Monday, May 5, 2014

The Ugly Truth About Craft Beer

Craft beer in America is exploding. As of 2013, there were over 2,388 breweries that had or where operating in the United States, with literally hundreds more in the process of opening. (UPDATE: As of 2016, there are now over 4,000 breweries in the United States!)

Craft brewers are making tremendous strides in converting people to the idea that the pursuit of flavor is a damn good thing. While the big beers continue to lose market share, the craft segment is growing. It’s no longer unusual to see excellent craft beers on tap in even the most generic of chain restaurant or dive bars. The fact that I recently had Ommegang’s Fire & Blood at an Applebee’s, of all places, is astonishing.

But craft beer has a dirty little secret: most of it is mediocre at best.

Not only is most of it pretty mediocre, when it comes to the dozens of new breweries we see every week, a lot of it is actually pretty bad.

We don’t like to talk about this truth. We craft beer enthusiasts are focused on spreading the gospel of good beer. On swaying people away from tasteless mass-produced lagers. On finding the next great beer to celebrate.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, either. It’s all a part of what makes getting into better beer so much fun. It’s a joy to explore new beers and introduce others to beers they will come to love.

The fact is, though, most of those thousands of new breweries just aren’t very good. They're being launched by well meaning people who made homebrew their friends loved, and based on that decided they were ready to go pro. They're young guys who are only a few years removed from their Steel Reserve days ready to show the world how it’s done because they have some clever ideas, brewers who saw how Sam Caligione broke the rules and figure they can do it, too, and so on.

It’s not that easy, though. As a homebrewer myself (and a decidedly average one at that), I know the daydream. I know about fantasizing about beer ideas and everyone loving them and all that.

The reality of brewing is much different.

The rah rah rah! your friends give you should never be taken to heart. Just like writers should never take the praise of friends and family too seriously, neither should brewers. If you are not your own worst critic, you are doing something wrong.

Sadly, many of these drinkable-but-not-particularly-good homebrewers are now vying for shelf space in the pro world, making the chase for good new beers a crapshoot for the adventurous drinker.

If you are exploring craft beer and stick to better known names, it’s hard to go wrong. There is so much good beer out there it's impossible to keep up. The folks who have earned a reputation have done so by earning the trust of drinkers over the years. Few big name craft brewers don’t actually deserve their reputation – I’m looking at you, Rogue, and your overpraised, overpriced swill – but what about the thousands of new brewers we have seen spring up in the last five years or so?

There is a reason why few have ended up on your radar, and it ain’t marketing.

It’s because they are bland.

I hate to say it, because I LOVE supporting the new guy, the little guy, the local guy. I tried to champion them in my Year of Beer series for the Philadelphia Weekly. Thing is, most of the stuff I explore from the newer breweries just isn’t very good. It's drinkable, and that's it.

That's the truth.

And it’s a truth too few of us craft beer enthusiasts are talking about. We’re so intent on carrying the anti-big brewer flag we forget that being a cheerleader for craft is not enough. We have to demand that these new brewers make a quality product. These small breweries need to be good if the craft movement is going to grow beyond a mere niche (and rest assured, it's still a niche), and we need to be willing to call them out when they're producing mediocre product.

Because too many of them are.

PS -- if it seems like I pointedly avoided naming names in this post, it's true, I did. I don't want to trash anyone in particular, though I did have a number of newer craft breweries in mind when writing this.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

White IPAs Do Not Impress Me

On paper, the white IPA is a great idea. Take the smooth unfiltered goodness of a wheat beer, boost the potency a touch, then add a massive amount of American style hopping. Boom, now you've got a white IPA.

And what a concoction that should be! Sounds like something that will drink in the refreshing way wheat beers drink, but with the lovely citrus aromas and bitterness of an IPA - a match made in heaven, really.

But no. Not even when done by people who know their IPAs...

... I can't quite figure out why the style has yet to click for me, despite having sampled more than a half-dozen white IPAs so far. Granted, it's a new style. Brewers are still working out the kinks and trying to nail down what makes a good white IPA work. Pretty much no one has a ton of experience with them.

Thing is, I just don't think anyone has gotten there yet.

And maybe no one ever will.

A great American-style IPA works in part thanks to having a fairly simple malt bill designed to support the hops, allowing them to do all the heavy lifting as far as taste goes. The malts serve as balance so you're not assaulted with off-putting bitterness, but rare is the American IPA that offers much in the way of complexity in the malt bill - and that's fine, because the point is to provide a platform for those lemon-and-grapefruit-tinged, pine-scented hops to do their thing.

Wheat beers don't play that way. They have an Earthy softness with touches of spice and grain and the feeling of a warm spring day. They are usually unfiltered, and the yeast imparts musty, dusty aromas, occasionally with hints of black pepper or bread or banana. All of this is imparted by the malt and yeast. The hops are generally only there to balance out the malt sweetness. They maybe provide some herbal or lemon-tinged aromas, but they are not the star of the show.

Two totally different approaches to beery goodness.

Two totally different philosophies.

Is it any wonder that I've yet to encounter a white IPA that made me want to go back for seconds?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Quick Sips: Weyerbacher Merry Monks

They say there is nothing like your first time. Well, my first time experiencing Weyerbacher's great beer was with this one right here, so you'll forgive me if I cling to it with some degree of nostalgia.

Not that Merry Monks needs it.

In 2010, Weyerbacher took home a Bronze Medal in the World Beer Cup for brewing for Merry Monks, a Belgian-style tripel that just might be the brewery’s best beer.

That’s saying something, too, because most of their lineup is outstanding. This deceptive brew has a distinct spicy character thanks to the yeast used -- for the uninitiated, this is typical of many Belgian yeast strains -- and the aroma gives off hints of bananas and faint pepper and cloves. It pours like liquid bread and tastes like it, too; very Earthy with a bit of spice, a touch dry and not at all sweet. The monks are probably merry because this beer’s 9.3% ABV packs a punch yet it drinks like a brew of half the strength. Proceed with caution!

But definitely proceed. There are few American tripels better than this one on the market. Hell, I'll risk credibility by saying that it even gives mainstays like the legendary Westmalle a run for its money.

Portions of this review originally appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly and appear here with permission.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Busting 5 Persistent Beer Myths

Beer = serious business. It would be an outrage to let misinformation float around beer circles, just an OUTRAGE, so rather than risk hordes of beer nerds taking to the streets or me having a small conniption or panic attack or something after hearing someone get something wrong about beer (see also), I'm going to debunk a few common beer myths that get passed around even in today's Beer! Beer! Beer! world.

Because the only thing better than sharing your love for something like beer, hopefully with some good friends, is getting a chance to play "I told you so" and know-it-all for faceless Internet people. (I might be exaggerating. Maybe.)

Beer In A Hot Car Will Skunk

This one goes back to just about every beer drinker's youth, especially if their youth involved drinking mass quantities of shitty canned lager. Mine didn't, but growing up in a small town like Lakehurst meant I was usually surrounded by people looking forward to their next 30-pack pound down in the woods. Anyway, the idea was that if you left your beer in a hot car, it was going to skunk.

Nope. Skunking has nothing to do with warm beer or out of date beer or anything like it. Skunking is purely a result of light exposure. Skunking is the result of the way hops interact with UV light; that interaction results in the horrible aroma and taste we called "skunked." It's the reason why beers in green and clear bottles are so often skunked. (I'm looking at you, Heineken.) Hot conditions can lead to stale beer, but that's different. That gives you a flat tasting, cardboard-like beer. Skunked beer? It's all about leaving it exposed to light.

The English Drink Their Beer At Room Temperature

This one has been kicking around for years, too, passed along like a bit of common wisdom beyond questioning. The English, they say, drink their beer at room temperature. Sometimes the claim is broader than that, Guinness is thrown into the mix, and it's said that any pale person who lives in a rainy island environment drinks warm beer.

This myth probably comes from the fact that up until recently (and even now, if you pay attention to big beer commercials), Americans wanted their beer ice cold. The English, meanwhile, served their cask ales at cellar temperature. Compared to the U.S.'s icy brew that seems downright warm, but in fact, cellar temperature is a quite cool 55 to 60 degrees, well below room temperature. And in truth, it's the better way to enjoy a nice stout, porter, or barleywine, anyway.

Canned Beer Is Bad

This one is simple: If the beer comes in cans, it's bad beer. Cans are bad. No good beer comes in cans. Cans are bad for beer. Etc.

I have already made the case for canned beer, so no need to get deep into it. This myth came about because yes, at one time the only beer you'd find in cans was lousy beer. Canning equipment is expensive, and discerning beer drinkers did not like the metallic taste they gave off, so you just couldn't get good canned beer. But these days, cans are lined (no metallic taste), great breweries can their beer, and savvy craft beer lovers know the delivery method doesn't matter since you're pouring it into a glass at the end, anyway (I hope). And to be honest, I didn't need to have this entry, since after years of knee-jerk bias most of craft beer is now embracing canned beer. Hooray!

Dark Beer Is Strong

Anyone who has tried to introduce people to better beer has heard this one. If a beer looks like anything other than golden straw, it's "dark beer" and will be "strong" and etc. etc. etc. Folks are utterly convinced that Guinness is a meal in a glass that only real men drink. Anything dark must be strong, and so on.

Look, a color is just that: a color. The color comes from how deeply the grains used in making the beer are roasted. That roasting has no bearing on alcohol content. You can make black beers as light as Coors Light and light beers that will knock you on your ass. Guinness, in fact, is nearly as low calorie and alcohol as a light beer! People think it's heavy because it's dark and because it's bubbly thanks to nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide, which gives it a creamy fullness. Besides the color, though, it's practically a light beer!

Beer Made With Rice or Corn Is Bad

Most of these myths have been directed towards casual beer drinkers, but here's one perpetuated by beer geeks themselves - and it's a nefarious one. The idea is a simple one (as myths usually are): "That beer is made with corn and/or rice! Ewww!" If you make a beer with these ingredients (or so-called "adjuncts" in general), you are bad, it is bad, and everything involved is bad. We want natural ingredients and etc. blah yada.

My beer geek friends, it's not what goes into the beer, it's what you DO with it. If adjuncts were bad, one of the most respected categories of beer in the world would be gone! (Trappist beers and abbey ales are made with larges amounts of sugar and candi sugar.) The truth is, there are great beers made with corn. Beers from The Bruery, Dogfish Head, and many others are made with rice. And even the famous Pliny the Elder is made with hop extract, according to none other than Vinnie Cilurzo himself. For a bunch of open-minded beer lovers, beer geeks can often be the WORST when it comes to being CLOSED-minded! So just remember, it's not what goes into the beer, it's what the brewer does with it. All you need to remember is that good beer tastes good and bad beer tastes bad.

You can read Eric's regular beer reviews at the Philadelphia Weekly's Drink City Year of Beer. Or, you know, here on this blog.