’s Head Red from Heileman and Augsburger Rot from Stroh. If you like to settle in and read a long brand name, there’s Red River Valley Select Red Lager: North Dakota Reserve from the Northern Plains Brewing Company. Locally, you can come to grips with Buffalo Brewing Company’s Limerick’s Irish Style Red Ale and Red Feather Pale Ale from the Arrowhead Brewing Company in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. From across the water, Heineken sends us ruby-red Tarwebok.

Color aside, these are very different beers. The red color comes from malt, not from tomato skins or Red Dye No. 2. And malt is just one of the elements that gives beer its flavor. As malt is roasted, it usually goes from pale straw to gold to amber to brown. But roasted at a higher temperature, it travels to the darker shades by way of the color red. Remove the heat at the right moment and you have what is called “caramel malt,” which yields red beer.

How does “red” taste? It should taste a tad sweeter, because as the malt is roasted, the sugars caramelize; hence, caramel malt. The more caramel malt used, the sweeter the beer may be, although the sweetness is usually balanced by the dryness of the hops.

Red beer has been an accepted style in Ireland for centuries. Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion notes that the original Killian’s was known as Killian’s Ruby Ale, first brewed in 1864. It was made until 1956 in County Wexford. After the brewery closed, a member of the family, George Killian Lett, licensed the brew to Pelforth in France and then to Coors in the United States.

Coors began brewing Killian’s Irish Red in 1981, at a time when other major brewers maintained that there was no point in brewing anything but light lagers because no one would buy anything else. Of course, in the absence of anything else to buy, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Killian’s thrived and is now (1995) the largest-selling specialty beer in the United States.

In Killian’s redness lies its success. Away from home, people order beers as much to make a statement as to savor the flavor. Budweiser is the classic safe choice because it’s the most popular brand and says, “I’m normal. I’m your bud.” And maybe, “I’m hung like a Clydesdale.” But there are bar patrons who yearn to be different. In 1981, Killian’s large dimple mug and its warm red color attracted attention, and its likable flavor with a hint of ale character ensured its success. Not only did it give beer drinkers some variety, it was also a pleasant steppingstone for those who initially thought the more exotic imports and microbrews were too scary.

Today, U.S. beer drinkers have hundreds of choices, from the most of the world’s beer styles, and although specialty beers only comprise 1% of the U.S. beer market, that 1% is worth $900 million a year.

Thus the sudden attention of the major brewers. They have noticed the success of smaller brewers with unique products, and in the words of Jim Koch of the Boston Brewing Company, maker of Sam Adams, “It’s The Empire Strikes Back. Life from now on will be a lot harder.”

For the majors, the name of the game is “line extensions,” new brews to capture new business. There are really only two tactics here. One is to risk some money, do the research and development and go in first with a new product. Go in first and you’re likely to stay first. But if you flop, you lose a lot of money. So the other tactic is to let someone else take the risk and see how they do. If they hit a gusher, you run in right after them with lots of money and hope to be a profitable follower.

In the recent past, beer drinkers have ridden several waves of the new, beginning with the first successful “light” beer in 1973, Miller Lite. In 1985, Miller began producing “genuine draft” beer, leasing the technology from Sapporo in Japan. In 1988, Anheuser-Busch followed a different Japanese lead and introduced “dry” beer to the United States. The most recent brew du jour was “ice” beer, heavier and heartier, which almost immediately spawned the bizarre contradiction of light ice beer.

And now, red beers. To whet your thirst, the majors are coming up with slogans like that for Red Wolf: “Follow your instincts.” Does this mean that you will chase down an elk? Probably not. Rather, the instinct is the usual one bar-goers develop when they run with the pack and have a few cold ones. Continuing the manly outdoors theme, the label of Red River Valley Select Red Lager has two explorers in buckskins making their way inland in a birch bark canoe. The beer itself, however, is no discovery.

Aside from the snow jobs, is there anything in the red beer craze for you? Yes, indeed, because two of the reds are wonderful beers.

First brewed in 1991, Red Feather Pale Ale predates the hype but should benefit from the attention. It’s a microbrewed pale ale with a rich, peachy amber color and a full-bodied, fresh flavor with a cidery tang followed by a crisp hop finish. It’s great with barbecue.

The biggest surprise comes from Heineken, makers of the pleasant but thoroughly average lager from the Netherlands. Tarwebok is an autumn beer brewed to celebrate the harvest. The addition of wheat gives it a citric opening note, the caramel malt gives it a sweetness which plays across a subtle hop note and flows into the warmth of the alcohol associated with a strong bock beer. Taking a mouthful of Tarwebok is like biting into a piece of fruit. This is a delicious, mouthwatering beer. That it’s a beautiful deep red is merely an added benefit.

What’s next? Perhaps fruit beers. The Belgians, and American microbrewers, brewpubs and homebrewers, have long known that certain fruits can be included in the brewing process and blend beautifully with the taste of malt and hops. Now, if just one of the major U.S. brewers begins thinking about the money to be made in a light, dry, red, fruity ice beer…

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Sadly, Heineken’s Tarwebok never came back to the U.S. and Red Feather’s brewer went out of business.

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