Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Youthful beer growing up

About the place and role of craft beer in the United States

You’ve all experienced it. Checking out the beer selection in a second liquor store, you noticed a lot of new beers, some you recently enjoyed are no longer on the shelves, and as you try to make sense of the colorful label and the increasingly longer beer names (Belgian style Imperial oak barrel aged double hopped amber honey wheat, you’ve seen the likes), you realize that you feel lost. Even just 10 years ago, you felt confident in making beer your beverage of choice. Something you could enjoy over and over, without having to delve all too deep in exotic and encyclopedic denominators and terms that come with wines. There were a number of local breweries that made good brews, some larger regional brewers that supplied you with delicious ales and lagers, and Belgian, German or British imports if you wanted to shake things up and indulge once in a while. That seems such a distant past now…

Not that you now think of yourself as unrefined, but when you are done working, all you want is to sit down, relax. And enjoy a great brew, alone when reading a book or a paper, but even better when talking with friends and family at home, on your deck, or in some bar or pub. The last thing on your mind is to dissect the liquid in your glass, and with a dictionary full of words like IBUs, esters, brettonamyces and attenuation,  discover horse blanket, sweat socks, circus peanuts, canned asparagus, grass and cat pee in the taste and in the smell. Oh, sorry, in the nose.

If you noticed that brettonamyces was misspelled (brettanomyces, wild yeast from the family of the Saccharomycetaceae), you clearly do not belong in that group. This means that you are either a microbiologist or a beer geek. If you are the latter, you are delighted at the ever expanding streams of experimental beers, from in-your-face hop bombs that easily pass 100 IBUs to brews that display ever rarer exotic ingredients, funky, challenging, pushing the envelope. And why not? After all those years being starved on Bud and Miller, it is about time you had a decent beer that has actual taste! Nothing is more fulfilling to both the intellect and the palate then to sip and savor the newest creations from the masters in the craft!

However, it would be a mistake for either group to snarl at the other. There is a place for both, even a need to create a more balanced beer drinkers profile in the population. A broader base of beer drinkers who want more then Bud, but not exactly a hop-bomb or a skunky lambic imitation either, a base that in turn will secure the future of beer, even for more creative brewers. Let us look at this whole dazzling and exciting whirlwind of craft brewery production and innovation again, but from a different perspective.

Throughout the 20th century, the amount of breweries in the US was dwindling, from slightly over 1,500 in 1900, to a handful in 1975. The prohibition was of no importance, as the decreasing trend from the first 2 decades continues in 1933, as if nothing had happened. It was part of a broader trend, and in the fifties and sixties everyone ate wonderbread, with a touch of miracle whip, drove around in a Chevy or ford and drank a glass of Budweiser. Just before 1980 that all changed for beer, with the sudden insurgence of home brewing, which in turn gave birth to the first ‘microbreweries’. This was a clear reaction against the conglomerated behemoths that dominated the beer market (and still do). Deprived of tradition and continuity by 2 generations of poverty in choice and style, the brave home brewers and small craft brewers literally had to reinvent beer. The obvious shift to taste, and lots of it, by indulging in great amounts of hops, was a first attempt to compensate. Then a more refined and subtle race to deeper layers of taste, acquired by using exotic ingredients in shockingly new combinations became the new thing. You cannot read about the current top brewers without reading about globetrotting expeditions for rare spices and plants, which at some point in the next few months will appear in a new daring special release.

Europeans are shocked when they find out about chili pepper beer. But they were shocked as well when Michael Jackson stated that the US was the best place on the planet to drink beer. About that, he was right, as there are more styles, more choices, and a greater array of flavors and character than anywhere else. It truly is an exciting time and an exciting place for beer lovers! But that being said, there is a growing concern about where this will lead to. The increased complexity and unpredictable availability of brands and styles is hard to follow and understand. Just try to define craft beer, for starters, and you will see how this new beer reality defies all definitions. Beer sommeliers and Cicerones are one attempt to create order, and beer sites and groups try to educate more and more people. But what about the breweries themselves?

Going back to the two groups of people from the beginning, I believe that there is a distortion in the craft brewery’s world. The focus on innovation and the cutting edge has become a sacred cow. No one brewmaster dares to grow too fast out of fear of being labeled a sell-out, or is afraid to no longer be able to wield supreme creativity. Dogfish Head Brewery recently announced that they are pulling back out of 4 states, because they cannot keep up with demand, and they did not want to just expand.  Sam Calagione said: “our choice to keep experimenting and pushing the envelope instead of allowing ourselves to be mutated into the 60 Minute brewing company, comes with its own challenges.”

As much as I love Sam and his beers, I scratched my head when I read that. What is wrong with providing great beer to as many people as possible? Especially when so many still need to discover the amazing depth and flavors that beer can give them? When the bold in-your-face style that is now a badge of honor only discourages prospective beer lovers?  And how long can you be ‘innovative’ until that in turn becomes old, and people start settling in styles and tastes that they like? Surely, styles and tastes that the brave new frontiersmen have developed. And brewers should always maintain at least a streak of that daring, that drive for the new, the innovative. But at the same time, they should realize that there is a place for brewing with less ambitious goals. Breweries that have a few great beers, or even just one, that people can learn to know, like and love. Beers they can expect to always have access to. Comfort beers.

So I think that there will be a maturation, where, in all its righteous passion, the adolescence of the brewers, pushing them to outdo each other in innovation for innovations sake, will give way to a more mature and stable phase. Where renewal and experiments have an important place, but where they feel free and confident to just make great beer, without the pressure to prove themselves ‘small’, ‘craft’, ‘hip’ or ‘at the cutting edge’, over and over again.

This evening, I came home from work, and I wanted a beer I know and I love. Tomorrow, when I am off, I will plunge in the unknown and be adventurous and try a new beer creation. I am a beer geek, and I am a simple drinker of beers I love. And there is a place for both.

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