Tag Archives: Beer Advocate

The MaltHead Manifesto

A spectre is haunting the craft beer world –– the spectre of Sir Maltalot. Laid low by a tsunami of IPA, the wild yeasts have set in to consume his legacy. Extreme beerists have entered into an unholy alliance with sharp-fanged sours, enlisting sturdy barrel-aged beers to confine Sir Maltalot within their cavernous depths. Buried under layer upon layer of rum, oak, bourbon, and peppers, his spirit lies in wait.

Like an illumination of the darkest night, the repressed memory of Sir Maltalot’s lush aromas has begun to stir. Lovers of Scotch Ales and Doppelbocks, aficionados of lagers light and dark, let us band together to fight for a craft beer world in which value is not measured by the bitterness unit,IMG_0152 in which a hundred IBUs does not automatically equate with one-hundred Beer Advocate points! A revaluation of values! A world in which brown ales are not cast aside for their seeming ordinariness!

Maltheads, conceal your views and aims for not a moment longer! Emerge from the shadows and proclaim with unfaltering voice your affinity for Munich malt, crystal malt, Maris Otter, Pilsener malt, and Golden Promise! And let the lovers of the Seven Cs tremble at the prospect of a Malthead revolution. Maltheads of the world, unite! Come together to break the bitter tyranny of the IBU imperium. We have nothing to lose but our scythes.

PostScript

Installment #94 of The Session comes to us courtesy of Adrian Dingle at DingsBeerBlog, and inquires after our perceived role in the beer scene. Friday took me by surprise,Session Friday - Logo 1 as did December in general, so I wanted to write something short that was playful yet pointed at the same time. Hence my Malthead Manifesto.

I love sitting down to a rich imperial stout (as a matter of fact, I’m drinking one with chilis as I write), and my fridge is stocked with Belgian sours, American wild ales, and all sorts of beers containing ingredients that would make the crafters of the Reinheitsgebot roll over in their graves. But I do think that some styles have gotten short shrift in recent years. Lager of just about all stripes springs immediately to mind, along with other styles that don’t push the proverbial envelope in any appreciable way.

Anyone care to join me for a glass of Munich Helles later?

High ABV, high IBU, intense sourness, and anything else “extreme”: these are the discursive markers that dominate the contemporary North American craft beer landscape. What’s more, these markers have become conflated with quality. (A glance at any of the “best-of” lists making the year-end rounds quickly bears this assertion out.) People new to the community enter a world of predetermined codes, a canon of taste that prescribes which beers are worthy of attention, and which ones aren’t.

Anyone up for grabbing a six-pack of brown ale this evening?

Aside from the pleasure I derive from writing about the stuff I like to drink, I suppose one of the main reasons I approach writing about beer in the manner I do is because I’d rather not see our choices diminished by powerful taste trends. There’s a certain irony here: Our current range of beverage choices in North America could not be more extensive, but with increasing competition for shelf space and tap lines, I’m wary of a consolidation that favours the dominant tastes I mentioned above. And I’m wary of perfectly good beer styles –– beer styles excellent in a subtle way that doesn’t call forth a cascade of adjectives to describe them –– being eclipsed by certain styles deemed “better” merely be virtue of having higher this and more intense that.

Maybe we can order a few pints of Scottish ale when we’re done with our English mild.

I drink with a catholic embrace. I drink wine, bourbon, Scotch, and tequila. And I drink saké. I even drink my share of IPA. Better yet, make it a double IPA. But when we’re in Berlin, let’s head to a pub in Neukölln instead of lining up at Stone’s new location.

The first round of Hefeweizen is on me.

Related Tempest Articles

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

Every Day Is Craft Lager Day at Kansas City Bier Company

Celebrating Craft Lager Day with a Landbier from Kapsreiter

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

Hefeweizen: A Beer for All Seasons

Brown Beers Get No Luvin’: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.2)

Becoming Munich Dunkel.

Becoming Munich Dunkel

With the exception of The Session logo, images by F.D. Hofer.

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

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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Celebrating Craft Lager Day with a Landbier from Kapsreiter

Grab your tankards and beer steins, folks, it’s National Craft Lager Day! Judging by what I could glean from the chatter circulating on the interwebs, this latest in the line of XYZ beer days appears to have been dreamt up by the marketing department of Sam Adams.

No matter. Lager deserves more respect than it gets on this continent where craft beer enthusiasts sometimes confuse IBU levels and high-octane ABV with quality. In the rush to embrace the newest discovery, or the boldest, most extreme rendition of a style, novice and veteran craft beer drinkers alike have a tendency to overlook the subtleties of lager. If you need convincing on this point, BeerAdvocate’s ongoing “Top 250” is a particularly instructive read, as are many of the “Best of” beer lists that appear with soporific regularity. It doesn’t help matters much either that lager suffers from an image problem of continental proportions owing to its association with Bud, Miller, and Coors.

The result? Lager gets left out in the cold.Ice Cold Beer

Bad puns aside, raise your hand if you know what distinguishes a lager from an ale. No worries if you don’t – you’re not alone. Yours truly used to consume all beers with equally gleeful abandon until relatively recently. And according to the Samuel Adams infographic compiled for National Craft Lager Day (see below), sixty-three percent of Americans over the age of twenty-one do not know the difference between lager and ale. (Thirty-seven percent apparently do. Not bad at all.)

Cold “lagering” temperatures constitute part of the difference between lagers and ales. “Lagern” in German means to store. Historically, this meant stowing beer away for a stretch in frigid alpine caves. The other difference has to do with yeast, which, in turn, is related to fermentation and lagering temperatures. Isolated in the nineteenth century, Saccharomyces pastorianus (formerly carlsbergensis) is the yeast that yields lager; Saccharomyces cervesiae is lager’s opposite number in the ale world. Lager yeast prefers cooler fermentation temperatures (5-13º C; 40-55º F), and requires a period of cold-conditioning. Thanks to the yeast and the longer process, lager is sometimes smooth, sometimes crisp, and nearly always clean-tasting if done well. Ale yeast prefers warmer temperatures (18-22º C; 64-72º F), and the resulting beer is ready to drink within a shorter period of time. Those fruity aromas reminiscent of dark cherry, plum, apple, pear, apricot, or dried fruit? That’s likely the particular strain of S. cerevisae yeast showing its character.

The takeaway: lagers are (usually) more subtle than their ale cousins. And subtle does not necessarily mean “fizzy, yellow, and bland,” the majority of mass-produced lagers notwithstanding.

To celebrate the “canonization” of lager with its very own feast day, I’m going to deliberately ignore the “national” modifier of Craft Lager Day to introduce you to a style of beer that doesn’t often wash up on these North American shores: Landbier (“country beer”). Landbier is an easy-drinking, everyday table beer that is hopped with a light hand. It comes in filtered or unfiltered versions, is often golden-yellow, and steps over to the dark side from time to time. ABV is in the modest 4.8%-5.3% range, making the beer a quaffable reward for a hard day’s work.

Kapsreiter Landbier hails from the Upper Austrian baroque frontier town of Schärding overlooking the Inn River. Kapsreiter Landbier CoasterThis country beer’s crystal-clear honey-golden colour hints at the toasty malt and nuanced honey sweetness within. Aromas of country bread, Swiss milk caramel, and fresh cream give way to earthy herbal-fennel accents suggestive of hops. Creamy and of medium body, the toasted malt and caramel interweave with nuts and mild earthy licorice, and a touch of apple carries through to the pleasant almond-apple finish. Balanced and harmonious, mildly hopped yet deceptively rich and satisfying, this is not a beverage that will hit you over the head. But at a manageable 5.3% ABV, it would make an agreeable picnic companion underneath the canopy of a chestnut tree on a breezy spring day. Drink this one cool but not cold, and think wistfully of April.

Sam Adams CraftLagerDay Info 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2013 F. D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.