Extreme Hangover

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A friend of mine sent me this article about searching for subtlety in a brewing world full of extreme beers.

I'm not exactly weary of the Extreme Beers that brewers are doing, but am glad that the gimmick of massive beers is subsiding just a little. Gobs of craft brewers for some time were in a sort of beer-fueled version of an arms race, constantly being the first one to push past the 18% ABV and the 100 IBU (bitterness measurement) mark. Some brewers do it well and artfully (think Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA or Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout), but many are simply hop bombs (think Arcadia's Hop Rocket); fine enough to drink one, but you're left with a tongue that can't taste anything else.

Lost in the race to brew the next Double Imperial Black Coffee Chocolate IPA (actually, I wonder if I could pull that off...) are the beers that started it all. The "session" beers, the clean, brewed-just-right beers, the refreshing beers, the simple beers. I'm not talking about some Japanese minimalist crap where "less is everything." I think that in some cases, "less is more."

From the article:

According to Portland brewing consultant Hans Gauger, the high-hops and high-alcohol trend grew out of four factors: First, the American craft-brewing movement originally came about as a reaction to the thin flavors of the mass-produced beers (think Coors, Miller and Budweiser) that dominate the market. Second, Americans love everything -- especially their beverages -- supersized; we're a nation with a "bigger is better" mentality. Third, getting higher alcohol and more hops for the same price as a beverage that's lower in alcohol and more subtle in flavor looks to consumers like more bang for the buck.

And finally, it's difficult to brew a clean and delicate golden or blonde ale; and the cool fermentation cycle required for lager-making is time-consuming and highly technical. For mom-and-pop craft brewers, it's much easier to brew big, clunky English-style ales like IPAs (India Pale Ales) than it is to make something light and refreshing.


"An IPA is a tsunami of sweet, citrus and floral flavor that someone raised on Coca-Cola and Gatorade can get into," Gauger says.
I agree in some respects, though a "clunky English-style ale," done well, is subtle and perfect in its roasty, grainy, plummy perfection.

I think the point is this: it is very very easy to hide mediocre brewing techniques and big mistakes behind a massive wall of high alcohol, chewy malt and massive hops. It takes skill to brew the basics well. Take for instance Founders Porter, one of the most basic beer styles. Founders recently scored 100% on Ratebeer. Skill. I am glad to see that some brewers are eschewing the Extreme styles and are focusing on brewing the basic, subtle styles (like New Holland's Full Circle Kolsch-style Ale) really well. They'll be better brewers for it, the market won't be awash with $16-per-bottle malty hop bombs, and people who are still strident about their Miller may be more apt to try a craft beer since it won't taste, to them, like drinking syrup out of an old tin can.


Bob 10:44 AM  

"Third, getting higher alcohol and more hops for the same price as a beverage that's lower in alcohol and more subtle in flavor looks to consumers like more bang for the buck."

Same price? He clearly has not drank a Dogfishhead 120 min. IPA at $10 per bottle. (That said a the 120 should not be group with the extreme beers as it is very well done.)

Interesting article. I am not into the really bitter stuff, and am starting to really appreciate the more subtle beers ala New Hollands Cabin Fever Brown Ale, etc. so I will appreciate this trend.

Smitty 1:06 PM  

I don't mind doing challenging things to a beer; I have a maple syrup porter after all, and Shorts Good Samaritan (an amber ale brewed with apple cider) is exceptional. But when every brewery feels obligated to brew Imperial Somethingorother, I get a little bored and am thrilled to find, like you, a nice, solid, well-brewed brown or classic Brit IPA or a crisp Czech Pils.

George 6:53 PM  

As someone who, perhaps, has been known to have a beer at lunch, less massive beers are greatly appreciated. Our local best place Hollister recently had his board of 12 beers or so with nothing more powerful than a 7.2% IPA, and this is a guy who can brew at 10% frequently. So, yes, hooray for things of subtlety.

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