Fighting Beer Fatigue

Fatigue is a dangerous thing for a beer lover. It plays with your mind, causing you to question what you know to be true and second guess your old friends. The symptoms of such worrisome weariness are familiar and difficult to avoid, even for the most optimistic craft beer enthusiast.

The longer I am part of the craft beer community, the more acute my awareness of the pressing concerns of beer fatigue. I’m not alone in this. A quick review of forum posts on BeerAdvocate.com shows that the first warning sign of fatigue manifests in an odd reaction to a once favored brand. The first stage is marked by denial: “Maybe I got a bad bottle,” the poor soul mutters. The ailment quickly progresses to anger: “When did the damned brewery stop putting hops in its IPA?” Things spiral downwards from here.

The now jaded beer aficionado next turns to the dark alleys of experimentation, hunting down anything to score the high he once enjoyed. He hooks up with a lot of different, seedy brands, never staying in one place too long, all the time wishing he could just simply return to the comforts of home and earlier days.

These lost beer souls will eventually have to face facts. After a few years of trying new beers, every beer lover hits a wall. Beer fatigue can strike anywhere. Against all odds, I recently found myself bored while attending the Great American Beer Festival, for many the holy grail of beerdom. Surrounded by thousands of beers from hundreds of breweries, I couldn’t find much that interested me or my palate. But this tell-tale symptom was familiar: I had again contracted beer fatigue.

For those beer fans left questioning themselves, I’m here to say, don’t worry. It gets better. In these circumstances, you have several options to combat this disheartening disorder. The first step is simply recognizing and acknowledging your predicament, a difficult move for many. After attaining a certain level of beer knowledge, you just expect your palate will serve as a loyal companion and guide, not turn on you. Instead of belligerently ranting in Internet forums, recognize that your palate may have adapted to its surroundings, taking on a greater resistance to hops, malt, and alcohol. It’s not that your favorite beers have secretly been altered, you’re experiencing palate shift.

In these circumstances, the most effective approach is perhaps the least intuitive: just take a break. A few days or weeks away from beer every once in a while helps clear your mind and refocus your passion. Those lingering frustrations over the hop levels in your once favored IPA will disappear after you’ve gone beerless for some time.

For those who want perhaps a less dire remedy, focus on training your senses to appreciate the subtle differences in beer as opposed to leaning on the palate punishing monsters you’re relying on for your flavor fix. Try blind and non-blind tastings of a single style and focus your mind and senses on appreciating the diverse characteristics comprised in the selected group.

When challenged by the danger of beer fatigue and palate shift, I focus and find a new path. For refuge, I’ve followed the great beer drinker Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify.” After unsatisfying affairs with hop bombs and boozy beers, I rediscovered my love of the subtle beauty of well-crafted lagers. After my wilderness years, I’m now never happier than with a half-liter of a zesty German pils in my hand.

Adaptation my friends has long been the key to our survival and it’s no different in the world of beer. Add a dose of self-awareness and you can avoid or at least manage the dangers of beer fatigue.

-Article appeared in Issue 58 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward To A New Year Of Beer…

End of the year predictions have become de rigueur in the beer world. I’m not much for prognostication, especially in an industry as diverse as the increasingly international world of craft beer. It’s better to reflect on where we’ve been over the past year to get a sense of what is to come. Reviewing the past year, I’m struck by how much American craft brewers remind me of students just completing their sophomore years of college. Having secured their footing, they understand how things work but remain unsure of what their futures hold; excited to experience the wider world but still nervous about making their mark.

2011 brought an awkward mix of maturity and growth for the American craft beer industry. It began with a seemingly revolving door of explosive sales numbers and ended with many breweries trying to figure out where to go next. This latter question continues to daunt breweries, both big and small. While most breweries continue to experience extensive growth opportunities, managing their budding popularity is proving difficult. While the prospects for expanding by double or even triple digit numbers exists, the costs of meeting such explosive demand are substantial and expensive. The prospect of incurring massive debt loads to feed stainless steel cravings is a stark concern even for many younger brewery owners. Such trepidations leave many breweries rethinking strategies and returning focus to their home markets.

After years of deploying their forces to battle fronts far from home, however, some craft brewers are returning to their native bases only to find a crop of newcomers setting up new encampments. The nano brewery trend continues to germinate, with many developing steadily from one and two barrel systems to seven, ten, and 15 barrel operations. If these players stabilize their products and can survive to grow to a profitable level, this new generation of craft brewers will inject both excitement and a touch of fear into more established operations.

Craft brewers weren’t the only winners in 2011. Both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors scored substantial successes and in ways that leave craft brewers with much to ponder in 2012. A-B’s Shock Top and Coors’ Blue Moon continue their tear, wedging their way into many new craft beer channels. Whether the big brewer craft-style beers are true competition or mere door openers for craft brewers is a big, unanswered question open to great debate. What is undeniable, however, is that their success suggests a continuing shift in the American beer drinking palate. Whether the big brewers can branch out beyond their infighting over dominance of a single style (witbier) also remains unclear.

Besides uncertainty over their futures, craft industry players are showing greater poise and better judgment in their decisions, both signs of a widening maturity. After years of substantial price creep, we’re starting to see signs that craft brewers and bar owners recognize there is a ceiling to what consumers either will or should be expected to pay. While some crafts and nanos continue to charge ridiculous prices for specialty bottles, and a niche of beer super nerds continue to line up at midnight or 3 a.m. for new releases, many markets, including New York City, have begun to level off and even become affordable. As crafts gain increased scale and local focus, prices will hopefully continue to stabilize and perhaps even improve for consumers.

Finally, with a few years of education behind them, craft brewers have developed greater appreciation for the larger world, maybe having spent some time abroad, and appear less bent on throwing wild, extreme beer ragers. As hundreds of new breweries open across the United States, a larger percentage seem satisfied to explore the nuances and challenges of brewing lager beer and lower alcohol session offerings, both very welcome departures from the excess of recent years. With their emergent wisdom and experience, I look forward to seeing what comes in the next school year.

-Article appeared in Issue 60 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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