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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ambitious Brew by Maureen Ogle

Historian and author Maureen Ogle is in Denver this week at the Great American Beer Festival promoting her new book, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. I had a chance to sit down with Ogle between events on Friday to discuss the book.

The idea for the 384 page book (Harcourt, $25) was conceived by Ogle when she came across a Budweiser delivery truck on her way to the grocery store. She was in search of a topic for a new book and was surprised to find out no one from outside of the beer world had ever written a history about the evolution of the industry. The book chronicles many of the large brewing companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Pabst and Schlitz, and smaller breweries like F.X. Matt, Ortleib and Yuengling.

Ogle says in researching the book she was surprised to see the level of animosity among some in the craft beer industry toward Anheuser-Busch and found that the common perception that the makers of Budweiser had driven many small brewers out of business in the 1950s and 1960s was wrong.

"After Prohibition the vast majority of the 650-700 breweries that opened in 1933 were owned by people who got in the business to make money and didn't know anything about brewing," Ogle said. She said "plain old incompetence" was the primary reason the number of breweries in the U.S. dropped to 250 during the 1950s and 45 by 1970.

"America's passion for bland food" is another reason that lighter lagers ruled the day for much of the mid- to late-20th Century, Ogle says. She points to Wonderbread and other mass produced food products and says that vodka became popular in America during this same time because it had less flavor than other spirits.

She said the growth of microbreweries and brewpubs is being fueled by America's evolving tastes and the fact the "the majority of brewers in the business are passionate about beer. They like making beer. In the 1950s, most brewers liked making money more than they liked making good beer."

Could the U.S. ever return to a period like Prohibition? Ogle says the similarities between the Anti-Saloon League and the tactics of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, "scares the hell out of me. One hundred years ago people used to say 'Prohibition can't happen here.' MADD is chipping away one step at a time, just like the Anti-Saloon League did to get alcohol outlawed."

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