Monday, May 14, 2007

Lagers and larger-than-life characters are the star of new book on American brewing

By Jim Lundstrom
Maureen Ogle has been called a corporate lackey, a shill, a patsy and, perhaps most disturbing of all, a neo-conservative.
Some have even called the down-to-earth 53-year-old historian’s abilities into question, which are fighting words for Ogle.
“The only thing that upsets me is when someone challenges my professional integrity,” she said by telephone from her home in Ames, Iowa. “I’m a very thorough, careful, honest historian, unlike a lot of people who write histories. I don’t plagiarize. I don’t hire people to do my research. As far as I’m concerned, my professional integrity is my most important asset.”
What prompted these outbursts against Ogle?
She dared to write a book called “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.”
Worse, she dared to start her history not with thirsty Pilgrim fathers sucking murky brews from pumpkins or even thirsty fathers of the Revolution clanking piney tankards o’ ale while plotting against King George, but with German immigrants who introduced sparkling lager to the American palate in the 1850s.
“It’s really a love song to the American dream,” Ogle said of her book. “I thought I was just going to write a book about beer, but it became clear to me about three years into it that I was really writing a song of praise to American opportunism and the opportunities in America. I’m pretty fascinated by the American experience and that’s what this book turns out to be.”
The founders of today’s macrobrews and the golden lagers they produced are the stars of her story, a story publisher Harcourt Books is calling the “first-ever history of American beer,” which was bound to bring the Beer Geeks out of the woodwork, and they were like barflies on free beer day when “Ambitious Brew” hit the shelves in October.
But, as Ogle will tell you, Beer Geeks were not the intended audience for her book.
“I wrote it for a bigger audience,” she said.
She writes not for other historians or academicians, but for the masses. Even so, she realizes a work takes on a life of its own.
“One thing bout being a writer, once it’s out there, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore,” she said. “People are going to make of it what they will. You can’t make everybody see a piece of writing the way you intended it.”
The aspersions cast on Ogle and her book come largely from the minority crackpot wing of Beer Geekdom known as the Beer Snobs. You can tell them by their massive, jutting foreheads and a superior, all-knowing attitude that is always in conflict with their complete lack of social skills.
“The Beer Snobs, they’re not happy,” Ogle said.
They assume many things about Ogle and her book, the most absurd of which is that since Ogle picked up the history of American brewing in mid-19th century when America’s beer barons were just getting their starts in Milwaukee and St. Louis, she must be in the deep pockets of the megabrewers.
But, no, she just did not find colonial ale to be historically significant to her tale of American brewing, which is the story of lager and larger-than-life characters such as Phillip Best and Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst.
Later it becomes the story of Prohibition, and later still, the story of the equally larger-than-life characters like Fritz Maytag, Jim Koch and Charlie Papazian, the frontmen in the microbrewing revolution.
But lager is the No. 1 hero and star of “Ambitious Brew,” which has ignited the crank factor on countless beer blogs.
“It’s mostly people really vested in beer, especially homebrewers and people whose hobby is to drink craft beers,” Ogle said. “There are a lot of people who are really invested in craft brewing, emotionally. It’s really important for them to think of other brewers, like Anheuser-Busch, as the enemy. So if you say anything positive at all about Anheuser-Busch, these people just go insane. Their response to me is, ‘You obviously don’t know anything about history, and, look, she did some of her research at the Anheuser corporate library. Clearly that proves she’s just working on their behalf. They’re probably paying her.’ I’ve been told this a lot. Which, of course, is not true. At all. In fact, they wouldn’t let me in the door except to use their corporate library, which they will let any researcher use.”
In fact, her greatest regret is that Anheuser-Busch – who she has heard love the book – would not allow her more access to historic documents.
“I found out pretty quickly Anheuser-Busch wasn’t going to let me look at anything,” she said. “They have hundreds, maybe even a few thousand, letters Adolphus wrote during his lifetime, and they wouldn’t let me look at those. My great sorrow about this book is that I wasn’t allowed to look at those. I don’t know if it would have changed the story, but it would have given the story more texture.”
Ogle has two previous books to her credit – “All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890” and “Key West: History of an Island of Dreams.”
Five years ago she began searching for the topic of what was to be her third book when it literally popped into her head upon seeing a Budweiser truck pull into her line of vision.
“I will tell you when I saw that truck, I didn’t know if Budweiser was the name of a company or the name of a beer. That’s how completely clueless I was,” she said.
“It’s clear when I’m working on a book, my brain is hard at work and I really don’t realize it,” she said. “It comes up with this idea, and, of course, my immediate reaction when I saw that truck, I thought that was a fabulous idea. I‘d been trying to come up with something for a couple of months and was coming up empty. Because it was such a great idea, I was absolutely convinced as well, surely it had been done. There must be at least 100, 200 books out there on beer. I was really surprised to discover no historian had ever tried to tackle the subject. There are a few books written by, essentially, beer geeks – and I don’t mean beer geeks in a negative way, beer geeks liked to be called beer geeks – there are some books written by people who don’t really understand how to do history and just repeated the same old anecdotes over and over again. Nobody actually had taken the time to investigate it. My perspective as a historian was a completely blank slate because I didn’t know anything. I had no agenda.”
Ogle said “Ambitious Brew” presented several new challenges, not the least of which was dealing with modern history and the people who made it.
“Interviewing living people is maddening because when people are dead, there’s an end to what you can know about them. There’s a kind of finite story to their life,” she said. “I’d interview six people and there would be six different version of one event. I had to really figure out which version came closest to being the truth. I also discovered there are a lot of personality conflicts. And there are some old animosities that date roughly from 1985 to 1995, that have been resolved, but it was clear that those animosities were still coloring what some people were telling me.
“I also will say getting to know these people absolutely changed my life,” she said. “They are some of the most extraordinarily talented people I’ve ever met in my life, some of the smartest people. I was really inspired by all of them to reach harder and higher in my own life. Jim Koch (founder of Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams) I think is so smart, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He has a law degree from Harvard. He could have easily been the chief justice of the Supreme Court, but he chose beer.”
Like most people, Ogle said she mindlessly drank cheap beer in college, but working on “Ambitious Brew” has actually turned her into something of a Beer Geek.
Ogle wanted to understand what was attracting all these talented people to beer.
“So one day I went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of beer and brought it home, and for the first time really started taking it seriously,” she said. “I got converted to beer.”
Just don’t ask what her favorite beer is, because, like most Beer Geeks, there is no one favorite brew.
“When people ask me what my favorite beer is I just tell them whatever I’m in the mood for and whatever I think is going to be good with whatever I’m eating,” she said. “My refrigerator has everything from Budweiser Select to Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark. If I had to pick one it would probably be Saranac Adirondack Lager (from Matt Brewing of Utica, N.Y.), a perfect balance of malt and hops. I really like the graininess of malt.”
While working on “Ambitious Brew” changed her life and introduced her to the rarified world of Beer Geekdom, Ogle has already opened the door (a door she says is marked “Chaos”) on her next subject – meat.
“If the beer book was the bright side of American optimism, meat is the dark side,” she said. “Americans have a fundamental optimism that makes us want to have it all. We really believe that we can have it all. I think meat has become a classic example of that.”
Oh, oh. I can already hear the Meat Geeks and Vegetarians sharpening their knives.