Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

For this, the eighty-third installment of The Session, Rebecca of The Bake and Brew puts forward the notion of tasting “against the grain.” She urges us to consider how much our taste or opinion of a craft beer is affected by a few of the following factors: hype, taste inflation, the opinions of friends, and the ubiquitous ratings pumped out by the craft beer community. I’ll address this fascinating topic in more than one installment over the coming weeks. Today’s first part grapples with our taste for extremes; a subsequent installment will deal with how we can challenge these canons in our everyday drinking lives.

Session Friday - Logo 1A Taste for the Extremes

To drink craft beer is to make a statement. The connotations of this statement are multivalent, ranging from support of local business and agriculture to rejection of bland beverages. It is also a declaration of taste that gives rise to distinctions. Drinking craft beer often means going against the grain of mass marketed beers.

But the craft beer tasting community is itself marked by distinctions and hegemonies. “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it,” wrote the great Weimar German literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. As a leftist thinker faced with the rise of fascism, Benjamin’s concerns were of much greater consequence than the question of craft beer tastes, but his words help put us in the frame of mind for critiquing the dominant craft beer tastes of the moment.

Heavily hopped beers have achieved a certain preeminence on the North American craft beer stage, to the point where it wouldn’t be a stretch to speak of a virtual conformism gripping the North American craft beer imagination. Craft breweries and brewpubs that do not have at least one iteration of the American-style IPA along with several other Pacific Northwest-inflected hoppy brews are almost as rare as sightings of the elusive sasquatch.Sasquatch - Wiki Sour beers, barrel-aged beers, and imperial XYZs also compete for our attention on the periphery of this conformity that, ironically, seeks out the extremes of novelty, rarity, and intensity. Just as Robert Parker defined the taste of a generation of wine drinkers in the United States and beyond, contemporary media convergences in North America have dialed in a rather predictable palate. If enough writers at X Magazine, raters at Y Website, or judges at Z Competition suggest that styles of particular intensity are the embodiment of the American beer renaissance, a canon of taste is born.

In a recent article analyzing how rating sites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have molded the North American craft beer palate over the past several years, Bryan Roth of This Is Why I’m Drunk uncovers a surprising trend. Isolating styles and brands that occupy the top twenty spots on these sites’ respective yearly “best of” lists, Roth observes that ABVs (alcohol-by-volume) have fallen off rather steeply from a consistent average of 11.45-11.53% ABV between 2007 and 2010, to a relatively meager 9.76% in 2013. (Yes, you read that correctly. Now you can pause for a moment to catch your breath. The top twenty beers on these lists averaged around 11.5% ABV for four years running.) Roth’s account of this three-year downward trend is convincing enough. The explosion in the number of breweries has translated into ever more variety as these newcomers seek to distinguish themselves among an increasingly crowded field of bottles, cans, and tap handles.

But I think there’s more to it, something we can’t merely reduce to variety driving down the average ABV of “top-ranked” beers. ABV may continue to drop, but this may have less to do with an embrace of sessionability than it does with the recent rise in popularity of sours and saisons (usually of lower ABV) in North America. We’d even be justified in drawing an analogy between the infatuation with high ABV and the recent turn to sours and funky beers. Arguably, these fruits of wild yeast and bacteria are, in North America at any rate, markers of a taste for the extreme. I may be wrong, but I suspect we won’t see a lager inhabiting any top-ten spots on these lists any time soon – unless it’s an imperial lager geared to appeal to a North American craft beer palate primed for big and intense flavours.

More often than not, though, these amped-up offerings are overrated reflections of a palate bias for particular styles and intensities. And if you’ll allow the generalization, it is a palate that sometimes confuses boldness and intensity with quality.

I’m aware of the risks of making such a sweeping pronouncement. As seventeenth-century master of the epigram, François de La Rochefoucauld, once noted, “Our pride suffers condemnation of our tastes with greater indignation than attacks on our opinions.” LaRouchefoucauld - Maximes (Wiki Fr)So let me modulate what I just wrote lest I lose half my readership. I’ve often been misunderstood by friends who think I don’t appreciate hops. I do. I just don’t think that beer should be a mere vehicle for hop character. It also doesn’t mean I think that bourbon barrel-aged beers and sour beers can’t be “good” – in fact, these styles are among my favourites.

That said, I wouldn’t be the first commentator to observe that the multitude of “best of” lists tends to give short shrift to subtlety in beer craftsmanship. Like lagers, for example. You’d be hard pressed to find a refreshingly austere northern German pilsener or a Märzen (Oktoberfest beer) with a deeply complex malt profile among the American-style IPAs, the imperial stouts, and, increasingly, the wild-fermented and/or barrel-aged beers that round out many a “best of” list.

But if the rumblings issuing forth from some quarters are any indication, 2014 might well signal grounds for hope. Beer writers like Bryan Roth represent a segment of the craft beer community concerned with how ratings drive consumption. Among this growing chorus of critical voices, John Frank has written a newly-minted article stressing a return to sanity and focus on quality, and Jeff Alworth of Beervana hails the return of lagers to the Pacific Northwest, a region where you couldn’t give them away a few years back. As an avowed malt head, I’ll drink to those potential changes.

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Postscript: You can read my follow-up article on beer and taste here:

Tasting Against the Craft Beer Grain

Other Related Tempest Articles:

The MaltHead Manifesto

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Image Sources:

Sasquatch: Wikipedia

La Rochefoucauld: Wikipedia (France)

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

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10 thoughts on “Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

  1. kevin goldberg

    Beautiful article, Franz. So interesting to see another parallel with wine in that big and bold, though wildly popular, is fair game for critique. I count myself among those who have been drawn to the flashing neon lights of hops rather than subtlety and complexity. But, though I’m not sure why, I don’t see hopped-up beer as “inauthentic” like many consider juiced-up or “Parkerized” wine to be. Thanks for another great think piece.

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Kevin,

      Thanks for making that parallel with the wine world explicit. I think beer drinkers who criticize “big and bold” are still in the minority, even if it’s an increasingly vocal and growing minority. The fact remains that what you refer to as the flashing neon lights of hops produces some refreshing and vivacious beverages – and people will rightfully continue to be attracted to these beers because many of them taste good.

      In my case, it’s not so much that I don’t like “extreme beers.” I love saisons, sours, imperial stouts, barrel-aged beers, and the like, but not because they’re “extreme.” A well-crafted example of any of these beers is an enjoyable lesson in complexity. Though I must admit that the American IPA is not among my favourite styles, I do appreciate the kinds of tastes and aromas a skilled hopmeister can bring to a judiciously hopped IPA.

      The biggest issue I have, I think, is the fetishization of the extreme that is so pervasive in North American drinking culture. Sometimes it’s less about the quality of what’s in the bottle, and more about making a beer that pursues sourness, intensity, bitterness, or funkiness as an end in itself. We’ve seen it with wine consumption in North America. That European wine’s a bit too pedestrian? We’ll let our grapes hang on the vine so long they’ll practically turn into port. And then we’ll let it sit on new oak for so long you won’t even know there’s grapes in there. Sure, Parker and his acolytes played a salutary role in giving large segments of the European wine industry a good shake-up, just as North American craft beer has emerged as a formidable – and legitimate – counterpoint to European beer styles. But I’m glad that some critics in the wine world have emerged over the last decade to stem the tide of “Parkerized” wines, and that critics in the craft beer world are beginning to question certain taste trends. Again, it’s not like I don’t like an intense Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a jammy-fruity Paso Robles Syrah, but I’m happy that winemakers with a lighter touch have reintroduced some variety.

      I suppose that might be what’s at stake at the end of the day: variety. I’m not the only craft beer enthusiast concerned about the potential hegemony of an American beer culture high on hops and armed with enough alcohol to launch a rocket. It’s the Benjaminian influence on my thinking that motivates me to defend lagers and similar styles less flashy. I’m concerned that approaching the limits as an end in itself has the unfortunate side-effect of establishing a new (but admittedly more convincing) high-intensity normal in place of BudMillerCoors blandness – and of relegating all number of less gregarious styles to the status of also-rans.

      As for the “beauty” with which you began your comment and the “authenticity” with which you ended? That’s a Bavarian Hefeweizen ☺.

      Reply
      1. Bryan

        Sometimes I fear a parallel between the American craft beer industry and that of “As Seen on TV” products.

        Those late-night infomercials offer products that are supposed to revolutionize our life because of increased strength or greater chopping ability or convenience we’ve never experienced – all in the shortest amount of time possible! After all, we’ve got very busy lives and why should we worry about the little things?

        Increasingly, I see the goal of many new beers is to give us the biggest jolt of flavor we’ve experienced before we move on to the next beer. For a culture so heavily invested in the idea of “what’s new,” I suppose I could see this. A brewery may feel the need to create a never-ending lineup of one-offs or seasonals that blows a drinker away with sensory experience, lest they be forgotten. Why do we need to waste our time thinking about nuance when we are likely to remember something that takes the enamel off our teeth?

        The fickleness of the American consumer is certainly not new. The way to approach it in the world of craft beer may be hitting something of maturity as businesses figure out ways to take advantage of it as best they can.

        Reply
        1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

          Bryan,

          I like how you draw temporal and experiential implications out of your parallel between infomercials and certain trends in craft beer consumption.

          As you suggest, bold beers present the drinker with a kind of immediacy – a jolt of flavour, and hopefully one that etches itself quickly and permanently in the memory of the drinker. Sure, spending more time with the beer will enhance the experience, but since much of the sensory information comes front-loaded, a hoppy beer (or an “intense” beer of any stripe) doesn’t demand as much reflection – initially, at any rate – as beverages that are more “reticent” in revealing their charms.

          There’s definitely something to what you say about breweries needing to respond to “palate fickleness” with bold flavours and limited editions. I like what I see, though, in places like Austin or in some Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, places that, even if they produce an obligatory IPA or a beer coded “extreme,” swim against the current to brew beers that might not stand out in a large and raucous crowd. During a recent visit to the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company (“the ABGB”), one of the brewers/co-owners with whom I spoke emphasized how he brewed beers he’s particularly fond of. And what was he drinking the whole time we were talking? Pilsener. (They make a fabulous pils, by the way.) True enough, they have beers featuring North American hops. What sets their American-inflected beers apart, though, is the emphasis on balance and harmony. I think balance and harmony is what some brewers/breweries lose sight of in their attempts to stand out. As I mentioned, I don’t mind intensely-flavoured beers, and even prefer DIPAs to IPAs (must be the extra malt!). But I’m less convinced by “palate wreckers” and beers that, as you put it, take the enamel off our teeth. Memorable, sure. Worth drinking again? For me, usually not.

          Reply
  2. Daegan Miller

    Hey, Franz:

    Another awesome and thoughtful post, and as you know, I largely agree (though I would argue that Bell’s Two Hearted IPA is one of the world’s great beers!). A couple thoughts/questions:

    1) About ratings driving taste: one of the things that consistently surprises me about BeerAdvocate is that some of the subtle beers I like–like witbiers–get mediocre grades from the posters, but great grades from The Bros. I wonder about the cultural politics of this–and of taste in general. That is, the individual with an excellent palate (or at least one that meshes with mine) vs. The Masses. A refined taste–for subtle lagers, for instance–can be seen as a marker of a refined palate, a palate “above” the rude and undistinguished palate of the big-beer-drinking-hoi-polloi. Isn’t it a good thing that we’re swamped in tasty IPAs, double-imperial-bourbon-infused-stouts-with-coffee, and sours, rather than Bud, Miller, and PBR? I guess at heart is something that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time (thanks, Raymond Williams): the politics of quality/taste. Or to turn Benjamin on his head a bit: what happens when the conformism becomes relentlessly searching for increasingly subtle markers of taste/cultural capital?

    2) Do you think there’s a national angle to this? In other words, in the US, “American style” (ie, big, and hopped to within an inch of drinkability) are hot; so are Belgians (at least the funky and big ones); but English beers (there was recently a BA thread on “why no love for brown ales”)? And German beers (thanks, by the way, for introducing me to the pleasure of kolsch)? Do we start wading into the tricky waters of “national styles” or “national tastes” here?

    My next beer will be a Sprecher German amber, and I’ll toast Tempest when I sip it.

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Daegan,

      Excellent questions. Kinda makes me feel like I’m sitting in on a colloquium on aesthetics and cultural capital. And drinking a beer at the same time.

      You’re absolutely right in expressing reservations about how a taste for subtle beverages like lagers, or perhaps saké, might be understood as a reification of distinctions between “refined” and “coarse” tastes. Just as the connoisseur of a certain kind of classical music sets him- or herself apart from those with more “regressive” listening habits (I’m channeling both Adorno and Bourdieu here), the drinker ostensibly attuned to subtleties can lay claim to loftier tastes – and by extension, a “superior” or more “civilized” character.

      I’m also with you in remaining cognizant of this ideological component of aesthetics, this politics of taste expressing itself in euphemisms that establish social oppositions. Put simply, sometimes the declaration, “I drink craft beer,” is an unreflexive normative statement that condemns all those “masses” who might not even have the economic wherewithal to drink anything other than Bud.

      As for the pitfalls of lager coded as “refined,” I think there’s another way of approaching the issue, not so much by “turning Benjamin on his head” and substituting a conformity of subtlety for intensity, but rather by making an effort to taste broadly. A conscious decision to “train” and challenge your palate is also part of this, as is a refusal to buy into the hype surrounding certain beers and styles. Sometimes beer is rated highly for good reason, but as you point out, sometimes you’ll drink a witbier you thought was great, and then read the “crowd-sourced” ratings. For better or for worse, these ratings have a profound influence on the market, from the neophyte craft beer drinker trying to educate his/her palate, right on up to the breweries that both shape and respond to the market. Some people are comfortable with letting demand take its course. But I’m less satisfied with the notion of “to each his/her taste,” mainly because this individual taste may well be a reflection of a generalized bias toward certain kinds of styles and intensities. At the end of the day, I’m OK with people taking the time to develop a certain kind of expertise that can counter the confusion between crowd-sourced ratings and “democracy.” Does this mean I’m an advocate of a “refined” palate? Perhaps, so long as that doesn’t result in hectoring other people.

      My thoughts on your second question will be much more brief, mainly because I’m hungry and need to go eat lunch, and because I’m thinking of addressing this issue in subsequent pieces on taste. You’re absolutely right: I think the shoals are many when we start discussing “national styles” and “national tastes.” But perhaps we can still make allowances for a kind of patriotism that creeps into discussions of craft beer. Many – but not all people – in Germany swear by the Reinheitsgebot, and don’t consider anything not brewed according to its strictures as beer. (We can cue up the generalizations about German discipline here.) Many – but not all people – outside of Germany see this as an unnecessary hindrance to innovation. And a not insignificant number of people on this continent seem to assume that (North) American craft beer has “redeemed” European beer. There’s another layer of your question that I don’t think my invocation of patriotism can get at – that is, why the preference in North America for Belgian styles (and, of course, American styles) over British and German styles. Why is it that brown ales get no lovin’?

      OK, off to find a Märzen to toast you and your Sprecher Amber!

      Reply
  3. Andrew Smillie

    Great article. I do get tired of the constant cheering of hoppy beers. There is a very good local “session ale” here in Texas brewed by Cedar Creek brewery called the “Lawn Ranger”. Its a cream ale. With the persistant heat, I find it a refreshing alternative. That and a nice Porter during the winter do me just fine. I do enjoy the hoppy beers from time to time but lets not forget the subtle tastes of other beers. They can be quite good.

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Andrew,

      I agree. Give me a nice porter any day and I’m happy.

      Thanks for letting me know about Cedar Creek! I just had a look at their website. German Altbier yeast in the Lawn Ranger along with rye and oats? Sounds like I need to try some of their beers next time I’m in the Dallas area. Have you had any of the Austin-area beers? Several of the breweries I visited or whose beers I tasted on a recent trip have sessionable and flavourful offerings on the lighter side.

      Reply
  4. Bryan

    I’m sure this is not by accident, but I’ve found myself traveling two roads when it comes to beer I buy and beer I make at home.

    The beer I buy is slowly becoming more about nuanced, complex beers.

    The beer I homebrew is turning into giant hop bombs or elixirs in search of some exotic, over-the-top flavor. But then again, isn’t that the point of experimentation?

    The last two IPAs I’ve made at home have received rave reviews from friends. (Take that for what you will in relation to your post)

    I’ve been trying to hone a recipe for a “session” IPA – so long as it’s below 5 percent ABV I’m happy with it – and hop bursting the hell out of each batch. They’ve turned out to be amazingly fruity beers that I joke are simply “hop water.”

    Either way, this seems to be an ongoing dichotomy in my imbibing habits.

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      The last part of your comment had me laughing as I thought about my most recent brew: a peanut-chocolate robust porter. I aimed for a beer that would have rich chocolate flavours with peanut accents. But what I ended up with was a beer that tasted like, well, peanuts. (If you ever want to brew a peanut, I can send you the recipe.)

      In terms of my own beer-purchasing habits, I’ll buy just about anything. Maybe I’m one of the guilty parties driving trends that end up out in space or in Egyptian tombs, but if I can afford it (something that’s becoming, increasingly, an issue in its own right), I’ll taste it. I’m a huge supporter of experimentation, be it in literature, the visual arts, film, music, or food. Sometimes I’m blown away by the beer, other times I wonder why the folks at the brewery even decided to let the beer out the door. And then I reach for just about anything from Schneider or Weihenstephan to redeem my faith in beer.

      As for home brewing, I spent my first few years trying to get a sense of the different styles and what makes them tick. Now that I’m more comfortable with all that, I’m doing what you do. Hence my awesome peanut beer, and a few others that I break out less as a party trick and more as a legitimate beverage. I don’t know if I’ll ever brew the proverbial “hop bomb,” but I’m planning on adding some unconventional ingredients to the kettle or fermenter over the course of the coming spring. Here’s to hoping they don’t end up watering the garden.

      Reply

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