Food and Drink: It's time to turn out the lites: Miller's Clear Beer died, but its Amber Ale lives. Michael Jackson takes hope from a year that saw a shift from watery brews to the real thing
Saturday 08 January 1994
Underneath leading articles on Bosnia and proportional representation came what is known in the trade as a 'third leader'. Such mini-essays customarily ponder quirkier matters. This one took a worried look at the fashion for domestic fluids as clear as water.
A clear washing-up liquid made by Palmolive entered the argument. There was speculation as to the likelihood of 'clear' pea soup or 'white' blackcurrant juice. Crystal Pepsi was cited as an example of the trend. The notion of white wine being less boozy than red was mentioned.
These ruminations were prompted by the testing in some American markets of Clear Beer by Miller, the second biggest brewer in the United States. Clear Beer sounded like the brewing world's answer to fashionable vodkas with such names as Absolut - or to a question that had not been asked. It was one thing, mused the leader writer, to abstain from artificial colourings; quite another to remove a natural hue (Miller had killed the colour by intensive filtration).
Clear Beer was never available in the UK, but I encountered it in the United States, where it was presented in marketingspeak as 'in the finest tradition of the Miller Brewing Company . . . full-flavored but without heaviness'.
This curious product was a lager the colour of 7-Up, which formed little head and tasted like a sweetened seltzer with the faintest touch of oily, medicinal hoppiness in the finish. It looked like a soft drink, but contained 4.6 per cent alcohol by volume, a level found in many 'premium' lagers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Miller has a history of trying to remove the character from beer. It popularised Lite Beer, memorably described as 'wet air' by the native American writer William Least-Heat Moon; and it marketed a so-called Genuine Draft in a can long before Irish and British brewers developed their rather better approximation.
Such marketing may not be wholly a bad thing. Miller is sufficiently sophisticated to realise that, though some consumers may like colourless and tasteless beers, not all do. It introduces special products for these people, rather than fiddling with its existing brews. This point could be taken by those British brewers who feel that the only way to appease the unformed palates of the young is to beat even their best beers into a bland uniformity.
On occasion, Miller has tried to make beers for people who would prefer more taste. Last year, it introduced not only Clear Beer but also Miller Reserve Amber Ale.
The latter has a beautiful balance of malt and hop, and is made with a traditional ale yeast imported from Britain. The encouraging news, for those of us who savour flavour, is that Clear Beer has been withdrawn - and Amber Ale is doing well.
After decades in which ales and lagers alike have become ever more like fizzy, sweetened water with alcohol, the failure of Clear Beer and the success of Amber Ale may well mean that last year the tide turned.
Another of the world's largest brewers, Molson of Canada (the company is controlled by Foster's of Australia, which owns Courage of Britain) announced a volte-face. In eight-page, four-colour inserts in the Canadian press, it has been declaring in the past couple of months that it will 'dare to be great' (marketing speak is rarely modest). 'Starting now,' say the ads, 'every Molson beer in Canada will be naturally aged and free of preservatives. As we speak, our brewmasters are creating new recipes . . . and bringing you some very distinctive beers.'
Distinctive is not a word I would have associated with Molson's products, until the company offered me samples of a new, amber-red, malty, Vienna-style lager and a dryish Cream Ale of a similar colour.
A few weeks earlier, in the Netherlands, Heineken had told me that it had quietly reverted to the tradition of all-malt beer, rather than using cheaper, lighter 'adjuncts' such as maize. This company also offered me tastings of its latest ideas: a malty (and hoppy) Vienna-style lager, and a fruity 'Irish red' ale.
The similarity of the Canadian and Dutch changes is a coincidence, but that is not true of the shared notion that perhaps there was room for tastier beers. It is always tempting to make bland products for the lowest common consumer, but that is a blind alley.
If you train drinkers to believe that the less the flavour, the better the beer, how long before they prefer mineral water or soda-pop? If you keep making beer more like sweetened water, what happens when no one can tell the difference? If the drink looks and tastes like soda but contains 4 or 5 per cent alcohol, does it not mislead in a way that plays into the hands of those who would deem beer, wine or spirits socially unacceptable?
If it is beer, we should be aware of that. We can know only if we understand what beer is. I would define beer - be it lager, ale, stout or some other style - as a fermented product made wholly or primarily from grain, and seasoned with hops or other herbs and spices.
Brewing grains such as barley have deliciously nutty flavours. When they are malted, they begin the release of their fermentable sugars and have to be dried in a kiln: this imparts attractive colours, ranging from gold through amber, ruby and ebony, and even more luscious tastes. Hops add flowery, herbal, aromatic, resiny dryness.
To remove these colours and flavours is to despoil a product that offers sensuous pleasure and enlivens our social life and our table. Recent beers, tasteless or tempting, clear or richly coloured, have rendered me reflective. The brewers, too, I hope.
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