For years, Bob Sylvester of Saint Somewhere Brewing Co. has produced unique, farmhouse-style ales at his Tarpon Springs brewery, inspired by the rustic beers of the Belgian countryside — right down to the green bottles they're generally packaged in.
Pre-World War II, cheap beer was often bottled in clear glass, while premium beer came in brown. A shortage in brown glass during the war led to premium beers being bottled in clear glass, which made them difficult to distinguish from their cheaper competition. Many European breweries switched to green glass as a way to indicate the premium nature of their product, and that tradition is still in common practice today, especially in the case of Belgian saisons and lambics.
What's the first thing you think of when you see green-bottled beer? Chances are it's the famous "skunk" character, a signature found in beers that have been exposed to ultraviolet light. Beer stored in clear or green glass is not as well-protected from UV rays as beer stored in brown glass. When the alpha acids from hops are struck by UV rays, they break down and produce a sulfur compound that is chemically — and olfactorily — very similar to a skunk's spray.
Most of the time, this "light struck" character is regarded as an off flavor, but Sylvester doesn't see it that way.
"It's simply part of the flavor profile," Sylvester said. "Hops bring bitterness, which is an off flavor. Everybody embraces it in beer, but would you drink a soda that had the bitterness equivalent of 65 IBUs? Sourness is an off flavor that is currently in vogue. In nature, sour and bitter are normally signs of poison!"
Sylvester started bottling Saint Somewhere beers in green glass back in 2006, but after two years, he made a switch to brown as a response to market pressure caused by the common prejudice against green-bottled beer. That change lasted only a year or two before he went back to green.
"The beer just wasn't the same," Sylvester noted. "The light strike character works with the earthiness that should be present. It's pretty elusive, and most people associate it with cork or mustiness — in a good way — but it's most definitely light strike."
Last year, Texas' Jester King Brewery started an experiment, packaging a small amount of its Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer in green bottles, taking after Saint Somewhere, as well as Belgian breweries, such as Cantillon, Fantôme and Thiriez. The move to green caught many fans by surprise, which prompted an explanation from head brewer Garrett Crowell on Jester King's website.
"I feel that beer is losing individuality through structure, and the expectation to fulfill guidelines," Crowell wrote. "We allow our beer to pick up 'peripheral' character that deviates from guidelines, whether it's a bit of oak, brettanomyces or lactic acidity. Horse barn, goat sweat and brett character are embraced, yet skunkiness is considered a flaw."
Now, other respected breweries, such as Oklahoma's Prairie Artisan Ales and Pennsylvania's Tired Hands Brewing Co. have taken up green bottles for some of their farmhouse-style ales, adding a traditional — if not yet very popular — layer of additional complexity to these brews.
Although it's true that green glass can sometimes cause a little skunk, that's only part of the picture. The role played by green glass in forming the character of some of the world's most respected beers is slowly finding an appreciation within the domestic brewing scene. As forward-thinking drinkers, I suggest we join them by disregarding our preconceived notions. After all, sour, funky, bitter, fruity, barrel-aged (i.e., oxidized) and heavily flavored beers have all but dominated the beer scene for the last several years; why are we afraid of a little light strike?
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG.