Ice-beer process inevitably ends in a taming of the brew


March 06, 1994|By ROB KASPER

I am lukewarm about ice beer. I have had only one. The other night as I finished an Ice Draft from Budweiser, somebody asked me, "What's different about this beer?" and I snapped, "It has a new label."

It was probably not a fair assessment. However, after the rotten winter weather we have had lately, I'm repelled by any product called "ice." Maybe if it had been called "sunshine beer" or "warm and tan beer," I would have been more inclined to like it. But probably not. Because ice beers are aimed at folks who want a smoother, tamer-tasting brew. I am attracted to beers with ample, even occasionally bodacious, flavors.

Like most suds sippers, I couldn't help but notice the ads for ice beer that appeared on television during the Nancy-and-Tonya show, also known as the Winter Olympics. What this ad blitz signaled to me was that more breweries were jumping onto the ice. Miller, which has Icehouse, is adding an ice version of Miller Lite. G. Heileman Brewing Company has an ice version of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, which is made in its plant in Halethorpe, south of Baltimore.

As in most matters of ice and snow, America is following the example of Canada, where Labatt and Molson have been selling ice beers for a year. And, as in most matters of beer making, the ice-beer technique hails from German tradition.

I learned this after reading up on ice-beer brewing techniques and talking with guys who brew beer for living. My own understanding of the ice-beer process is known as vast oversimplification:

Brewers make ice beer by getting ice crystals to form in the beer. The brewers do this by lowering the temperature of the brew after it has been brewed and fermented, but before it is aged or lagered. Ice crystals trap the harsh flavors in the beer. So when you remove the ice crystals, you end up with a smoother or tamer-tasting beer.

The difference between the old German version of ice beer and the newer frozen brews is that Germans were taming big, hearty, Double Bock beers, while the brewers on this side of the Atlantic are icing down versions of their already mild-mannered brews. ,, That is what Theo de Groen, owner of Baltimore Brewing Company, said. He makes several German-style lagers, but no ice beer, at his microbrewery next to Little Italy.

Both de Groen and Hugh Sisson, another Baltimore microbrewer, said they were impressed with the technical skill required to make an ice beer. Dropping the temperature of your brew below freezing without icing up the works is a daunting undertaking, said Sisson. He said he had not tried the procedure at his South Baltimore Brewing Company. He said freezing mild American beers and removing ice crystals would result in beers that some drinkers may call smooth, but others would call weak. "It seems to run counter to the whole idea of brewing more flavor into beer, not taking flavor out," he said.

There is no doubt that ice brewing changes the flavor of the beer, said John Houseman, master brewer of the G. Heileman Brewing Plant in Halethorpe. He reminded me that beer is a FTC democratic drink. Drinkers like their brews in various strengths, he said. "Some people like you may regard ice beer as bland," Houseman said. "But if John Q. Public likes it, then ice beer is going to stay."

Ice beer, he said, already appears to be more popular with American drinkers than dry beer. Dry beer arrived in America a few years ago from Japan. With dry beer, the brewing process was altered to eliminate hoppy aftertastes. But we turned out to like hoppy aftertastes, and the market for dry beer dried up. Both dry beer and ice beer have higher alcohol content than normal American brews. While most American beers average about 3.6 percent alcohol by weight, ice beers can run up to 4.4 percent alcohol.

If I were an ice-beer guy I would not stop at the Budweiser's Ice Draft that I drank the other night. I would sample the Coors brand Artic Ice now being test-marketed in Pennsylvania, and the Miller's, and the Schlitz, and the Heileman.

But the idea of drinking beers that have more alcohol and less flavor leaves me tepid. Besides, my household has its own version of ice beer. It works like this:

The kids bury a couple of long-necks in the ice and snow that cover our back yard. I have to find them. The ice-beer hunt delivers a terrific thrill when you find your buried treasure. And it gives you another reason to root for the ice to go away.

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