Boring Beer Must Die…

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.

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The Other Side of Stout…

When it comes to stout, a single beer defines the style for most drinkers. With its cascading layers of nitrogenated foam and alternating hues of mocha and cream, Guinness draft beer is a world classic. The growing wait for the pour to complete, whether marketing hocus pocus or based in reality, is part of the experience. But when it comes to flavor, Guinness is a pretty average, unadventurous offering, full of promise and hesitant to deliver. The addition of nitrogen to the pour, causing the gentle cascading effect, tends to dumb down the flavor, leaving behind a simple, if slightly bitter and roasted drink.

After years of debate and yearning by those who have enjoyed stout in other nations, Diageo announced that it would be releasing Guinness Foreign Extra Stout in the United States. Promoted as the fullest flavor of the Guinness family, the beer pours with a deep brown color, does not rely upon nitrogen, and boasts a much stronger roasted and sweet malt character, weighing in at 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.

First called West India Porter and dating back to 1801, when it was first brewed at the historic St. James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, the brewery shipped the Foreign Extra Stout to nations around the world, including the United States. During Prohibition, America lost touch with the beer only to return today. Unsurprising to anyone who has sampled this very different type of stout in the Caribbean or Asia, the Foreign Export Stout’s popularity has allowed it to account for forty five percent of the brewery’s total global sales.

“GUINNESS Foreign Extra Stout appeals to beer drinkers who love to explore beer and are looking for a serious stout,” said Patrick Hughes, Brand Director for Guinness, in a press release. “It is a unique beer with a distinctive taste, aroma and color and offers GUINNESS fans another way to enjoy the high quality, rich, satisfying GUINNESS experience that is the core of our brand.”

The Export Style is one that often confounds beer historians but actually gives enthusiasts a chance to enjoy what traditional British stouts tasted like a century ago. Often called Foreign-style Stout, the style’s marketing history, where brewers created bigger, stronger stouts for distant, tropical markets, truly defies the modern beer drinking preference of lighter beers in warmer climates. Despite their pleasant, approachable flavors and aromas, Export Stouts are rarely found in the United States. Often deep brown to jet black in color, the style balances roasted grain aromas, sometimes slightly burnt coffee as well, with a minor fruitiness and a complex array of molasses, plums, and lightly boozy alcohol notes. While not as cloying as the Sweet Stout style, residual sugars usually mix with higher alcohol levels and the roasted notes and fruity hints to create a very intriguing and drinkable beer, even on warm days. Some Export Stout versions bear a slight acidity that balances the sweeter notes.

A Look At Lesser Appreciated Stout Variants

While Guinness draft and the Dry Irish-styles dominate the world of Stout, a handful of other excellent spin-offs continue to please a growing, dedicated pool of enthusiasts. With flavors akin to well-roasted coffee and silky milk and dark chocolates, beers in these styles offer a much needed counterbalance to both malty and hop-centric beers. Generously borrowing from both sides of the beer ingredient spectrum, dark and roasty beers can be at once sweet and deeply, soulfully malty while quickly balancing a substantially bitter finish. Others in the category prefer to dive into the deep end of burnt coffee and dark chocolate flavors.

Oatmeal Stout

A quirky style mixing chocolate and caramel roasted malt flavors, Oatmeal Stouts derive a gentility and lightness of being from the use of oatmeal in the style’s grist bill. Deep brown to pitch black in color and with sustained, tan heads, these stouts bridge the gap between the Dry Irish-style and the Sweet or Foreign Export stout versions. Beyond the aromas and flavors of roasted malts, which tend more towards chocolate and even nutty hints, a moderate bitterness is used for balance. Depending upon the level of oatmeal employed, these stouts can possess creamy notes and the resulting flavors can be silky smooth in texture. Balance is the key here and the best Oatmeal Stouts are highly drinkable and not heavy on the palate.

One Oatmeal Stout
Dark Horse Brewing Company
Marshall, Michigan

This brewery produces five stouts around the winter holidays and this Oatmeal Stout starts with an opaque black color and is capped with a solid, spongy head of foam. One’s nose is filled with big roasted malts mixed with charred baker’s chocolate, burnt coffee beans, and a slight acidity and creaminess, all acting with restraint. A surprisingly rich and thick example, One Oatmeal Stout unleashes a mild torrent of bittersweet and roasted chocolate, black coffee, and a slightly smoky roasted malt character that also displays some lighter caramel malt qualities, all resulting in an unexpectedly soft and velvety mouthfeel. A bit of an enigma considering the style, Dark Horse lives up to its name with this beer.

8 Ball Stout
Lost Coast Brewery & Café
Eureka, California

The 8 Ball pours with a blackish brown body and a moderate mocha cap. It smells of chocolate, coffee, a touch of molasses, and rich roasted malts. The flavor follows suit, with the addition of dry cocoa, a little treacle, a mild creaminess hidden amidst the dark malts, and the slightest hint of oats. A full-bodied stout, the mouthfeel is creamy at times with a moderate carbonation balancing out the thick body. Befitting its West Coast heritage, the magical 8 Ball is a tinge hoppier than your average stout.

Ipswich Oatmeal Stout
Mercury Brewing Company
Ipswich, Massachusetts

A home state hero, the menacingly black Ipswich offering is capped by a light tan head and offers very little color at the edges, Mercury’s version, unlike many versions of the style, is hugely hoppy with big earthy and mineral notes from Pacific Northwest hops. The unexpected hop aromas add to the more standard dark roasted coffee notes and light espresso hints resulting in an earthy, clean experience. Surprisingly full bodied, Ipswich Oatmeal Stout booms with flavor, choosing to rely on the side of burnt roasted strength instead of lighter creamy touches. The roasted malt flavor starts slow, then transitions into a touch of raisin malt sweetness, but then kicks into a long, pronounced, and never-ending burnt bitterness.

Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout
Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Boontville, California

A year-round offering, this Anderson Valley offering won the brewery’s first gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival and remains one of the brewery’s most popular beers. With a two-finger deep light brown head that refuses to quit, Barney Flats is a classic Oatmeal Stout with a deceptively light brownish-rouge color. The brewery’s yeast strain gives off a signature creamy aroma, a rare sign of true house character, which gives way to very light touches of roasted malt and hints of milk chocolate. The flavor remains quite reserved in terms of dark malts, instead yielding a complex array of coconut, yeast creaminess, roasted bitterness, and chocolate notes.

Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout
Wolaver’s Brewing Company
Middlebury, Vermont

One of America’s leading organic breweries, Wolaver’s has long been dedicated to making classic styled beers with all-natural ingredients. Pouring a deep brownish-garnet hue with a toasted colored head, a tad light for the style, slight lacing is achieved. A pleasant lightness fills the aroma, with oat notes and plentiful well-roasted barley with touches of lightly roasted coffee beans and chocolate. The flavor matches the aroma with the additions of a tight bitterness from a combination of roasted grains and noble and American hops. Substantially dry to the taste, flairs of malt sweetness complete this offering.

Export Stout

The beers in this category may welcome the attention that will likely follow the release of the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Ready for a fight, these potent yet playful beers offer a real challenge to those willing to take them for a spin.

Steelhead Extra Stout
Mad River Brewing Company
Blue Lake, California

The Extra Stout pours with a jet black color and a light tan head and smells of deep, rich, and sweet malt with the lightest touches of roasted edge but not bitterness. It possesses light mocha notes, even coconut at times, and the medium body also contains big roasted flavors competing with sweeter malt notes for dominance, with neither winning out in a balanced stalemate. Booze is very well-restrained compared to some alcohol heavy examples of the style and light mocha and coffee notes run alongside a hint of smoke.

Damn Good Stout
BruRm @ Bar
New Haven, Connecticut

Created from a mixture of seven different malts, this stout actually manages to live up to its bold name. Appearing near opaque black with a thick tan head, the beer lets you know you are in for a treat with its rich, malty, and roasted swirls of coffee and chocolate. There is an initial burst of light alcohol flavors upfront, followed by a wash of mild roasted notes, and the beer finishes with a slight sweetness. Damn Good Stout possesses slight cocoa and coffee flavors but ends up best expressing some notable maltiness, which is typical for this sweeter style.

Dragonstooth Stout
Elysian Brewing Company
Seattle, Washington

With a name referencing Greek warriors who sprang from the ground when the teeth of a slain dragon were sown, you know this Export Stout is going to be tough. Made with rolled oats, Dragonstooth pours with an ominous black tint and dark ruby edging, capped by a tan crown. The stout’s aroma glimmers with rich malt aromas, bouncing from caramel, toffee, and brown sugar to dark chocolate and a touch of coffee, and finishing out with hints of vanilla. The flavor adds the unusual touch of American citrus hops, which is a departure from the style but helps bring together the old and new worlds of brewing. A creaminess to the malt mixes with its substantial sweetness and the citrus hops to create a highly drinkable concoction.

Captain Swain’s Extra Stout
Cisco Brewing Company
Nantucket, Massachusetts

Another local offering and named for one of the earliest settlers on Nantucket, a family from which the brewery’s owner descends, this Extra Stout is a testament to the sea-faring world that holds this style so dear. A rich sable color with hints of garnet hues at the extremes underlies the moderately creamy tan crown. The nose fills with a slightly acrid dark roasted malt burst followed by waves of sweeter chocolate and burnt coffee and a touch of earthy hops. The roasted malt occasionally strays into a pleasant and somewhat unexpected acidity, not quite sour, before giving way to creamy swirls of caramel, milk chocolate, and charred grains. A hint of pine from Chinook dry-hopping balances out this full-flavored beer.

Milk Stout

Another difficult to find variety, Milk Stouts fully give themselves over to the lighter, creamier side of the roasted stout world. But don’t expect a cloying, unbalanced mess. Quite to the contrary, these medium to full-bodied stouts balance deeply roasted grains, with their cream coffee and milk to dark chocolate aromas, with a moderate level of sweetness to create a creatively and agreeably dissonant beverage. Deep and dark in color and with low carbonation, the high residual sweetness comes from unconverted sugars left in the beer and in the case of Milk Stouts, the addition of lactose, an unfermentable ingredient also known as milk sugar. Sometimes called Cream Stout, the flavor of these styles often focus on a downy, milky flavor reminiscent of sweetened coffee or espresso.

Milk Stout
Left Hand Brewing Company
Longmont, Colorado

This Milk Stout pours with a dark brown color with ruby hues at the edges and a light tan head. The aroma possesses a chalky, mocha like dryness with deep and dry roasted notes and a slight burnt malt character. The beer’s flavor starts off slow, with a lightly toasted maltiness reminiscent of molasses, before diving into a moderate dark malt quality that plays well with a light lactose creaminess from the addition of milk sugars and flaked oats. Light bodied and with an overall sweetness, the beer is a great entrant for dark beer wary novices, like a brown ale with lactic sweetness.

Steel Toe Stout
SKA Brewing Company
Durango, Colorado

Steel Toe pours deep brown with light brownish-red hues around the trim. A bit unusual for the style, the beer leans more heavily on the roasted side of the ledger, with an aroma that also features a smattering of light cream traces. This Milk Stout, brewed with lactose, starts with a light roasted malt bite that lasts throughout the flavor but is joined near the end by a distinct, pleasant creaminess that finishes almost like chai tea with milk. A very enjoyable and drinkable flavor combination.

–Article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Beverage Business Magazine.

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The Black IPA Problem…

I’ve been loathe to get involved in the growing dispute over what to call dark beers that display bountiful hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Their recent appearances have generated monikers such as Black IPA, India Black Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale. The history and genesis of this style, whatever you choose to call it, has bounced between New Englander’s proclaiming that the Vermont Pub & Brewery, founded by the late Greg Noonan, and its then brewer Glenn Walter, created the first version called the Blackwatch IPA, to Pacific Northwesterners noting that it is their hops that give the style its signature character, to beer historians who point to old recipes from Britain from more than a hundred years ago to shut up the Johnny-come-lately Americans.

Without going into great detail about the sordid history of this interesting and developing style area (I do, however, tend to side with the Greg Noonan/Glenn Walter/Vermont Pub and Brewery as pioneers side), I hope we can all agree that the names to date have been off-the-mark. For its part, the Brewers Association has classified the ‘American-style India Black Ale style this way:

American-style India black ale has medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. The style is further characterized by a moderate degree of caramel malt character and medium to strong dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins may contribute to aroma and flavor.

The first beer I can recall having that tasted like this would either be the New World Porter (first released in 1997) from Avery Brewing or the Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter from 3 Floyds, both of which I think fit the emerging style quite well. I’m not entirely convinced that the simple inclusion of American hops suddenly leads to the creation of an entirely new style of beer or one that should not be properly housed under the Porter banner, as Avery and 3 Floyds have done. That perspective, I acknowledge, is not likely to carry the day in the present climate.

But in looking at the present names for the style, the deficiencies are as obvious as they are myriad. The style, as far as I can tell (in this day and age, you almost always have to qualify historic approximations), has no connection to India. It is also in no way pale. So a Black India Pale Ale or Black Pale Ale makes no conceivable sense except for the connections to the hops. But we use American hops in a substantial number of other styles without the need of bringing the South Asian sub-continent into the nomenclature debate, so why apply it here? Moreover, as hard as they try, the Cascadian Dark Ale moniker also suffers. Despite weak protestations to the contrary, you guys pretty clearly didn’t invent the style. If you guys want to try and lay claim to the American-style India Pale Ale name, have at it. You’re on slightly surer ground there at least.

So what are we left with, except three or four different and confusing ways of saying the same thing?

Well, I believe that styles are important, if for no other reason than consumers can have some reasonable understanding of what they might be getting when they select a certain beer. It is in the hopes of creating some logical détente that I humbly offer the following suggestions for resolving this seemingly intractable debate.

-Dark Bitter Ale (DBA)
-Black Bitter Ale (BBA)
-Black Hoppy Ale (BHA)

or perhaps my favorite, the NBA: Noonan Black Ale. Feel free to vote and let me know your thoughts.


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Beer styles continue to befuddle…

In writing my next book, Great American Craft Beer, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about beer styles, writing about them, and revising my thoughts and sentences. And after a few months of these efforts, I’m pretty sure I know less about them than I did when I started this project (and not just because Ron Pattinson and others continue to pull the rug out from under us all). Barleywines versus old ales, export or foreign stouts, and IPA’s versus APA’s. Is there such a thing as an American Stout? And what the heck is a golden ale? Do Americans really know the difference between Czech and German-style pils? Are there any differences? I have no idea anymore. But at the end of it all, deep in my confusion, I get glimpses of light. Such is the case with the delightful Sweetwater IPA. Although listed as an IPA, I think it may be the perfect example of an American Pale Ale, which just adds to the confusion (or fun). I’m looking forward to finishing this confounded project up in a few weeks…

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You Think You Know IPA?

A few months back I wrote about a gang of revolutionary brewers who knowingly disregard style guidelines in favor of less restrictive pastures. These “free-form” radicals, as I called them, challenge tradition and history in order to expand the way people think about beer. As a lover and defender of brewing history, I somewhat disdainfully shook my head at the whole, disorganized practice.

Countless breweries around the world tout their allegiance to strict style guidelines and traditional ingredients as the basis for their claims of quality and character. In doing so, They vaguely point to hundreds of years of brewing heritage, often in particular styles, to justify their place in the international brewing pecking order.

But what if those beer styles that many others and I have so lovingly written about only exist in our modern imaginations? What if Michael Jackson, Fred Eckhardt, and the other present day keepers of the guidelines’ bible actually had it wrong about the styles we accept as gospel and without question?

Enter Ron Pattinson, a beer writer, historian, and bon vivant who writes a quirky and curiously titled blog called Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. While most beer lovers who give a moment’s thought to beer styles may know nothing of official style guidelines, Ron has developed a passion for debunking beer style myths. He scours old brewing textbooks in a range of languages to discover long hidden secrets about the world of beer. Reading his posts, which often include detailed accountings of brewing ingredients, grist ratios, gravities, and how they have ebbed and flowed over decades upon decades. For beer and history geeks, Ron’s historical research offers a rare glimpse opportunity to gain greater appreciation about the development of beer, recipes, breweries, and the changing palates of beer drinkers over the course of centuries of brewing.

This historical research, and other recent similar efforts, also offers students and guardians of beer styles a chance to rethink the work of those who set the definitions that we have come to know so well in the last thirty years. Think you know the story about India Pale Ales? Of course you do. It’s the one where British brewers sent highly hopped, high alcohol versions of their pale ales to the country’s outpost in India, right? While we can agree that the IPA style started in Britain, a batch of historic evidence suggests that the original versions sent to India were actually a form of beer concentrate, which local brewers then watered down. The old brewing and news texts do not make the well-worn story seem so sturdy. The actual numbers from several British breweries in the 1800 and 1900s suggests that IPA was a relatively weak beer when compared to pale ale.

When IPA traveled from Britain to the United States, Ballantine’s IPA, weighing in at 75 IBUs and 7.5-percent alcohol at its peak, became the standard bearer for America’s version of the style. From that point, the nature and definition of IPA changed and few hopheads have bothered to look back at history. As an example, the Beer Judge Certification Program, which certifies and ranks more than 2500 beer judges for local and national competitions, has developed its own very detailed style guidelines. In its definition of the IPA style, the BJCP instructs judges that “The term ‘IPA’ is loosely applied in commercial English beers today, and has been (incorrectly) used in beers below 4% ABV.” Incorrectly? While the IPA style is now less common in Britain than it is in the United States, does that make our modern take on the original the correct one? That seems a depressingly bold assertion of brewing hegemony by a country that can only boast the creation of a handful of beer styles older than a decade or two.

It is hard to say what should be made of style autocrats who demand rigid adherence to current, written descriptions. It is also sometimes difficult to see the relevance of modern style guidelines when old brewing texts tell us enticing tales of extinct German fruit ales, smoked Berliner ales, and about weiss beers that did not originally contain any wheat at all.
Despite our best marketing efforts and our convincing storytelling, our modern interpretations on the traditional styles cannot be said to be the definitive representation of the historic offering. And while I’m not convinced that free-form brewers decided to reject styles because of a few charts in a dusty, old Eighteenth Century German brewing manual, even the strongest proponents of style adherence have to acknowledge that sometimes its impossible to truly know living, breathing things.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue V of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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