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.