Written by Jack Ries
The title says it all. We love beer, some of us more than others.
The bubbly, bittersweet stuff has enjoyed a long and successful history, nearly as old as human history itself. In fact, the earliest evidence of beer is a 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing. It contains the oldest beer recipe found to date, describing the production of beer from barley.
We, as Americans, have had a love affair with beer since even before the founding of this great nation. In American history, the Boston Tea Party was planned over many rounds at a local tavern. The U.S. Navy negotiated hiring a few strong- armed men to protect them, over a few pints at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, thus leading to the creation of the United States Marine Corps. Even many of our founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, brewed beer.
The list goes on and on, so it’s no wonder we love beer so much. It’s always been there for us; it’s (almost) never let us down. Beer is a true friend. Today, the craft of beer brewing is experiencing a revival, with particular attention being paid to the traditions of the past.
It is in this great tradition that Bob Helm has found his niche as a brewer of the time-honored beverage we love so much – beer. I sat down with Bob a few weeks ago at Pig Iron Brewing Company, which is where he now plies his trade, so that I could pick his brain about the brewing process, commercial brewing, and his thoughts on craft beer and craft brewing in general.
Bob has been making beer since 2001. Like so many other brewers before him, he started at home, learning from friends. In fact, home brewing is really where the process of craft brewing begins. This is where, when working with smaller batches, brewers can learn the basics as well as master their recipes. Bob has been no stranger to homebrewing throughout his career, having worked in and managed home brewing stores in York and Lancaster for around 10 years, learning all the grains, hops, malts, yeasts, and equipment. During this time, he estimates that he taught nearly 400 people how to home brew. Not too shabby. Although he said he truly enjoyed working at the home brew stores and teaching people how to make beer, he always wanted to brew commercially. When he was given the chance to do just that at Pig Iron Brewing Company, he jumped at the opportunity.
As I’ve dabbled in home brewing myself, I of course wanted to get some free tips and/or pointers out of Bob. No trade secrets, mind you, just the basics. His words of advice were, “keep it simple, and brew what you like to drink.” At first I thought that was a bit obvious and not very sage-like advice, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was absolutely right. Keep it simple. Brew what you like. Why didn’t I think of that?
In our conversation, we discussed the fact that there appears to be an arms race going on in the craft brewing world. Each brewery is trying to outdo the rest with bigger, bolder, hoppier, maltier, higher-alcohol beers. Too many times have I tasted an imperial IPA that just tastes like a bottle of liquid hops, or a Belgian tripel that has too-high of an alcohol content which makes it taste great at first, but finish with the decidedly unpleasant taste of rubbing alcohol. Yuck. This is not keeping it simple, and it sometimes isn’t brewing what you like, either.
True to his word, Bob does keep things simple, and he is especially good at brewing what he likes to drink. His most complex beer, as far as maltiness, only contains four different types of malt (that would be the amazingly delicious Friar Bob Evil Ale, by the way). Almost all his beers are single-hopped, meaning they feature only one variety of hops per beer. Again, very simple, but very effective. He is able to precisely control the bitterness and flavor profile of each beer by doing this. Because of his commitment to keeping things simple, he is able to get it right every time. There are no bad batches. Each beer he makes has a distinct character all its own, with a great smell, a perfect malt profile, just the right amount of hops, and a good clean finish. Exactly how it should be.
This is a very exciting time in the world of craft- and micro- brewing, especially in South Central Pennsylvania. At one point, this area of the state was known as “Little Bavaria” due to the large number of breweries located here. Unfortunately, many of those breweries died off during or immediately after prohibition. With the passing of the 21st amendment, which once again legalized the production and consumption of alcohol in the US, some breweries were able to resume business as usual (if they even stopped production during prohibition, but we’ll save that for another article), but many of those breweries succumbed to the Great Depression. During World War Two, what few breweries were left began making their beers lighter and easier to drink for two reasons: One- budget constraints and grain rationing made it hard to brew For the Love of BEER 3 traditional-style beers, and two- since most of the men of drinking age were overseas fighting in the war, most breweries’ target markets became women.
This trend continued for nearly forty years until something happened in the 1980s. In California, traditional beers like the ones made at Anchor Brewing experienced a comeback, which emboldened newer breweries to go against the norm. On the East Coast, Jim Koch and Rhonda Kallman founded the Boston Beer Company, which makes Samuel Adams. They used this brewery to bring German-style recipes and ingredients back into commercial brewing, resulting in a higher-quality product. These companies, and many companies like them, began crafting beer that wasn’t pale yellow with a light flavor, but instead beers that were made in the traditional fashion, with traditional ingredients and recipes. The taste for these “craft” beers expanded into Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, and eventually all over the country. The mid-eighties was thirty years ago, but the effects of the craft brewing revolution are still being felt.
This is the wave that many brewers, like Bob Helm, have caught. A delicious wave of malty, hoppy, boozy goodness. Unlike the waves at the beach, though, this one doesn’t appear to be crashing into the shore any time soon. Although the Millers, Coors, and Budweisers will continue to enjoy a major market share in this country, it’s craft beer that many people truly love. And it is craft beer that people will continue to love for years to come.
Bob Helm’s passion is brewing high-quality beer. My passion is drinking high quality beer. I’m very glad that Bob is able to do what he does in our little river town (it was about time somebody opened a brewery in this place).
If you yourself are a lover of craft beer, or if you’re new to the world of micro brewed beer and would like to see what all of the fuss is about, support your local craft brewery. Go down and get a sampler flight, or an entire pint. If you would like to sample some of Bob’s handiwork (and I really suggest you do), make your way down to Pig Iron Brewing Company at 40 East Front Street in Marietta. Bob’s beers are always on tap, and the rotation is constantly changing. I guarantee that you will be able to find something you like, whether it’s a porter, tripel, stout, IPA, pale, ESB, scotch ale, or farmhouse. Most importantly though, is the fact that Bob’s beers, as well as all other craft brewers’ beers, are made to be enjoyed. So let’s sit down, relax, and have a beer. Cheers!