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.
Amen and amen!
I have been saying for a while now on Fuggled that it is the beers which are perceived as “boring” by many a “beer geek” that are, in fact, the most difficult to brew well and tell you far more about the skill of a brewer than does the uber-hopped barrel aged nonsense.
Devils Backbone’s Ein Kolsch is a case in point, it was gorgeous, as was their Trukker Ur-Pils. Classic style, properly made (including decoction mashing where appropriate) and treated with the respect they deserve. I am glad they are one of my local breweries.
(btw – by design or accident, the anti-spam word for this comment was “prost”, I’ll drink to that!)
COAST in Charleston, SC makes an awesome Kolsch
Great one Andy, my sentiments exactly.
To a style you mentioned – Haverhill Brewery just released its Kolsch and it’s beautiful in its simplicity, while showing off the talents of their award-winning brewer. A terrific beer.
I have zero interest in the latest BBL-aged & beers with exotic ingredients and find myself drawn to classic German and English styles as I get older. When you really think about it, there really aren’t alot of US brewers doing the classic styles properly.
Enjoyed the article very much Andy.
I’m going to slightly echo ‘The Anti Beer Geek’s’ comments about barrel aging beer and yours about India Pale Ales. It disturbs me somewhat to see the trends in American Craft currently and how everything is now aged in barrels. Or if it is IPA it has to be an American Imperial Hop Bomb. I must admit I got caught up in it. Scrambling to the newest liquor store every time a new barrel-aged beer came out. Bragging to other beer advocates about how I scored several bottles of the latest and greatest barrel aged beer. While some of them were great (I’m looking at KBS and Bourbon County Stout) most of them did nothing but restrict my palate to the flavors of whiskey, bourbon, and Stout. Everyday when I look at the beer releases or such sites as the Full Pint or Beernews.org, it just seems like more barrel-aged sours and Stouts are coming out. Naturally other beers of other styles are but a majority seem to fit into the barrel-aged or IPA category.
Recently I had a beer that opened my eyes and taste buds. It made me realize I have yet to even begin my beer journey (I have only been into “craft beer” for 2 years.). Ipswich IPA threw a curve ball at me. It was not super citrus or juicy. It didn’t hammer me with Pine but instead gave me a oily taste that I haven’t had before. It made me realize that while those Big Imperial Stout releases are tasty and worthy of my time….the beer world has so much more to offer. So began my quest to try the BEST beer from EVERY style around the world.
This article just cemented my choice of not getting caught up in the “releases” and to really experience all the beer world has to offer.
Because I agree with you. Too much emphasis is put on new, radical, and innovative ideas while good traditional styles do not get the effort and the representation that they deserve. I can’t tell you have many bad Pale Ales and Hefeweizens I’ve had from sampler packs. And the worst part is…these styles might not get better until the beer world starts paying more attention to them.
Great Article Andy.
I could not agree with you more. When I first started into the world of beer-nerdom, it was exciting to discover, experience and compare traditional beer styles from one brewery to the next. As time went on, I lost interest in the fun of style-to-style comparison but never thought of why. I realized that breweries, even those I respect, were turning out brews with the label of “pale ale,” “IPA,” “porter,” etc, but they were tired or poor copies of the style.
Now I find myself looking for the next crazy, unique concoction. The failure of modern craft breweries to produce world class (or even high quality) versions of traditional styles have made way for or caused this concept that any beer worth the water its made from must be something extreme or a first of its kind. As this becomes the norm, they have completely shrugged off the idea of attempting the perfect Kolsch or a true pale ale.
Will we eventually see a change or is this the future of all craft beer? Will it become the norm once again to create a quality version of beloved historical styles, or will it be a constant game of can-you-top-this?