Sunday, December 09, 2007

The cream (ale) of the crop, NOT at sold Lion

Word in October from brew-blogger Jack Curtin was that The Lion Brewery of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania had been sold.

The Lion is an old mainline brewery. It opened in the early 20th century and survived the deprivations of Prohibition and the carnivorousness of the big nationals. In 1974 it purchased its cross-town (and cross-state) rival, the larger but struggling Stegmaier Brewery. That led it to brewing several of Stegmaier's brands, including the lovely Liebotschaner Cream Ale.

In November 1995, I delivered a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution on American Beer styles.

This was a few years before newer American beer styles had become sanctioned contests as to how many pounds of hops brewers could toss in their kettles and fermenters. So, one of my examples that evening was a quintessential style - cream ale - a style born of the cash-deprived necessity of ale brewers in the 19th and early 20th century to compete with lager breweries.

In the mid-1990s, Lion's Brewmaster Leo Orlandini garnered several gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival for his Libotschaner Cream Ale. I felt it a worthy example for the Smithsonian program.

But two days before the event, the Washington, D.C. distributor called with bad news: they were out of stock. After a phone call to Wiles-Barre, Orlandini overnighted several cases. The wholesaler's rep actually hand-carried them in mere minutes before the lecture. Talk about brewery-fresh!

And it was indeed a lovely beer: gently fruity with a kiss of hops, and the taste of malt expertly allied with an appropriate amount of corn. (I'm amused by craft brewers who disingenuously "scorn the corn" while using wheat for their 'lighter' beers.)

Sad to say, the beer has been discontinued for several years. Not that I'm particularly sanguine about the prospect, but maybe the new owners may re-introduce it.

More properly know as American Sparkling Ale, true cream ale is not as common these days, eschewed by both the large breweries and many craft breweries. Think of it as an American Koelsch. A fine, award-winning, local example is brewer Bill Madden's Kolsch at Vintage 50 Restaurant in Leesburg, Virginia.

I myself brewed an American Sparkling Ale several years ago at the Manayunk Brewery, a brewpub in Philadelphia.

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