Last week I wrote a mini-manifesto that centered on my conflicted feelings about the current state of craft brewing. I kind of figured I’d get my usual response: some double digit hits, an occasional “nice job” from people I know off-line, but mostly the usual ambivalent silence.
Instead, I seemed to touch a nerve, and the response was overwhelming; I saw impassioned posts on Facebook, retweets to the article on Twitter, a steady stream of comments and responses beneath my piece, and a wave of traffic to the blog that was downright humbling. A lot of folks really loved the piece, and that was enormously gratifying. But what surprised me most was that another blogger had written an entire article in response.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a glowing response, but seeing how this is the Internet we’re talking about, the fact that it was well-written, polite, thoughtful and didn’t once insult my mother, I decided there was no reason to pick a fight. But then I kept reading his article and a few things kept sticking out to me. Just let it go, I told myself, but as frequent readers of this blog know, letting things go isn’t really my style.
No, my style is more like, someone on the Internet disagrees with me? How dare him! This atrocity cannot stand!
The article in question is by one Josh Oakes of the Drinking Vicariously blog and is titled quite simply, “Response to “The Death of Style.” Despite the fact that Mr. Oakes disagrees with many of my points, it is still a highly recommended read. He has a knack for stating his case cleanly, clearly and effectively, and makes many excellent points. But I do want to address some of the points where I feel he might be misrepresenting my views; whether the fault is his for not understanding or mine for not being clear enough is really besides the point. I think that clarifying my position will hopefully add to the broader discussion.
First of all, let’s talk about the elephant-sized fermenter in the room: the Reinheitsgebot. Mr. Oakes was generous enough not to dwell on my apparent misunderstanding of the famous German Purity Law of 1516 aside from a quick jab, but I saw enough nods to this topic in the comment section that I feel it needs to be addressed. My original point in the article was that some of my more conservative fellow beer snobs tend to trot out the Reinheitsgebot as the end-all, be-all in defining what is and isn’t beer, and that is quite simply >ahem< BULLSHIT.
Historically, let’s all understand what the Reinheitsgebot is and what it isn’t: it was a law that essentially said, “hey, you brewers down there, we need to make sure there’s enough grain to go around. Barley makes for lousy bread, so go ahead and brew with that, but we need to save the other grains for bread-making.” It wasn’t a beer connoisseur sitting up on his throne decreeing that barley beer tastes better than corn beer or rye beer; it was the government telling those pesky brewers not to use up all the best grains.
Now, let’s take a look at what the Reinheitsgebot actually says: “in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water.” I saw some responses to my piece declaring that I didn’t know what I was talking about regarding the Purity Law, because of course the German law would allow rye and wheat beers; they’re only outlawing silly adjunct ingredients like mangos and peanut butter. But if you take a second look at that quote, you’ll notice it doesn’t say “Malted Grain, Hops and Water.” Barley is kind of the whole point of the law. Wheat and rye make good breads; thus, those were the ingredients the royalty didn’t want brewers using to brew their beer. The ban on other adjuncts was kind of an unintentional consequence of the written word of the law.
So how do styles like Hefeweizen and Roggenbier still exist? Some historians believe that wheat beers were continuously brewed after the Purity Law was passed, but only for the royals, who preferred the taste of wheat beer. They weren’t willing to share with the peasants of course, and they may have even had a monopoly on barley production, which would have given them a strong motivation for forcing the majority of brewers to depend on barley instead of other grains. Eventually, in 1850, restrictions eased and certain brewers were allowed access to these grains again. Styles like roggenbier were brewed prior to the law and were rarer after the law, but are still found in Germany to this day. Obviously, weizen beers are ubiquitous. And somehow, even Gose beer, which calls for the addition of coriander and salt, is brewed in Germany today.
You simply can’t hold up the Reinheitsgebot as this flawless representation of what constitutes True Beer when a) it was never really created for that purpose, as it had more to do with grain shortage and possibly some greedy royalty looking to make a little extra coin on the side and b) such a large majority of German beer output directly contradicts the Purity Law.
Now, to be fair, I did make an error in identifying Rauchbier as a style that would be outlawed under the law. I guess I must have been smoking something and it wasn’t barley, because there’s nothing about the Purity Law that would ban smoke from the equation. So congrats, guys, you got me there. I should have said “Gose” instead and, what the hell, because this is the Internet rather than a printed, bound document sitting on a shelf somewhere, let’s just say I did.
If that’s all behind us now, let’s move on to some of Mr. Oakes’ other points.
1) Mr. Oakes’ big argument centers around what he sees as a misconception on my part and others. He argues that beer styles as we think of them today are a construct of thousands of years of brewers just painting outside the lines, trying to come up with newer, crazier flavors. Today’s sour whiskey barrel aged, triple dry hopped, peanut beer beer w/ mayonnaise is yesterday’s stout, in other words. Lamenting the death of style is getting all bent out of shape for no good reason because there is no real, base style guide, just a bunch of wacky experiments that were popular, profitable, and stood the test of time.
Well, I actually mostly agree with this. Obviously, just like every kind of cuisine, we didn’t just start with these styles at the beginning of time. These things developed and grew out of particular cultures looking for unique flavors using what they had on hand at the time. The point I was making was that these styles were unique to the areas they came from, and America did what it’s always done, which is to take those pre-existing recipes and Americanize them. I certainly don’t believe that we’re done creating new styles of beer, but merely that we have a solid base of styles developed within the Belgian, English and German beer cultures; we’ve developed an alphabet and a grammar for the language of brewing and so there is something rather confounding about brewers who completely ignore that language in favor of being completely incomprehensible.
But don’t get me wrong, as I think many might have initially, in misinterpreting my palate fatigue with a kind of conservative, stodgy, “It was better in my day” grandpa kind of response. The truth is that my own feelings are a lot more complicated than that. On the one hand, I love the experimentation that happens; I even love the total off-the-wall brews, or as Oakes calls them (rather dismissively I thought), “clown beers.” But on the other hand, I see in the classic styles, which have had thousands of years to evolve and be fine-tuned and perfected, a kind of complexity and subtlety that is all too often missing from the latest palate-wrecking experimental brew.
The ultimate message that I was trying to convey was not one of The End Days Cometh as Mr. Oakes implies, but rather a warning to the craft brewers of today to respect the past and consider the roots of good beer-making practices as they’ve developed over all these generations. Merely throwing in a crazy ingredient isn’t enough to make a good beer; by all means, experiment, but to steal a metaphor from Mr. Oakes, before you dive into the deep end, maybe get the hang of swimming first.
What I’ve been seeing recently is such a glut of experimental brews and increasingly more aggressive Imperial-style beers, be they IPAs, stouts, or sours that I see the potential for missed opportunity. Craft beer is still such a small sliver of the larger beer market, and while that sliver is no doubt growing at a brisk pace, it still can’t come within spitting distance of the big guys. Craft brewers should continue to appeal to the niche market that embraced them, but not at the expense of a larger audience that has yet to be convinced, because chances are that Sour Peanut Butter and Mayonnaise Beer ain’t gonna be the one to do it.
To use another industry as an example, I don’t want to see future craft brewers turn into the beer version of today’s Hollywood, churning out only four kinds of movies all tailored to simulating theme park rides or video games for teenage boys between the ages of 8 and 18. I will unabashedly admit to loving a lot of those movies, but I also like movies that are tailored to older, more mature audiences in the same way that I like crazy Imperial IPAs with grapefruit and mangos and barrel-aged in bourbon barrels, but I also like a good old fashioned Kolsch.
It may sound like a contradiction, but experimentation can actually make you small-minded when you’re actively trying to ignore everything that has come before.
2) Regarding “clown beers,” Mr. Oakes picks up on my mention of peanut butter beers, mushroom beers, cocktail beers, etc. and downplays their share of the craft beer market. I think he’s definitely mistaken here. I suppose it’s possible that many might live in an area where the local brewery just isn’t making these kind of beers, but there is certainly no shortage here in the Northwest, and plenty of the larger national craft brewers are certainly doing wacky stuff, too.
I wasn’t just making these up or exaggerating. I was thinking of specific examples like Gilgamesh Brewery’s Fun Guy, a mushroom bock, or Widmer and Cigar City’s cocktail-inspired Gentleman’s Club. Hell, it’s actually funny that Mr. Oakes mentions s’more beers, because that wasn’t one of the “styles” that I pointed to, but it does call to mind local brewer Base Camp’s S’more Stout, which is available year-round in both package and draft, but in your neck of the woods, you might just as easily find s’more beers from the likes of Brew Rebellion, Short’s, Cahoots, Bison or Pipeworks.
Obviously, Southern Tier makes a ton of “clown beers” beyond just the Creme Brulee that the author pointed out, but he’s also not taking into account Dogfish Head and New Belgium, who brew pumpkin beers, coffee infused lemon beers, beers with honey and grapes or coconut curry hefeweizens on a regular to semi-regular basis. And granted this goes outside the USA, but Evil Twin, a foreign brewery heavily influenced by American beer trends, makes a goddamn doughnut beer. There are a ton of these kinds of beers, some good, some bad, but if they weren’t making money, brewers wouldn’t keep releasing them.
3) Oakes argues that “there really aren’t a lot of good Kolsches in America right now” and again, I wonder where he’s drinking and what he’s drinking. The dude is a senior administrator for Rate Beer and a beer judge, so obviously plenty of brews cross his desk, not to mention his palate, but I don’t see how he can ignore the spate of very good to great Kolsch beers being brewed by American craft brewers.
As with the “clown beers,” it may depend largely on where you live and what’s available, but Oregon has no shortage of great German-style lagers from breweries like Heater Allen and Occidental, who solely focus on traditional German lagers and ales, Old Town and Pints, who go back and forth between German and English-style beers, and Double Mountain, Ninkasi, and Breakside, who just brew anything and everything. All of these brewers craft incredible iterations of Pilsner, Kolsch, Helles, and Bock beers, and I haven’t talked about Montana’s Bayern yet or widely available and solidly crafted brews (albeit slightly untraditional) like New Belgium Summer Helles, Sam Adams Noble Pils, and Victory Prima Pils.
Oakes also mentions the lack of good English styles like Milds and Bitters, which is a good counterpoint, and one which I can’t refute, but when you can find so many excellent American porters and stouts, not to mention pale ales and IPAs, it seems like a pretty minor nitpick against my larger point that, with a little effort, you can find just about any European style brewed really well by an American craft brewer. Even the Belgian stuff has gotten really good. From Saison to Belgian Strong Dark and everything in between, how can you go wrong with Oregon’s pFriem and Logsdon, California’s Lost Abbey and North Coast, Maine’s Allagash, or New York’s Ommegang?
4) Oakes makes a rather head-scratching claim that the basic, no frills IPA style is a lot more “narrowly defined today than it was twenty years ago.” His argument is that the existence of “new” styles like White IPAs, Red IPAs and Black IPAs actually shrink the category for what an IPA can be. But I just have to ask: twenty years ago, who was making IPAs with a Belgian white ale yeast? Or brewing a porter or red ale and then hopping the shit out of it? If anything, IPAs are a much broader category than they’ve ever been before, whether you want to count those particular kinds of IPAs as counting or not.
Twenty years ago, brewers were relying on the same shortlist of available hops, meaning that the principle flavor of most American IPAs were very similar to one another. Nowadays, IPAs aren’t just piney or floral. They evoke strong grapefruit or tangerine, lemon or melon, dank and grassy, dry and peppery. IPAs used to top out at 50 IBUs, and now that’s just a hoppy Pale Ale. Twenty years ago, an American IPA would be in the 6% range; now you can find IPAs both in the 5s and 7s and Imperial IPAs at any ABV between 8 and 18. And the malt bodies of IPAs now runs from light bodied, golden and nearly clear to the more traditional fuller bodied and murky orange variations.
I appreciate the fact that Mr. Oakes and some of you other folks out there might not agree with me on some of the finer points of beer culture. What I’m hoping is that this post at least clarified a few dangling threads left from my last post. I consider it an honor and privilege to get to speak with as many of you as possible about the topic of craft brewing. I love to see the passion and am always pleasantly surprised by the level of discourse among craft beer aficionados. It’s almost always spirited, yes, but generally polite, considerate and generous. Hopefully, it will be just the first of many conversations to come.