It's a story for the ages, the kind we beer drinkers want to believe: A brewer stumbles upon a long-lost recipe in the dusty corners of his brewery, one for a beer that his great-great-grandfather might have drunk some 90 years ago.
Mix in the cachet of Prohibition — and the gangsters and beer barons associated with flouting it — and you've got a made-for-Hollywood beer story.
Unfortunately, nothing's ever that simple, and there are a few contextual problems with the beer in this story — MillerCoors' "pre-Prohibition style lager," Batch 19 — finding a home in today's complex beer world.
The beer celebrates a 13-year period that became an economic apocalypse for what had been a robust, highly regional brewing industry. Something like half of U.S. breweries operating in 1919 — the year before Prohibition began and evoked by Batch 19's name — did not brew another drop after the nationwide ban on alcohol was lifted in 1933.
Brewers that survived did so by making "near beer" or by leaning on other industries in their portfolios. Coors Brewing Co., which brings us Batch 19, relied on a porcelain business it only divested of 60 years after Prohibition ended.
Coors, which is now part of a multinational brewing conglomerate that's the second-largest in the world, takes a craft approach to Batch 19. While the beer is just fine, its craft authenticity suffers with the fact that the recipe was found at what MillerCoors calls the largest single-site brewery in the world (in Golden, Colo.). Especially in the context of Prohibition, it feels like history written by the victors.
Batch 19 is late to the retro-beer party. Wisconsin beer fans will note that Capital Brewery tried the early 20th century concept with Capital 1900 early in this century, and aimed for a period some 50 or 60 years later with Supper Club, a 2010 release. Schlitz has had success at low-end craft prices since it relaunched in 2008 with its 1960s recipe.
So with all that in mind, let's check out the beer at the center of this story.
Style: American macro-style lager.
Brewed by: Coors Archive Brewing, which is part of MillerCoors, which is a joint venture of SABMiller and Molson Coors Brewing Co. Got it?
What it's like: A heartier version of the reformulated Schlitz.
Where and how much: The Madison market was among those chosen this fall to test Batch 19 on tap, following a rollout in bottles last year in Milwaukee and a few other markets. For a list of the 10 bars and restaurants tapping Batch 19 in the Madison metro area, go to go.madison.com/batch19.
The beer: Batch 19 pours a clear gold notably darker than just about anything else that comes out of the Golden brewery. It smells and tastes pretty much like a typical American macro, though with a depth of character that Bud or High Life can't match. Specifically, Batch 19's hops have a bite that cuts nicely through the grain, which is bready and corny without getting too sweet. Although the body has a weight that will be more familiar to craft drinkers than the macro crowd, it's still plenty drinkable, with a lingering bitterness on the finish.
Booze factor: The beer's 5.5 percent ABV is more craft than macro, too.
The buzz: Though the story of how Batch 19 came to be could be considered a gimmick, heritage and history are important to the brewing industry, and the persistence of retro beers shows that customers are intrigued by the idea of sipping a time capsule of a beer. But I wonder whether a beer that straddles macro and craft so completely can gain traction. Especially on tap, without the label's fine print declaring it a Coors product, there's very little indication Batch 19 is a Coors product. That unusual branding may work in its favor in Madison because craft beer fans are suspicious of big beer companies like MillerCoors. But its anonymity isn't going to draw the macro drinkers who might be apt to give it a shot because of its association with the more familiar Coors. It'll be interesting to see how the Batch 19 experiment plays out, and Wisconsin will have plenty of say in this beer's fate.
Bottom line: 2½ stars (out of four)
UPDATE: The Beer Baron discovered after publication that Batch 19 is priced around $8 per six-pack of bottles in the Milwaukee test market. So add a price point the same as far superior beers to Batch 19's list of likely fatal flaws.