Sunday, January 10, 2010

Extreme Beer, Corn and Mild Beer

The latest movement in the beer world has been towards extremeness, at least in the craft brew world. Still, craft beer sales account for <5% of the market nationwide. However, extreme beer is much more interesting to write about and tends to get more press.

Also, making fun of the "Big Blands" is quite popular too. Many beer writers and indeed brewers, marketers and beer lovers make it a point to state that their beer is not as sinful as the big two (AB InBev and SABMillerCoors). We in the craft beer industry do a lot of mudslinging. We tell stories of bearded brewers in rubber boots creating art, a thing of beauty, a world-changing bottle of Double IPA to be thrown into Goliath's head. Truth is that brewers are not "rock stars". The big two are not our enemies and extreme beer is marketing concept. I am paraphrasing Jack Curtin's article "The Extreme Beer Fad" in American Brewer magazine. It's a great article that sums up what I've been feeling but is published in a trade magazine so I feel it necessary to write about it to my small audience. Forgive me, Jack.

Say something nice or not at all.

It's not fair of us to criticize the most successful breweries for making beer that the majority of Americans like. Not only does it diminish our respectfulness, it proves to the wavering light-lager drinker that craft beer is too complicated for them to enjoy. We turn off customers with our arrogance, and if the trend continues, our sales and reputation will go down. Also, the money, hours of labor, research and education we have poured into craft brewing is a tip of the iceberg compared the largest breweries worldwide. We would not be making good beer without their innovations. And I wish beer geeks would quit criticising the use of corn or other adjuncts in lager beer. The use of corn and rice in American lager beer dates back to the first brewing in America. American barley was six-row instead of the traditional two-row European varieties. The first American brewers were mainly German immigrants that were used to using 100% pure two-row barley but the six-row they found in the New World was proteinous. Because of the higher protein, the product was unstable. This was well before the invention of the whirlpool device installed in or just after the boil kettle, which was invented buy Labatt's in the 1950's (another big brewing innovation), and before Adolph Coors brought over and planted the first two-row Movarian barley. The brewers found that if a certain percentage of local corn was substituted for barley, the balance of protein to sugar would further mimic beers brewed in Europe. Brewing with corn became a traditional way of brewing in North America. Does beer brewed with all barley malt have better health benefits and superior taste? That is certainly my opinion. I think our battles against corn should be waged in our voting practices as corn is heavily subsidized by the US government. The big brewers will always use it as long as it's cheaper than domestic two-row. There is no difference between Belgian candi sugar and corn and I find it ludicrous that beers brewed with Belgian candi get positive press while corn beers get negative.

But what is this extreme beer that our craft breweries are pioneering? Is it beers brewed with strange ingredients? Highly hopped? Barrel aged? Full of booze?

Mike Stevens, president of Founders Brewing, compared the craft brewing industry to the computer industry. We do not look at our new computers that are ten times faster than our old computers and call them "extreme"? They're just better computers. He was just surmising how we would look back on the beers we brew now in twenty years, and makes a good point. Anchor's Liberty Ale or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale twenty five years ago were considered "hop bombs", but now we think of them as tame. Is this the natural evolution of brewing? Or is it a fad? I think it might be the latter. In ten years I think people may get bored of trying the next big, hoppy, wood-aged booze bomb and might just expect quality and consistency. Plus those big beers really give you a headache the next morning.

When I started here at Chuckanut I found brewers tend to look for different things in beer than consumers or beer geeks. Some of the best brewers I know would tell me that if you could make a 4% abv beer taste awesome then you can rule the brewing world. Also I found that I appreciate these beers more for their nuance and delicate flavor. These beers were easy to drink with any company and most people like them. They fit in at sporting events, a night out with friends, at a picnic, at breakfast, after church or just about anywhere else.

Andy Crouch wrote in a recent column that "...brewing a clean Helles or crisp German Pilsner is about the most radical act an American craft brewer could undertake these days." I hope he just foresaw the next movement of craft brewing, away from extremely strong flavored to extremely well made beer. Strong beers definitely have a place in craft brewing and I wish their continued success, but I expect all beer should be extremely well made. I hope that's what the public wants. In the words of Phil Markowski, "I'd like to see us taking more of a European approach-more about balance, subtlety, subtle complexity, instead of the beer-as-hot-sauce approach. It's not about machismo: it's about flavor and enjoyment, and not being whacked over the head."

All About Beer, Beer:30, Chauauqua Inc. 2009 Phil Markowski quote
BeerAdvocate issue #32 September 2009; "New Frontiers for Extreme Beer" by Andy Crouch; "Does Extreme Beer Really Exist?" by Mike Stevens
American Brewer Vol 25, No. 4 Fall 2009; Greg Kitsock's editorial; "The Extreme Beer Fad" by Jack Curtin
Siebel Institute lectures 2009

1 comment:

Greg Fleehart said...

Great post Kevin. I agree, the craft beer world too often puts the blame on the big two, and doesn't take responsibility for our own inaccessibility.
But I do have to disagree with you on one point... craft brewers ARE rockstars. You and me both dude.