In March of 2018, when I posted “Beer, Wine, & Spirits: The Good, The Bad, and The Big Fat Middle“, I didn’t know it was going to be a two-parter…or that Part Two would come almost two years later. That revelation came later, this week, in fact, while searching my drafts file. But – especially in light of the sort of Tough Love rhetoric I espoused in that post – I felt this needed to be said…
From all this wild and untidy experimentation that’s happening now in the American brewing culture – the hazy ales and glitter beers and fruit infusions and Brut beers and spontaneously-fermented stuff and the revival of ancient styles and all this creativity that many “beer purists” (translation: “beer snots”) decry as heresy – comes synthesis, new dialogs, an expanded vocabulary, a new paradigm, not only of beer as a culture but of individual styles, and that crass, plebian, mercenary aim that we all stupidly denounce as pandering: Giving The Customer What They Want.
(Some photos accompany this post, of beers you may have seen and chuckled at. Which one of these ends up being the new direction that we all rave about in ten years? You probably say, “None!”…Don’t bet the farm on that. Stranger things…)
The customer better fuggen well get what they want or we’re all suddenly going to look around and find we have many fewer choices than we do today…and a buncha folks are going to be sitting in the unemployment office. Unless someone is brewing on a tiny nano rig in their garage or basement, consumer dollars are the engine that drives everything about the craft beer boom. AB/InBev (or whatever the ruins of Anheuser Busch are calling themselves this week) would love nothing better – and have, in fact, been selling the idea as truth for several years – than for craft breweries to NOT give a shit about what customers want. AB constantly implies and even states that craft brewing is all about self-indulgence and artsy poses. They frame experimentation as pretentious posturing and ignoring consumers – and they come by that attitude naturally.
To them – stewing in 120 years of turning out The Same Ol’ Shit in 10,000 barrel batches, 24/7/365 – anything that is not an insipid watery Pilsner is Indulgent Nonsense. It would be surprising if they didn’t feel that way. They’re really, truly banking on all of us growing weary of hazy beers and pastry Stouts and milkshake IPAs and coming back to our parents’ and grandparents’ comfy rut, eschewing flavor and body and hops and all that other beer stuff and Coming Home, running back to the withered teats of good ol’ familiar, comfy Budweiser. Home…to mediocrity. The worst part is that it’s not just a marketing ploy. At their highest management levels, they really think this is both true and achievable. And they continue to make omnipresent asses of themselves and smirk openly at all that “amateur brewing”…while those Amateurs continue to eat their body parts.
And how did we start that huge, spiked ball rolling down the hill, fixin’ to crush the Bud Factory? With this sort of experimentation, this Craziness, this dismissal of even the concept of some Box that we dare not think outside of. Many of us won’t remember this but, when craft brewing first got rolling in earnest, back there is the early 80s, the idea of a locally-made Stout or Porter or that new-fangled IPA thingie was seen as lunacy, as youthful idealism and folly. The accepted wisdom, back then, held that anyone who sunk a pot full of dollars into something as whimsical as brewing beer – (?)(LOL) – was doing exactly the same thing as taking all that money, sticking it in a toilet, and flippin’ the little lever. I vividly remember my mother-in-law (at the time), hearing that I was entertaining the idea of learning to brew beer and starting my own brewery, sadly taking her daughter’s hand and saying, “Honey, you always have a home here, when you lose all your money.”
My FB friend, the estimable Bob Sylvester, of the sublime Saint Somewhere Brewing Co., in Tarpon Springs, FL, posted something very funny, interesting, and sadly true about the current state of craft brewing…
My answer to Bob (and might I also put in a word for finding Bob’s beers, if you’ve never had them, and discovering this guy’s BRILLIANCE?) is here:
“This is why I’ve lately, for the first time ever, actually had the thought that maybe I just want to stop writing about beer and go back to wine and whiskey, which is what I covered to begin with. I adore beer; always have, and it is my quaff of choice, most nights. There is more variety and choice and aesthetic expression for a brewer than for either a distiller or winemaker, and I love that creativity. But that’s not what’s going on here. This current wave of cereal and cookie and cocktail-flavored adjuncts has nothing to do with creativity, any more than dumping Cheez Whiz or Balsamic on your broccoli does.
I’ve written this before and I apologize for restating it but, in the past decade, MILLIONS of kids who came to their majority – after their New Agey childhoods, with daily juice boxes and Lucky Charms and electric blue Gatorade and power drinks and parents who dragged them off to juice bars – simply carried their preferences into their local breweries and sipped ONE IPA or Pale and said, “Oooh, ick! This is SO bitter! Don’t you have anything that’s, like, fruity?” Brewers want to stay in business, so they began – and I apologize for sounding this judgmental – PANDERING, trading off brewing traditions for the $$$ they need to survive. How do I blame somebody for trying to avoid bankruptcy?
This trend is PROBABLY a fad that will run its course and, as with the Hazys and Bruts and other emerging styles, will mostly die off, leaving only the best and most enduring examples of the styles. It’s worth remembering, too, though, that this is also the age of the lager resurgence, when Pilsner has gone from being seen as just a sort of methadone for Budweiser withdrawal to a style that has some legs and is being expanded upon. Bruts, Pils, Octoberfest, the comeback of the Brown ale…good taste is not dead, it’s just suffocating under a pile of fluff.
So, which is the real “craft beer”? I dunno, honestly, but if I didn’t think that the core values and aesthetics of craft brewing were going to survive this temporary abandonment of taste, I would give up on beer and schlump my weary ass on back to full-time wine criticism. Happily, there are VERY few examples of breweries that make nothing but – or even primarily – those cereal/cookie/pastry/cocktail ales. One primary one in Portland is already fading badly with consumers and many which went to hazys to survive have used that visibility to push their original, traditional beers to greater popularity. Skookum Brewery, here in WA state, is a great example. They climbed on the Hazy Train with bells on but they were already a very good brewery, before all that. Hazys just helped get their name around. Four years ago, you’d have found a pygmy in the NBA before you found a Skookum taphandle south of their hometown. Now, Skookum is ALL OVER this end of the country.
Pandering? I might call it that but it worked – and one fine American brewery is not closing its doors.
Sorry to be so long-winded about this but it’s a sore and festering subject. This may be, I pray, just an adolescent phase craft beer, here in its relative infancy, has to go through to find itself. I’ma keep on sloggin’ through the muck and hope for better days and better beers.”
We have to have this sort of “craziness” for craft beer – nothing says we have to like every dickhead idea or style that shambles onto the brewing scene – to continue to evolve and progress as the paradigm-changer it has become. There is NO other path. The surest way to murder innovation and creativity is to slap blinders on those doing the work. There is an old saying, “Out of experimentation comes synthesis.” Never heard that? Apparently, I just made it up. Google gives me no hits on that axiom. But it’s the truth: we try crazy shit, watch some or even most of it fail, and pluck the nuggets, the pearls, out of the chickenshit. (We wash ’em, of course! Ewwww…) When the original English IPA was first invented, it was by accident. White Zinfandel was the product of a stuck fermentation. The whole world of sours beers first came about by lazy sanitation and wild yeasts floating around in breweries in Belgium. Chances are, you’ve consumed one product of this sort of happy accident, even before you tasted your first sour beer: Some French slackers dumped a big pile of Gamay grapes into a tank and forgot they were there. They found ’em a couple of weeks later, freaked out a bit, tasted the juice and said, “Hey!” Voila: Beaujolais Nouveau. Ever made tepache, the Mexican street drink? No yeast required. It ferments from the native yeasts on the skins of pineapples.
How many test batches, you figure, did it take the average brewery to find out that a bamboo shoot and gummy bears Stout just wasn’t going to work out? How many big ideas fell flat and got poured down the sewer drains near those breweries? How many really drunk fish swam into boulders, downstream? I’m betting thousands. Wow, how much of all that money was wasted?
Answer: None of it. The money may have produced nothing tangible and, for those who think only in bottom line terms, that means it produced nothing. But it DID – and continues to, daily – produce Knowledge, inspiration, progress, innovation. It also helps craft beer newbies – the ones tasting their first IPA and going, “Ewww!” – make that transition from juice box to IPA, if for no other reason than that they will almost certainly have friends who will rag on them for drinking “those kiddie beers” and peer-pressure them into trying something else.
We have to embrace the Crazy. We have to have our prissy assumptions and preconceptions and even our tastes offended, abused, and kicked in the nuts. We LEARN from mistakes, far more than we learn from success. Success breeds complacency and self-satisfaction. Screwing up breeds more effort, more focus, better introspection and hard questions, at least in those who are not slackers and just give up. Want proof? Look at your own life. Do you make plans and then find that, most of the time, they don’t work out and you’re left to scramble, to improvise? Ever take a trip and plan your route and then find that the traffic estimates were wrong and that trip which should take two hours winds up taking four and a half? Or that you saw half a dozen things along the route that you just had to pull over and investigate? World’s Largest Ball of Twine, maybe? The Giant Frying Pan? Some seductive ice cream joint? SO…was it a little crazy to go off on that tangent? Well, yeah…but look what came out if it…
Did that screw up your itinerary? Sure. Did you get tangible benefit out of the screw up? YES.
Believe it or not, there is an Icelandic beer from Stedji Brewery that’s made using an infusion of whale testicles smoked with sheep shit.
Embrace the Crazy. Doesn’t mean you have to run out and start swilling things like these, from Unknown Brewing’s 2018 Strange Beerfest:
- Unknown’s Imperial Strong Ale brewed with Milky Ways, Moon Pies and Mars bars then aged on petrified wood and meteorites(!)(?)
- New Sarum ale with items foraged from a local Food Lion(!)(?)(LOL)
- D9’ Brewing’s kimchi beer.(TILT)
- Triple C Brewery’s Sharkgull Chili Stout (brewed with cayenne pepper, tabasco sauce and MSG)You don’t have to drink anything, any time, that grosses you out. But you DO, if you love and value craft brewing, have to accept that this stuff happens.
Because that way lies The Future.