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Has beer gone upscale? Yes. More Americans, including African Americans, are drinking import and specialty beers.

Yes. More Americans, including African Americans, are drinking import and specialty beers.

America is a beer-drinking nation in the midst of an evolution. We may like our domestic wines, and be devoted to our whiskies. Bus of far greater appeal are mainstream, easy-to consume American beers. Lately, however, our palates have been wandering to the exotic, trying out foreign or specialty varieties--in short, beers with strong individuality ant complex character. Ant it seems we like what we taste.

Little more than a decade ago, Americans who vented fuller-flavored beers looked to imports and to the few small regional microbreweries that had begun to sprout around the country, such as Anchor Steam in California and New Amsterdam in New York. By last year, the Oregon Brewers Festival attracted 70,000 people who came to taste 66 microbrews produced in that state alone. Today, there are over 500 brew pubs nationwide--eating places where beer is brewed and served.

If it sounds as though we are forsaking the giant breweries, consider this: 46.6% of African Americans and 45.1% of white Americans arc beer drinkers. Last year, more than 2.75 billion cases of beer were consumed in this country. That adds up to 24 gallons of beer per capita. In contrast, we consumed about two gallons of wine per capita last year. And, it was the top eight brewers of mainstream American beer--among them, Miller, Coors, Pabst and Anheuser-Busch--that made up 98% of those cases. While that leaves only 2% for imports and specialty beers, it adds up to 55 million cases more than a trickle for what was once considered the rarefied market of upscale, upper-priced beers.

George Gore of Atlanta says he understands why people are willing to pay more for these beers. His personal beer of choice is the brewed-in-Atlanta Red Brick Ale. "It has a lot more body, more flavor, and the taste is clearly defined," says the director of operations and a partner in two venerable Atlanta restaurants, The Mansion and The Abbey. "That's what makes such beers good not only by themselves but to drink with food. Mainstream American beers are popular beverages, pleasant to drink, but when we have them with a serious meal, the food overpowers them," he says.

Both of Gore's restaurants have award-winning wine lists. But like many cutting-edge restaurants, they now also have impressive beer lists. At The Abbey, the list carries both European and American beers. At The Mansion, which specializes in American cooking, the beer list features small domestics. "There, my favorite beer is Helenboch," says Gore. "It's a smooth Bavarian-style beer, sold by a man in Atlanta and brewed at Friends Brewing Co. in Minnesota.

"You know, wine carries so much snobbery. We're not really a nation of wine drinkers, and unless we take the snobbery out of it, we won't bring new consumers to it," Gore says. "On the other hand, Americans are already beer drinkers, so it's easy to have people step up to a higher level."

While mainstream American breweries still have the edge, they are not idly watching sales of specialty beers grow. Miller Brewing, for instance, is producing its own line of specialty beers, starting with Reserve 100% Barley Draft, a beer with an intense malty flavor. It also bought a majority interest in a specialty microbrewery, Celis, in Texas. Anheuser-Busch has countered by introducing Red Wolf Lager, Elk Mountain Amber Ale and Red Lager, domestically, and by importing a Canadian brand, Elephant Red. Imports from Holland and Mexico as well as Canada are up considerably.

Which leaves one wondering: Will we pass over the Cabernet and Chardonnay with dinner and consider ordering Samuel Adams Lager or Rolling Rock Extra Pale instead? Possibly, says Gore. "Brew Dubs." he believes. "are the restaurants of the future."
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Title Annotation:Wines & Spirits
Author:Fried, Eunice
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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