Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Still Special After All These Years

1973 was a lousy year to be a beer drinker in Oshkosh. Peoples Brewing had closed a year earlier and for the first time since 1849 Oshkosh found itself without a brewery.

The same mess prevailed almost everywhere. Of the more than 750 breweries that re-opened after Prohibition just over 100 remained by the 1970s. Most small, regional breweries had been annihilated. Not everyone took the decline in stride. Some began to vent their disgust. On May 22, 1973, Chicago Daily New columnist Mike Royko wrote of the beer pouring out of America’s big breweries: “It all tastes as if the secret brewing process involved running it through a horse.”

When Michael Weiner’s Taster’s Guide to Beer came out in 1977, his reviews of American-made beers were, for the most part, equally unfavorable. His review of Schlitz was concise and dead on: “Just awful. Sour, weak. A poor, computerized lager.” But Weiner also discovered a few buried gems among the dreck. He especially liked the beer from Stevens Point.
“Point Special, Like Leinenkugel’s, is a local beer holding out against the giant national producers. This brewery is even smaller, and all of the production (45,000 barrels per year) is consumed within a seventy-five mile radius of the brewery... A light beer, with a distinctive smell of hops. No aftertaste; an easy beer to drink in quantity. Highly recommended.”
The Men from Point, circa 1973
Weiner gave Point Special a “near perfect” rating of six-mugs (out of a possible seven). Of the dozens of beers Weiner reviewed, the only other American beers to receive such a score were Anchor Steam, McSorley's Ale and Rolling Rock.

Back in Chicago, Royko had also been singing the praises of Point Special. He had taken a lot of flack for his column about the sorry state of American brewing, so to answer his critics, Royko conducted a blind tasting that put his words to the test. In July, 1973 he assembled a panel of 11 taster who sampled 22 beers; a mix of domestics and imports. The top three beers were German-brewed Wurzburger; Bass Ale from England; and Point Special. The bottom three were Old Milwaukee, Schlitz, and Budweiser. Some consider the Royko tasting the seed that led to the rebirth of small and regional brewing in America.

How quickly things have changed. We’re as far from Royko’s tasting as Royko was from Prohibition, but in that span American brewing has undergone a revitalization that wasn’t even being hinted at 1973. There are now 2,538 U.S. breweries in operation. There haven’t been this many American breweries since the early 1880s. In addition, there are more than 1,000 pending breweries that have acquired permits, but are not yet operational. You no longer have to look hard to find flavorful American beer. The tough part is deciding what to drink among all that is being offered.

Meanwhile Point Special is still there tasting much like it always has – pretty damned good. It’s about as unfashionable as a beer can be these days. The Stevens Point Brewery seems happy to embrace that. They’ve recently incorporated their 1950s label in the can design for Point Special. I guess, they’re shooting for the retro look; something they already had.

Now, if you need a light lager that looks a bit more haute, then go over and grab a Longboard Island Lager made by Kona Brewing. At Festival in Oshkosh, Longboard is normally priced at $7.99-8.49 for a six-pack. A 12-pack of Point Special is typically around $9. Is Longboard worth the extra cost? Not even close.

I thought I’d try my own little Royko taste trial and put it to the test. My wife and I did a blind tasting at our house that pitted Point Special against Longboard Island Lager. It wound up a dead heat. She chose Longboard; I preferred Point. Both were good. Neither of us thought one beer was vastly superior to the other.

But considering that Longboard is almost twice as expensive as Point, it would seem there’d be little reason to bother with the pricier beer. Unless, of course, you think it looks better to have that fancy bottle in your hand. I’d rather have the money in my pocket.

There’s another reason – when I’m drinking this type of beer – that I’d rather drink Point: it’s local. Back in 1973, when Royko and his tasters selected Point Special as the best American beer, Oshkosh was part of the envied territory that Point called home. While Schlitz, Budweiser and their ilk doing all they could to destroy regional beer scenes like the one we had in Oshkosh, Point was right here fighting the good fight.

That part hasn’t changed. Kona Brewing, the makers of Longboard Island Lager, is owned by a consortium called the Craft Brew Alliance. They, in turn, are partially owned (32%) by AB/InBev, the makers of Budweiser. You won’t find a word of that mentioned on their flashy packaging or among the liquid-aloha bullshit on their website. Just as it was in 1973, it remains a David and Goliath story. And Point is still coming out on top.

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