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.
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. 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.” 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.
Postscript: You can read my follow-up article on beer and taste here:
Other Related Tempest Articles:
La Rochefoucauld: Wikipedia (France)
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