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Beer: Batch 19's in town

With craft beer one of the few bright spots in a moribund beer industry, the nation’s No. 3 and No. 4 brewers, Coors and Pabst, are angling for a greater share of the pie.

Coors last month debuted its new pre-Prohibition beer, Batch 19, in five cities, including Washington. The draft-only golden lager is based on a circa-1916 recipe that was rescued from the Coors archives after a drainage pipe broke and flooded the premises. “The handwriting was exquisite, almost like calligraphy,” says Coors master brewer Keith Villa, who has attempted to re-create the beer using modern ingredients.

Batch 19 is made with 20 percent corn grits, a cheap adjunct grain that is commonly used to lighten beer without providing much flavor of its own. Technically, that disqualifies Batch 19 from being called a “craft beer” according to the strict definition promulgated by the Brewers Association. But that’s far less corn than is used in regular Coors, according to Villa. And Batch 19 almost does have a craft beer flavor, with two-row Moravian malt providing a biscuity sweetness and five types of hop (including an uncommon French variety called Strisselspalt) adding an herbal, peppery dryness. It’s a decent summertime quaff, with less body than a Sam Adams but more complexity than a Yuengling Lager.

Coors has introduced the beer into nine Washington establishments: 18th Amendment, Bistro La Bonne, Breadsoda, Iron Horse Tap Room, Kelly’s Irish Times,the Saloon, Stetson’s Famous Bar & Grill, Union Pub and Spike Mendelsohn's upcoming We the Pizza. In lieu of pitchers, the beer was being served (for on-premise consumption only) in special 64-ounce growler jugs, recalling a bygone day when beer drinkers used similar containers to tote their beer home from the saloon.

Coors hopes the new brew will duplicate the success of Blue Moon, which began its existence in 1995 as a brewpub beer called Sandlot Belly Slide Belgian Wit and only gradually attained national prominence.

And why the name? “We call it Batch 19 because the country went dry in 1919,” Villa says.

Meanwhile, McSorley’s Irish Pale Ale and McSorley’s Irish Black Lager, two old brands that Pabst reformulated to craft specifications and reintroduced last year, have been popping up around the Washington area. I spotted the ale -- a moderately hopped American-style pale with a caramel malt backbone -- at an Arlington 7-Eleven recently, and enjoyed the dark lager, roasty with a bittersweet chocolate flavor, at the RiRa pub on Wilson Boulevard.

Neither brand, despite the name, is particularly Irish: The dark lager is a decent example of a German style called Schwarzbier or “black beer.” Until recently, the McSorley’s labels were primarily house brands for McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York, a venerable taproom that dates to 1854, when it was known as the Old House at Home. Until it went coed in 1970 after being sued by the National Organization for Women, its motto was “good ale, raw onions, no ladies.” The neck labels on the bottles bear the warning that founder John McSorley posted at the entrance to his back room: Be Good or Be Gone.

When I bellied up to the bar at RiRa for the black lager, instead of the standard pint I received two eight-ounce mugs. “That’s how it’s served at McSorley’s Ale House; it’s a unique way for us to stand out,” says Bryan Clarke, brand manager.

The McSorley’s beers might not excite connoisseurs on the prowl for the latest sour, barrel-aged or wet-hopped offerings, but they’re a step forward for Pabst, which until recently concentrated its efforts on budget brands that it inherited from long-gone regional breweries. (Pabst’s portfolio, which you can access online, includes about 30 brands, including Schaefer, Blatz, Lone Star, Ballantine and the erstwhile pride of Baltimore, Nattie Boh.)

Pabst is a virtual brewery. It rents plants to manufacture its beer (the McSorley’s brands are made at the City Brewery in Latrobe, Pa.). The company was steadily bleeding market share points until a few years ago when its flagship Pabst Blue Ribbon brand, for reasons that are still being discussed and debated, became the favorite brew of Generation Y hipsters. The low price of PBR compared with so-called “premium” brands such as Bud, Miller and Coors has also spurred sales. “The last two to three years, we’ve had twenty percent growth each year,” Clarke says.

That success has moved Pabst to toe the craft beer market. The company hired award-winning brewmaster Phil Markowski to reformulate the McSorley’s brands and also helps market Markowski’s own line of Southampton ales and lagers.

But Pabst is in a state of flux.

As of this writing, the company is still owned by the Kalmanovitz Charitable Trust, a nonprofit organization set up by a former owner, the late Paul Kalmanovitz, and his wife Lydia. The charity contributes to various medical and educational causes, with a predilection for Jesuit-run institutions. It dished out $10 million to renovate an academic center at the University of San Francisco, and helped bankroll the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, a think tank at Georgetown University.

The IRS, however, was uneasy about a nonprofit running a beer company, and ruled that the Kalmanovitz Charitable Trust would have to dispose of the brewery. Recently, a sale was announced to Greek-American tycoon C. Dean Metropoulos, who has successfully managed such brands as Bumblebee Tuna, Chef Boyardee, Duncan Hines and Mrs. Paul’s. The deal might have been finalized by the time you read this.

Metropoulos’s plans for the company are unknown. But “it’ll be an exciting summer,” Clarke says.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  June 28, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Beer, Greg Kitsock  
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