Journalist reviews boost beer industry
Before there was Yelp! and RateBeer.com and a million blogs to tell us who's No. 1, there was the great newspaper taste test.
It was the 1970s, and American breweries were dying left and right. There were barely 100 of them nationwide, and most produced the same, boring pale lager. Our favorite was either the cheapest brand or the one that sponsored the home team.
Then came Mike Royko, the greatest American urban newspaper columnist ever, to declare in the Chicago Daily News that most domestic beer tasted like it had been run "through a horse." While some readers protested that he was some kind of commie, others pointed him to hidden gems from small, regional breweries.
That prompted Royko to conduct what appears to be the first formal beer taste test by a newspaper. Twenty-two beers ranging from Schlitz to England's Bass Ale were sipped and sampled by a small panel of enthusiasts.
On July 10, 1973, while the rest of the nation was focused on the Senate Watergate hearings, Royko reported the results. The worst was Budweiser — no surprise. The best American beer was Point Special, from Stevens Point, Wis. "Great flavor and a great beer smell," one judge raved. "I could drink it all night."
Few outside of Wisconsin had ever heard of the Stevens Point Beverage Co., founded in 1857. But after reading the results, thousands contacted the company with orders, boosting sales by a reported 20 percent. TWA put in an order for 200 cases a week for its first-class passengers — a request the brewery turned down because it would chew into its limited local supply.
"It was a tremendous boost to our business," said the brewery's current operating partner, Joe Martino.
Beer makers weren't the only ones who noticed; other publications across the country began conducting their own taste tests, too. In the next 10 years, dozens of beer ratings were published in newspapers from Los Angeles to New York City and in between.
In March 1975, as Coors began distributing to the East, the Philadelphia Inquirer wondered just how good the fabled beer of the Rockies really was. Its food editor put together a panel of "six intrepid Inquirer editors and writers," conducting a blind taste test that rated beers for "purity, body and flavor."
Coors finished in a surprising fifth place. No. 1 was the hometown's lowbrow but lovable favorite, Schmidt's.
Within days, billboards were erected across town, declaring Schmidt's "the beer the experts rated best." Sales of the languishing brand crept upward, but unlike Point's success, the surge was only temporary. A decade later, the brewery would go out of business.
That same year, rock music critic Robert Christgau and his wife, Carola Dibbell, authored "The Great Gulp: A Consumer Guide's to Beer" in the girlie Oui magazine. Their favorite was Royal Amber from Wiedemann in Newport, Ky. "A few other American beers hold up when the chills wears off," they wrote. "This one actually gets better."
In 1978, Newsweek chimed in, rating Leinenkugel's of Chippewa Falls, Wis., as the best local beer in America: "A nippy brew (that is) perfect for those times when you take a few more pops than is your custom."
Sales spiked nearly 20 percent.
"We got lucky with some great publicity," brewery chief Jake Leinenkugel told me recently. "It opened up the Chicago market for us."
Journalistic taste tests like these not only boosted struggling brewers, they foreshadowed the stunning rebirth of America's small breweries. Given the dwindling state of my own profession, I only wish there was a way the breweries could return the favor.