Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Beerening: On craft beer, beer styles, and how to "get into" beer

I've been thinking about the topic of introducing what I think is good beer to my friends for a long time, however it's very relevant at the time of writing since there have recently been a slew of articles with insider and outsider perceptions of what craft beer looks like and what it's like to get into.  The actual points of view range from "Why does beer have to be so fancy, what have you guys done?" to "Craft beer has too many snobs, we need to chill" to a recent article that "Craft beer's obsession with extreme beers is giving craft beer culture a bad rep".  But the point is that it's interesting, it's generating discussions which could get people into beer.  Advertising and beerfests and brunches and all that, I don't think, get people into beer.  Other people who genuinely like beer are what get people into beer.

But specifically I wanted to address some points I had about what seems to have been a pretty contentious style recently: The American IPA.

IPA stands for India Pale Ale, the history of it has a few origin stories, and some conflicting marketing and research complicating things.  From what I've heard a great book that straightens the whole mess out is "IPA!" by Mitch Steele.  However, I haven't had a chance to read it.  Mitch's presentation at last year's NHC was very good though.  I don't want to get too historic but basically the strength of the IPA as a style is dependent on the strength of your regions hop plants, and America has done some crazy things with hops between great growing conditions and breeding programs.  It was a great way we could call beers "ours", by using our fresh great new American hops that smelled like pine trees and oranges and mangoes (and onions and cat pee depending who you ask).  I don't know specifically what the IPA was like in pre-prohibition America but I know that post-prohibition we basically made American Lager and copied a few UK styles (like the IPA).  But the IPA of the time wasn't what people wanted.  It had morphed into a lower ABV, maltier, more subtle thing and lager was easier to drink.  So as Lager became The American beer other beers fell to the wayside, and eventually we hit rock bottom in 1980.

When the US craft brewing scene began to resurrect itself it effectively did it with the Pale Ale and the IPA.  A lot of people credit Sierra Nevada with beginning the resurgence, though I've also heard some of the credit go to Anchor Steam.  It obviously appealed to a lot of people and now IPA is the most popular style of beer in the country.  With that popularity comes a lot of breweries hoping to make themselves a reputation on a flagship IPA.  Sometimes it's great, sometimes it flops, but the net result is a lot of creative people doing whatever they can think of the make their mark on IPA.  I love the variety and a lot of it is regional which harkens back to a pre-modern notion of styles as beer brewed to the tastes and strengths of a particular region.  But where I take issue is that the significant buzz around a single style like this has a tendency to obscure other, just as worthy, beers. 

If you follow the larger online beer discussion the most extreme beers continually dominate the conversation.  Which is fine since to a degree we're all beer nerds trying to find the next must-have, but when you picture yourself on the outside looking in it's a very different picture.

We're in a position now where craft beer is a big deal.  Newcomers are hearing about craft beer and trying to find a good inroad.  This is an huge contrast to when I got into beer 7-8 years ago when an "amazing" beer section was 3 shelves in the back of the store.  I got into beer by spending a ton of money on beer I knew nothing about, and it was a really expensive way to learn about my tastes and styles.  But I was young, just turned 21 and had my first real job so I was Capital-S Stupid with my money.  I still spend a ton of money on beer, but I know what I'm getting into now.  There are a lot of people who are looking at craft beer who are way smarter than I was and they won't do that, they're the people who want to look around the clubhouse a little and tour the gym before they decide if they want to join.  And our club looks like a bunch of folks swimming around in a giant pile of green, sticky, hop cones.

The majority of our internal conversation is over hoppier beers.  Specifically a very certain type of IPA, the majority of which is produced on the West Coast of the country.  Where can I find Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger is about to be tapped.  Green Flash puts hops in the beer 8 times.  This bar is using a randall (a device which is used to force pressurized carbonated beer through a chamber of hops or other herbs/spices on the way to the glass for the freshest flavor)!  I'll never claim that's all there is, because there's also a lot of discussion about new beers, seasonals (especially summer), oaked stuff, wild & sour beers, etc.  And that's fine, but from the outside looking in you'd get a very skewed picture.

Further complicating the issue is beer rating sites, beer blogs and people's top 10 beer lists.  If you, as a novice, wanting to see what's good you might look at a list of someone who seems to know what they're talking about.  Odds are you will find extreme IPAs and Double IPAs.  I'm not going to say that this is incorrect by any stretch but there's an element of hype that pushes these highly rated beers even higher on community sites (though personal lists may be more even-handed).  Someone with context seeking out these beers because they're rated so highly could have a rough surprise.

While I do agree that the insane hype surrounding the Double IPA is not warranted, I'm not going to say we should stop talking about it so we don't turn people off.  Just maybe stop talking about it so loudly so it doesn't look like we're saying it's the best beer in all creation. 

Put another way:  We in beer have a tendency to think of "beer" as it stands in the public consciousness as pale and bland, while craft beer is flavor.  We tend to want to impress other people with the great flavors we have in craft beer and so try to trot out what we think our best flavors are, and a lot of people really like IPAs.  But we forget that variety and quality is what makes craft beer something we enjoy, not always amazing and unique flavors.  So we bungle the attempt at putting our best foot forward by putting our favorite beer forward, and that's not always the best approach.

So since this post thus far has been mostly reiteration, what do I think is the right way to go about this?  Friendly guidance.  People need to know that craft beer is about quality and variety, they need to be able to figure out ways to relate the flavors present in that variety to things they already know.  Everyone knows that wine is made of grapes, but people have less of an idea of the variety of grains you can make beer out of.  When people are interested in our beer we can't be absolute with them since it's all about taste.  My favorite beer probably isn't yours.  We cannot say "This IPA is AMAZING" to someone who doesn't have the context to understand IPA in the realm of beer, we have to know what flavors they might like and then can point out great beers in those styles.  We also need to do away with misconceptions like hoppy == bitter and dark == heavy.  But telling people they are wrong isn't going to work.  If you're drinking with someone and they say they don't want your dry Irish stout because dark beers are too heavy, offer them a contrast like a black IPA that is generally crisp and refreshing with a touch of roastiness or something lighter colored that they might be more receptive to but still shares some flavors with stout like a scotch ale or an Irish red.

In short, beer is about dialog and for once people outside of craft beer are starting that dialog.  We have a great chance not to blow it by setting aside our personal favorites and using our knowledge to find the beer for them.

Drink on!
And, Cheers!

(p.s. my favorite beer is Trappist Rochefort #8)