Twenty-five years ago, you could count the number of widely distributed American ales on one hand.
Then came the American microbrew revolution. Today, of the top 50 American craft brewers, only five (Boston Beer, Anchor, Spoetzel, Gordon Biersch and Karl Strauss) claim lagers as their flagships. Sierra Nevada, Victory, Red Hook, Brooklyn, Harpoon, Magic Hat, Deschutes, Full Sail, Dogfish Head - they all made their name with ales.
There are two reasons for ale's dominance among the crafts.
First, ales are generally considered to be easier to brew than lagers. Remember, most small breweries were started by home brewers who often lacked the refrigeration and other equipment necessary to perfect their lager recipes.
More important, small brewers found that ales allowed them to distinguish their brands from run-of-the-mill industrial lagers. Their wide assortment of ales, from amber and brown to porter and barleywine, showed that beer didn't have to be simply crisp and pale; it could be dark or bitter or roasty or aromatic or tart or floral or dry or heavy or . . . well, a brilliant spectrum of flavors that had vanished from the American brewing scene.
Which makes the appearance of Bud American Ale so remarkable.
After a mere 130-plus years, Anheuser-Busch has decided that ale - not just lager - is worthy of the Budweiser name.
Because Bud sales are tanking.
A-B and the other big guys are hobbling along, striking mega-billion-dollar mergers to reduce costs, spending millions on TV commercials to sell what? Bland, lifeless light beer. Meanwhile, with little more than actual flavor as an asset, craft beer - mainly ale - is the fastest growing sector in the beer market.
Budweiser American Ale is tacit acknowledgment that the little guys had it right all along, that beer drinkers want more than just fizzy yellow lager.
Like Bud, this ale is well made. It pours bright, more red than amber. It's not as crisp as Budweiser, but it has a clean finish. Though it has been dry-hopped with Cascades (a process in which the hops are added after fermentation to enhance aroma), the nose offers only a hint of hops character.
Like Bud, it is designed to appeal to a mass audience.
Which brings us to Yards Extra Special Ale.
This ale is not for everyone. It's a classic English extra-special bitter, with a quirky, malty body balanced with East Kent Goldings hops. This is an ale that was meant to be served at cellar temperature (about 55 degrees) from a properly conditioned cask with a hand pump.
It's bitter, it's creamy, it's warm, it has character. It's exactly the kind of ale that distinguishes a craft brewery from a factory.
Over the years, ESA has gone through several iterations. Beer freaks fell in love with the brew and then shrugged as Yards focused on its current flagship, Philadelphia Pale Ale.
For founder Tom Kehoe, ESA's evolution reflected that of its brewery. "You could say ESA lost its direction as Yards the company lost its direction," he said.
Last year, Kehoe split with his partners, Bill and Nancy Barton, over business differences. The Bartons opened Philadelphia Brewing Co. at Yards' former facility in Kensington, a happy turn of events because they're making the beers they love in a neighborhood that they love.
And today, Yards will fire up the kettles for its first official batch in its new brewery on Delaware Avenue. The facility, a former iron shop in the shadow of what may become the SugarHouse Casino, will eventually include a small pub.
The new brewery is twice the size of Yards' former plant. By 2009, Kehoe hopes to be producing the equivalent of 275,000 cases a year, 2 1/2 times greater than Yards' biggest previous output. Among its priorities: expanding its territory beyond the city and into the suburbs, especially South Jersey.
Besides new packaging and the revival of Yards Brawler, a mild ale, the brewery is focusing on returning ESA to its roots.
Among other steps, the beer will be dry-hopped once again. And Kehoe's staff is enthusiastic about tackling the task of properly cellaring casks (known as firkins), for that essential conditioning.
"Over the years, we had cleaned up the recipe," Kehoe said. "The old ESA had more fusil alcohol, more astringent hops. They're imperfections - you may not want that in a perfectly brewed ESB.
"But that was the ESA that we loved." *
Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.