With slowly creeping hop levels and increasingly complex degrees of barrel aging, the very definition of beer has evolved if not mutated into some improbable beast of flavor and fancy in recent years. But this era of spiraling expressionism has led to the rather unfortunate development of a new, particularly pernicious kind of beer snobbery.
The archetypal articulation of this newfound contempt rests in the wholesale dismissal of classic and traditional styles of beer. From all corners of the beer world, a mantra grows more familiar by the day: out with the old, in with the new. Recently, one well-regarded American brewer advised his comrades and aspiring brewers that “[t]he world doesn’t need another world-class Kölsch or a world-class pale ale. The world needs more innovative beer.”
In my opinion, I believe such views couldn’t be more off-base. I believe that better Kölsch beers, pale ales, pilseners, and other classic styles are exactly what the craft beer industry desperately needs. For a long time I thought of craft beer as representing a 10-80-10 ratio: 10-percent of the available beers were world-class, 10-percent were terrible, and the overwhelming bulk represented varying quality degrees. After more reflection and perhaps a maturing of both palate and mind, I think I overestimated the number of truly world-class beers. In the course of a year, I have to admit that perhaps only a dozen beers really capture my attention. These beers don’t usually dazzle me with the now ubiquitous shock and awe campaign of power and strength. On the contrary, the beers that impress me tend to involve mind-blowing simplicity and subtle but characterful flavors.
In contrast to the prevailing view, I think we need less focus on innovation and more concentration on brewing less boring beers. In many breweries and brewpubs around the country, a malaise of beer tedium has settled over the taps. Caught in a paradigm straight out of the early 1990s, where even the blandest craft beer offering stood as a shining ray of hope compared to the monotonous macro beers, these brewers never bothered to update their beers to capture more expressive qualities. Countless prosaic brown ales, ambers, hefeweizens and other styles share entirely similar, artless, and sometimes clumsy recipes. As a result, many local brewery and brewpub experiences yield a wide assortment of drinkable if uninspired and soulless beers.
As consumer tastes continue to develop, India pale ales made entirely with Cascade hops are the liquid equivalent of basic cable. Sure it’s a step up from three network stations broadcast over the air, but we now live in a radically different age. It’s time for craft beer to move past the cassette tape era. It’s time for brewers to consider new hop and malt varieties and source better ingredients. It’s time for the training wheels to come off our everyday, regular, and traditional beers. This evolution need not result in the banishment of all amber and brown ales as relics of the past. Quite to the contrary, brewers need to take a hard look at their respective portfolios and look for ways to improve their beers, whether that be adding a light smoke element to a porter or actually doing something about that shitty, knock-off Kölsch you’ve been unceremoniously brewing for years.
Just because the American craft beer industry produces a lot of beers in traditional styles doesn’t mean they’re anything near world-class in quality. While often treated as a throwaway offering here, Kölsch is an elegant and charming style whose subtle beauty is rarely if ever captured in America. Our brewers have certainly proven themselves adept at innovation and novelty. It’s time to look inward and prove a talent for the fundamentals of brewing. For existing brewers and those who follow them, know that the only shame in brewing traditional beers is doing them poorly or without care or thought.
-Article appeared in Issue 49 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.