It’s been a wild ride in the world of craft beer over the past few years. The craft beer market has experienced serious flux and now appears at a crossroads, one from which it’s difficult to forecast what will happen next. We’ve gone through the highs and lows of the twin extremes of hop bombs and alcohol monsters, the milder influences of session beer, and the pocket wrenching experience of expensive beer rarities. While things appear to be settling down for the moment, don’t expect craft brewers and the beer enthusiast community to stand idle for long.

Taking a look at the most recent beer trend of craft beer cocktails, I have to admit to some initial skepticism. It may be that the roller coaster ride of recent years has set us up for a comparatively ho-hum transition period. That would be understandable considering the incredible boost of creative energy of the extreme beer era.

In theory, a melding of the artistic sciences of distillation and fermentation might seemingly result in the best of both worlds and an incredible gastronomic adventure. In my experience, however, it’s more like members of your favorite bands getting together in a super-group jam session, only resulting in a dissonant and confusing melange of incompatible styles. And I say this as someone predisposed to liking this concept. After more than a decade as an avid beer explorer, I hit a period of beer burnout. In this time of ale fatigue, I’ve connected more with spirits and the burgeoning American cocktail renaissance.

The societal return of cocktails and spirits to American drinking culture bears a strong similarity to that of craft beer. With a focus on quality over quantity, craftsmanship, and the art of presentation, the two cultures seem destined to work together. In reality, however, beer tends to get lost and overwhelmed as an ingredient in cocktails. The mix of carbonation levels don’t play well together and the small amounts of spirit ingredients, especially those used in smaller measures, often get washed out in the process. The end result is a muddled mess of flavors, often splashing against one another for dominance instead of rowing together in a controlled and directed fashion.

I also feel the same way when it comes to collaboration beers, another trend of which I’ve not been a big fan. Beyond the eventual overkill of the subject—it seems as if a handful of breweries have collaborated with breweries from nearly every country—I can’t quite get past the confusing and disjointed resulting beers. When it comes to beer, I prefer focus, precision, and clarity of concept. I love it when a brewer sets out a defined, clear path and then executes with both style and grace, leaving the drinker with a crystalline understanding of the craftsman’s vision and an easy path to appreciating whether they achieved it.

If genius is said to be the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple, then muddling the elemental with excess adornments convolutes the beauty of the thing you first sought to appreciate. When it comes to beer, I’m more impressed with the brewer who can tease great flavor from fewer ingredients than one who requires a half-dozen hops, malts, and yeast strains to achieve a complicated mess.

I feel the same way about beer styles. Despite the growing cacophonic chorus of naysayers and critics, beer styles provide clarity and structure to an otherwise entirely subjective enterprise. While it’s easy to grab attention by painting well outside the lines, there remains much creativity to be demonstrated by working within the existing palette of beer ingredients. Sometimes the next big thing is the one obscured by its simplicity and proximity.

-Article appeared in Issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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15 Responses to “Death to Beer Cocktails and Collaboration Beers: the Latest Rant…”

  1. I’ve truly enjoyed many of the beer collobarations that I’ve tried. Sure, some are misses, but several of them, particularly the Stillwater collabs., are phenomenal. A collobaration does not necessairly mean there will be a 1/2 dozen different types of hops and malts, or strange ingredients. I like to see what some really good brewers can do when they come together.

  2. Spot on. I’ve found much of what the craft brewers do, having benefited from such an exploding market, to be cynical and contrary to the original craft brew ethic. Collaboration beers are an example of this. They’re generally not making great beer, they’re mashing up brand names.

    When the brand is more important than the beer, you’re thinking like the macros.

  3. Antonio says:

    I 100% agree with cocktails, see with indulgence collaborations… What do you think of “phantom breweries”? A kind of collaboration or a way of surpassing entry barriers?

  4. kay says:

    Craft beer hipster!

  5. ericmsteen says:

    I agree and disagree. The crazy big experimental beers wear you down after a while but many join into the hype (or buzz) before realizing that the subtler flavors, a simplified beer done extraordinarily well is perhaps what they might be after. I think it’s all cyclical and some day the folks who are only making the big beers with 100 different malts and 30 hops will begin to find ways to simplify what they do. Experimentation can lead to innovation and in time that innovation will lead to a more refined product if it catches on.

  6. markskar says:

    Very well stated Andy. In recent homebrew club meetings I\’ve been going to there are maybe one or two of us (including myself) who prefer to stick close to style guidelines and to try to do them perfectly. The rest are doing all kinds of \”creative\” things that usually end up being less drinkable and enjoyable than a simple, clean, well-made beer brewed to style.

    It is harder to make a beer to style and have it be awesome than it is to do a hack job and then try to cover it up by adding pounds of vegetables, fruits, ginger, herbs, animal products, liquor-soaked oak, and on and on. There can be great beauty in simplicity and I think too many brewers miss that by trying to \”get weird with it\”.

    And commercial breweries almost always do the same thing with their collaborations. Has to be something big and huge and weird! As Mark stated very well above, \”When the brand is more important than the beer, you’re thinking like the macros.\” And I\’m not saying all macros suck, but craft brewers should aspire to be better than this.

    As for beer cocktails, the only one I enjoy is an Irish Car Bomb, and that is strictly for St. Patty\\\’s Day. It just works. Cheers!

  7. jimbob says:

    To me, this is a discussion about good and bad recipes, and I agree that there is not much to get excited about. Just like food, if you make a lasagna with a weird noodle from space, I will be like “cool”, but my stockings will likely not be knocked off. It’s just using ingredients. Like ericmsteen says, innovation is at the root of getting the burnt out folks excited. When a new technique is invented, then we’ll see the energy come back (if it actually wen’t anywhere in the first place).

  8. ericmsteen says:

    I’m not sure that any brewery (not the ones I know of at least) are trying to cover up mistakes with fruit and oak. I honestly believe they are experimenting and figuring out possibilities. This can be exciting for people, and it can wear others down. If you’re not a fan of experimental beers there are certainly plenty of good to-style beers that you can still buy at the bottle shops. I just think that at some point brewers that do heavy experimentation will either be carving new paths for others, or eventually will figure out something that they really want to keep working on until they nail it.

  9. markskar says:

    I wasn’t talking about breweries in regard to fruit, etc., that part was about homebrewers. Proabably shouldn’t have said that commercial brewers do the “same” thing.

    Don’t get me wrong, all the ingredients I mentioned can be used well in homebrews, but I think the bjcp guidelines got it right when they said (my words) such ales should have a base beer style that still shines through.

    My point was that I believe commercial breweries do better when they too stay close enough to some style for it to “work”. Anyone can go overboard and be extreme.

    I have a massive appreciation for all the creative things that so many breweries have been doing.

  10. anti beergeek says:

    Spot on as usual, Andy. For the past 3-4 years I’ve seen through all the collabs & limited release nonsense for what they are: marketing noise. I do indeed sense a renaissance in the craft cocktail segment that is a very real threat to the craft beer scene too. As much as the craft beer press continues to paint a rosy scene, I sense real cracks in the “explosion” of the movement prevalent for the past few years.

  11. Chris Cicala says:

    Sometimes it is the only way to try a brewery, i.e Deschutes in the Chicago market.

  12. Jesse Hughey says:

    I completely agree about beer cocktails. If it’s already a good beer, it’s a rare case that adding liquor or other ingredients is going to improve it. If you believe a liquor would complement a beer, drink them side by side and think of it as a pairing rather than dumping the two into the same glass. I think the most absurd example of beer cocktails were the concoctions Samuel Adams invented for Infinium. This beer made following reinheitsgebot restrictions, yet they suggested adding all these obscure ingredients like pumpkin bitters, smoked salt and black pepper syrup. But that’s a pretty lousy beer to begin with, so maybe adding a rosemary sprig or whatever could save it.

    Collaborations can be very good, though, when they’re done with some restraint. The Baird/Stone/Ishii Green Tea IPA was outstanding, and Jester King and Mikkeller have made a couple of great beers too.

  13. Beagleton says:

    Putting beer in a cocktail is a disgrace to everyone involved in brewing that beer. Collaborations can be an awesome thing which can revive old styles, like Stone Texas Brown Ale.

    • Jon says:

      Putting beer in a cocktail is a disgrace to everyone involved in brewing that beer.

      Curious, would replacing “cocktail” with “food” in that line, or replacing “Putting beer in a cocktail” with “Cooking with beer” change the sentiment any?

  14. Chris says:

    First, Andy, thanks as always for providing excellent fodder for discussion and thought. Your rants are *always* worth reading, even if I don’t agree. Like today. My first reaction here, to the very title, was that I disagree: I want to drink a beer cocktail that I’d love (though I’ve not experimented much) and there are collaboration beers that I truly enjoy. But after thinking about it a little (and following the brief Twitter convo between you and the Beer Wench), it strikes me that while the header seems very clearly negative (a call for “Death” seems inescapably so, no?), the text is a much more careful criticism. Indeed, the text implies to me that the possibility of a delicious and exciting beer cocktail definitely exists and that a worthwhile, to-style, simple collaboration could also occur. It just so happens that often, the products don’t live up to the potential of the theories behind them. I agree. Oh, so very much. But, I wonder if it constitutes or justifies a death sentence?

    Thanks again for getting me thinking (and distracting me from my own writing, which I very clearly should be doing).

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