Thursday, February 6, 2014

There's More to Beer Than Some 'Drinkable' vs.'Crazy Extreme!' Dichotomy

Pictured: the personification of craft beer in the eyes of your local news reporter.

One basic rule of the universe (other than me being unable to write a blog post that's not entirely too long) is that humans love duality. Sorry to get all philosophical on you guys, but take any issue or thing or important staple of human life, and we humans will talk and talk about it until all discourse has been boiled down to two diametrically opposing sides. We love exclusive viewpoints, for some reason.

I could pick out a bunch of examples with beer. Beer is a thing that has always been popular, but which, recently, has become explosively popular to discuss. And that's great, because beer is a much better thing to talk about than, say, teen pop stars. Lately, the biggest talking point has probably been the whole "craft beer vs. corporate beer" thing. Debating whether such a distinction has merit would send this off into an entirely separate discussion, but for now, let's just note that we've created a vast, arbitrarily two-party system by which to divide the beer world. Why two? Why cap it by random numbers of production? In reality, even beer nerds don't really care what a brewery's production level is — unless that becomes a factor in the quality of the beer. What people care about is the quality of the beer.

And that's where it becomes tricky to establish two clear sides, though people are still inclined to try to do so. So for now there is craft vs. crafty, but those lines are unclear and meaningless to most people. There is good beer and there is bad beer, but you'll never get anyone to agree on which is which. There are many others, but most recently, I see a new push: people trying to draw a line in the sand between "drinkable beer" and "over-the-top beer."

To be clear, I'm of the mindset that almost any issue worth talking about is hopelessly convoluted and that, in general, there are few absolutes in life, other than the presence of the Great Old Ones watching us from their seat in the dark immutable heart of the universe. Just, so you know, my philosophy. We live on a rotating sphere forged of unanswerable existential quandaries, the gnawing itch of which shall tear at our small but curious minds forevermore. "Which member of the Just'in Beebers is the hottest?" our younglings shriek to themselves, desperately fixing their eyes upon whatever fleeting curiosity allows them to pretend that the cavernous nothingness does not loom above. To wit: some people think craft beer is threatening to jump the shark with all its crazy wild ingredients and over-the-top experiments. There is a core of truth to this, in that many craft brewers do focus on gimmicky creations — or else set themselves up in staunch opposition to this Straw Man, arguing that their middling beer lineup is just fine because competitors are brewing outrageous beer aged on straw men and bourbon-soaked corncobs. And with this duality, there's now a feeling among drinkers that the opposite of an amber ale is the weirdest and wackiest beer you can imagine. One recent article, prompted by some of Dogfish Head's madder creations, asks its readers: "So is this the future of U.S. beer consumption – a country that stumbles over itself to buy beer made with wild-carrot seed, bee balm, chanterelle mushrooms, and aged in whiskey barrels?"

Yes, those wacky beers do exist. Sometimes an unlikely-sounding beer proves to be popular. No, that will not be the future of U.S. beer consumption, but I do predict that this sort of division — this separation of beer into "crazy! over-the-top! experimental!" and "just a solid drinkable beer, man" — will be another trend in beer commentary for a few years. Is it just me, or can you see where this is going? It's an easy, convenient simplification to divide the beer world into down-to-earth, everyman breweries with the classic five or six styles, versus brewers doing nothing but that crazy extreme stuff. You know, for hipsters.

It doesn't have to be one or the other. And in fact, pigeon-holing beers into either extreme completely misses the point of what makes beer good in the first place.

So what actually does make a beer interesting, once you strip out the Moon Rocks and Ghost Chili addition or cactus-bark barrel aging? What makes a beer over-the-top, versus classic and approachable, anyway? Beyond a few overly-obvious answers, I'm inclined to believe that the real, actual, technical details are just far more boring than the average person cares to deal with. For example, I think water profile, oxygen management, and deliberate timing of hop additions are what makes a great IPA... not IBUs or ABV. Farmhouse ales and sours are about as traditional and historic as one can get, but they're now rare, and thus 'hyped.' Utilizing wild yeast is simply embracing the natural premise of fermentation. And beer has been barrel-aged for a lot longer than the term 'craft' has been around. But that's dry commentary, and you can't wedge a discussion about "extreme vs drinkable" into a talk of mineral additions or lactobacillus fermentation.

What are some of the most popular, most talked-about breweries of the last few years? Off the top of my head: Hill Farmstead, Tired Hands, Prairie, Pipeworks, Alpine, Cigar City, Night Shift, the Alchemist, Sante Adarius, etc. etc. There's many many more — those are literally off the top of my head (I wear a cap in which I store little slips of paper, onto which I write the names of breweries that I see being discussed frequently on Twitter.) Do they make the occasional high-ABV beer, barrel-aged stout, or maybe some brews with fruit or spice additions? Some of them do, but I think they're mostly just known for good beer. Most of which, I would say, is pretty damn drinkable. Do they sometimes make hefty imperial stouts? Yeah, but alongside a whole range of other things. Do a few of those breweries make some of the most hyped IPAs in the world? They do — and they're not hyped because they're explosively boozy, but because they're insanely flavorful and drinkable. I have yet to meet a single person that doesn't enjoy a Hill Farmstead IPA, and in fact, I've converted quite a few new beer lovers through Shaun Hill's hoppy wizardy. Maybe that's why he's got the most talked-about brewery in the world right now — not because he's the most experimental out there, not because he caters to extremes, but because he doesn't cater. He just makes super enjoyable beer, both intensely flavorful and easily accessible, and everyone seems to just... get it. Pretty simple. Extreme quality and mass appeal aren't mutually exclusive.

Let's not let the middle class die. Beer can be interesting and unconventional while remaining drinkable and approachable. We'll keep arguing forever and ever what good beer is, what bad beer is, but why narrow it down unnecessarily? You should be able to identify a good beer without anyone telling you what's in it. And if good beer is truly good, and interesting, and keeps reinventing itself, eventually it won't seem extreme at all.


  1. Amen! Just been out to New England (Boston, and a short road trip to Vermont) and it blew my mind. There were a huge amount of breweries that were being inventive, innovative and intensely exciting for my British beer geek mind. Night Shift, Cambridge Brew Co, Hill Farmstead, Vermont Pub and Brewery, the Alchemist, the list could go on and on. Each produced great takes on classic styles, need I mention Heady Topper, and also showcased some epic experimental brews, Cerise Cassee from Cambridge, Viva Habanero by Night Shift and Vermont Brewpub's Tulach Leis springing to mind.

    But.... above all, Hill Farmstead really lived up to its reputation. You are correct in saying Shaun isn't the most EXTREME brewer in the world, the tap list on my visit was IPAs, stouts and pale ales, but they were the most consistently mastered. Each was a sublime example of the style, showcasing hops, malt, yeast as applicable to an amazing degree. The proof is in the pudding, and people were damn well willing to travel into the wilderness and queue in the -15 celsius snowstorm to taste it.

    I hugely enjoy your blog, and almost worship your knowledge on thinks funky! Your home brew recipes and detailed analysis have helped me develop my own sour beer skills, and for that I hugely thank you. Now I only have to convince the brewery I work for to invest in some lambics!

    Your fellow Ursidae member,

    Bear (or Jack) from Bear Beer Reviews.

    1. The New England beer tour is getting better and better all the time, we really are lucky! Well, I still have a 6 hour drive to most of those places, but it could be worse.

      Thanks for the kind words! That really means a lot, glad I could provide some inspiration. Good luck bringing sours into your brewery... maybe one day just start sprinkling some Brett around on all the tanks and they won't have a choice : )


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