Wednesday, November 04, 2009


First there was good beer of the amber, pale ale, IPA variety – to say nothing of long-existent Belgians and Germans. Then there was big beer. Then the bigger beer. Then the beer bigger than that one. Then the limited-run, foil-sealed, imperial xtreme wood-aged monster stout, sold out of a warehouse at 6am one day a year in the freezing cold (as in this photo from Three Floyds Darklord Day). And lo, it was good, all very good for all of us, because the other stuff never went away, and there was plenty of choice and abundance for everyone. Yet some panty-waisters seem to think that because American quote-unquote “beer advocates” tend to get most excited about the big, high ABV stuff (just check the Beer Advocate 100 for quick proof), we’ve lost sight of the magical qualities of, say, the lager – or the session ale, or the ESB, or what have you.

I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. It is all part of a growing recognition and celebration of quality, craft and taste that’s going on across all food and beverage categories, not just beer. I see it in cheese, chocolate, meats, coffees, etc. Let us embrace creative destruction, and not cling to the past, simply because we once lived in it. When something has a demonstrably higher level of attention paid to its creation (think Vinnie Cilurzo and the amazing sour beers he tinkers with over at RUSSIAN RIVER BREWING), I think we can call a duck a duck, and flat-out admit that it’s better beer. Same goes for the limited-run imperial porters and stouts that people are trading and celebrating on online forums; just because some people tend to take the fetishization of these things into ridiculousness in no way diminishes how good the grand majority of them are. Complaining about this market-driven consumer trend is like having filet mignon available to you, but still clinging to your rump roast and trying to pawn it off as “just as good”.

Look, I get it – there are really satisfying lagers out there, and the <4% session ale has its time and place. I, for one, continue to love red ales, even the wimpy ones. But let’s recognize that high alcohol content delivers a certain taste that’s incredibly appealing in beer, when it is harnessed correctly. It’s not simply about getting drunk more quickly – it may be for some, but I doubt it is for the majority of us recreational drinkers; buzz comes a lot easier when it’s not coming at $13.99 a bottle. Higher alcohol, combined with barrel-aging techniques (which often brings out that alcohol), combined with creative ingredients, combined with the touch of a master brewer, has resulted in some of the most amazing concoctions called “beer” in the history of the beverage – many of them just in the past couple of years.

I just can’t accept that there’s any reason to whinge about this and bemoan the fate of the lager (for instance). Let it coexist and find its place in the new marketplace where we’re learning - in America, anyway - just what it is that makes a great beer truly great. Often alcohol's a big part of that, and I think that’s just fine.


Omar Buhidma said...

Out of curiosity, where is this backlash you refer to? I hadn't seen many complaints written anywhere

Jay said...

Omar, every other month the Beer Advocate editorial seems to prod beer lovers to "slow down" and enjoy other beers; moreover, I've seen similar editorials and sniping in papers like Ale Street News, All About Beer and blogs. I'm just trying to make the point that there IS an objective level of quality, even if others try to pretend there isn't.

Anonymous said...

Whoa, good rant! You suddenly became the Glenn Beck of beer for a second there.

Rational Realist said...

Great post. Those articles from the professional beer writers complaining about big beers have annoyed me, too. Who says an IPA or imperial red ale can't be a session beer? It all depends on your definition of session. The best beer writing is not being done by the professionals. Bemoaning the loss of a night of drinking Lucky Lagers when you can have a wonderful beer that happens to have a high ABV, shows how out of touch some of these writers are and how irrelevant they are becoming.

Arkiver said...

Really interesting topic and I think I'm right with you Jay. It's hard to knock the obvious wonders of this explosion of more intense brews here in the US. While I honestly could care less about getting drunk these days, and really never have, I do appreciate the qualities that the "extra" fermentation brings to the taste buds. And as was also noted, sessions beers can be 8 to 10% ABV's if it's righteously crafted, depending upon your exact definition. Yes, you will get schnockered more quickly but damn, some of them can go down like milk shakes. And yes, there is always a sacred place for a cold Piels Real Draft in a can at a picnic with your college buddies, or a Dos Equis with your burrito, and even a cold (very cold) Bud in your neighbor's garage after mowing the lawn cause that's what he drinks, it's all that's in his fridge, and the first few icey sips take you back to your first couple of beers (well before you got to the throwing up part). Small beers are still a part of our world, but I am having some big fun these days, thank you very much "craft America"!