It's no shocker that the Midwest, often referred to as the Grain Belt, makes great beer. And though lately Minnesota has experienced a beer renaissance of sorts with brands such as Surly and Summit, as well as notable brewpubs like Town Hall, Minnesotans have been producing beer as far back as colonization. Doug Hoverson, a beer judge, teacher, and drink enthusiast, has meticulously reconstructed the history of Minnesota beer, from homebrews to Hamms to the present, in Amber Water: The History of Brewing in Minnesota. He took a moment in his busy schedule to chat with City Pages.
CP: What originally peaked your interest in Minnesota beer and its history?
DH: When I was at college I had some friends that got me interested in beer other than the readily available, heavily advertised, light beers, and when I came back to Minnesota it was just as Summit and James Page was starting to bring out their new beers. From there I started experimenting with different types of beers to see what was out there. I didnt really have the idea for writing a book for another 10 years— I was looking at some old newspapers from Morehead back in the 1880s to for a paper I was writing on the Northern Pacific Railroad, and I came across some ads from old breweries I had never heard of. At that point I started to look around to see if there was a book on MN breweries There wasnt. I thought it might be a fun book to write so I got started.
CP: I see that youre a beer judge. How does one become an expert in the subject? What are some of things you look for during competition?
DH: The process for training is basically, local homebrew clubs put on a 40-hour class usually 3 hours a night over 12 to13 weeks. At the end you take a three, three and a half, hour and a half test where you describe beer styles, write sample ballots on mystery beers, and describe the brewing process. Its a fairly tough test. You have to know a lot of trivia about types of ingredients and particular styles. Judging it, its really more like a dog show than anything else it might be the cutest dog ever, but if it doesnt look like what that particular type of dog is supposed to look like, it cant win. With beer its the same thingit might be your absolute favorite beer, but if theyre claiming its a pilsner, and it doesnt have the right characteristics, its not a winner.
CP: Have you found you have a greater understanding and appreciation of chemistry through your beer research?
DH: Definitely! When I was working on the book, as well as training to be a beer judge, I had to learn things about amino acids and temperatures of reactionsthings that I paid no attention to when I was doing chemistry in high school and college.
CP: What are some common misperceptions about beerbe it historical inaccuracies, or just general beer misperceptions that irk you?
DH: One of theories that comes up is what exactly bock beer is. There seems to be a perception that bock beer, because its much darker, is whatever is left in the tank at the end of the year, and they scrape that out and turn it into bock. Theres never anything left in the tank at the end of the brewing cycle, its absolutely clean afterwards. Bock is simply made stronger, with a darker grain mix. It would be like saying you made a pot of tea, and whatever you scrape at the bottom is coffee— you have to make coffee, and bock is an intentional product.
CP: Its curious that the beverage industry often reflects trends in society more so than many other products. Why do you think that is?
DH: Beer is ultimately a luxury product. I think because of that it is more sensitive to trends. You dont have to have it, so youre going to choose it for enjoyment and the types of things that cause enjoyment change with the culture. Theres a big move with organic beers for example, because that has become important to people. For some, being accepted by a big group is whats important, so Miller Lite, Bud Lite, and Coors is what you are looking for in a luxury product.
CP: It sometimes seems like we are moving away from local and independent businesses—bookstores being an obvious example. Yet the exact opposite seems to be happening with beers—Surly, for one, has become quite a local superstar.
DH: I think one difference, especially in the case of bookstores or small independent newspapers, is that it's hard to enjoy beer over the internet. There's something about the place where you're enjoying the beer. A lot of the enjoyment is the setting. One of the reasons Coors was so popular in Minnesota in the '70s, and Fat Tire is so popular now, is that it's a beer that people had out West on vacation, and so it has a good association.