Beer and Pavement

By Definition

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Life, Manifesto by SM on February 8, 2012

Folks are really hung up on definitions. Some definitions seem vague and disconnected. Others change depending on the context. Still, certain definitions are there just to create controversy. Whatever the definition, whether it be beer or music, they make for excellent fodder for a blogger in need of a topic to post.

The “session beer” is a highly controversial term. Beer Advocate has their somewhat Americanized version of what most Brits consider to be session beer. Then, there’s the session beer gospel as preached by Lew Bryson at his Session Beer Project. I’m not going to go into the definition of the session beer except to say that whatever you’re drinking over an extended period of time that doesn’t completely drop you beneath the table is close enough to a session beer for me. I’ll let others debate ABV criteria as I rarely choose a beer solely on alcohol level. (Although, I have avoided certain beers that would have rendered me unable to drive home.)

There’s been some talk and disagreement over the origins and definitions of the West Coast IPA. Jeff at Beervana attempted to solicit the help from his readers in order to align his own definition with the masses. This sort of topic borders on debates over terroir and a vain attempt to identify one’s region with a beer style. It’s really no different with the controversy over Cascadian Dark Ales and/or Black IPA’s. Brewers/marketers are trying to tie a beer’s definition with their particular region. Sure, styles originate from and often taste different when brewed in different locales. However, the makeup of the beers are generally similar. I enjoy how an IPA from Michigan tastes as much as I enjoy how one from San Diego tastes. Locale is a factor, but I won’t define a beer style solely based on region. It feels limiting and lazy.

Lately, a couple of definitions have come under fire. It seems there is a crisis over what constitutes craft beer in the UK. I’m not familiar with Simon Johnson’s Reluctant Scooper, but in his post titled “The Craft Beer Manifesto“, he takes a jab at what defines craft beer (in the UK, at least):

1: Only use distilled otter’s tears

2: Use only barley that’s been warmed by the breath of kindly owls

3: Craft beer cares, so only use hops that have been flown halfway around the world

4: You can have it any colour you like, as long as it’s not brown. Unless its an Indian Brown Ale

5: Beards allowed only if they’re ironic

6: It’s not “inconsistent”, it’s “experimental”

7: It’s not “hiding faults”, it’s “barrel-ageing”

I found his list (all twelve) to be pretty funny. However, scrolling through the comments alerted me to some curmudgeon-like attitudes toward beer. I don’t know how everyone defines craft beer, but it seems to me that it’s beer brewed using traditional methods on a relatively small scale. The definition that Johnson hints at – with tongue firmly planted in cheek – is what has been marketed to us in one way or another. Some has been by design as breweries fight for their own unique place in the industry. Some is a creation of the craft beer geek culture where bigger, extreme-er beer is appreciated most. I think it’s a simple thing really, determined by brewing methods and production. Still, the manifesto is a funny list to discuss at the bar. (H/T Stan)

Another blog post has pondered the definition of a brewer. Zak Avery ponders the question perfectly and the proof lies in the responses he generates from his readers. The definitions are all over the place as each commenter has his/her own perspective on what constitutes a brewer. Simply, I’d suggest that a brewer is anyone who brews beer. There are good and bad brewers, ignorant and knowledgeable brewers. If we want to get technical, we could divide brewers between home and commercial, but sometimes there isn’t much difference in this dichotomy. The debate could go on, but that’s why it’s such a great question or rumination. (also H/T Stan)

Commenter Bill Farr asked me to define indie rock. Has anyone really tried to do this? Actually, some have. AllMusic of course has something to say:

Indie rock takes its name from “independent,” which describes both the do-it-yourself attitudes of its bands and the small, lower-budget nature of the labels that release the music. The biggest indie labels might strike distribution deals with major corporate labels, but their decision-making processes remain autonomous.

On the surface, that seems easy enough. However, when bands sign with major labels, whether or not they really do make “autonomous” decisions is up for debate. Too often, the idea of indie rock has been assigned to a certain aesthetic. Honestly, I am guilty of limiting this segment of music to the music I like: guitar-centric, rock music preferred by white males who attended college in the mid-90’s. I realize that I’m ignoring a huge amount of music when I proclaim indie rock as my favorite genre of music. Really, what I should do is say that I appreciate indie rock, but I prefer bands like Pavement, Guided By Voice, Sonic Youth, The Walkmen, etc.  Luckily, it’s not up to me to define indie rock for you. We have AllMusic and Wikipedia for such trivialities.

Where definitions get interesting in indie rock is where we actually start to define genres and sub-genres. Lo-fi was made popular as an aesthetic where bands recorded in bedrooms on cheap four/eight-track recorders. Riot grrrl defined a generation of punks hellbent on injecting the DIY, punk scene with some estrogen. Baroque pop was the only monicker someone at Spin or Rolling Stone could muster in order to explain what Arcade Fire or Beirut were doing. I could go on and on with genres and subgenres made popular in indie rock circles. The topic of these genres is enough to write a book on its own.

So, what am I getting at?

It seems a great deal of time is spent on blogs and books and whatever media one prefers trying to define everything. The only problem I have with this is that so many of us (myself included) spend a lot of time trying to define it for others. No longer do we listen to (or read) each other and try to meet at an understanding. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. A certain amount of anonymity and/or distance provided by the interwebs does that. I’m trying to get better at this and simply state that what I post here is just my perspective. Sometimes that’s clear. Sometimes it’s not.

I prefer to see these definitions as evolving tools to better understand one another. If you and I have different ideas as to what a session beer is, it might make for a more enjoyable session if we know from where each person is coming. Let’s say that I am a Lew Bryson disciple and will only drink session beers measuring in at 4.5% or less and you’re the type that can’t taste anything below 9% ABV. It would be helpful to know that I can throw back several pints over the course of evening while you may want to limit yourself to sipping one or two beers over the same time period. Without this understanding, one of us comes off looking like a drunk: you for drinking high gravity beers at the same pace as I or me for throwing back five pints in one sitting.

When I talk music with people, the definition discussion is much easier. No one is stuck to one definition for a band or an album. We prefer to delve into what the music is doing for us and what influences it resembles. Conversely, the beer nerd conversation is dependent on the definition of a beer or its style. Thankfully, this grip on definitions is loosening as some in my beer circle would rather talk about tangibles of the moment or how the beer tastes in that particular context. To me, these discussions over definitions are so much more useful and productive rather than one party insisting on whatever is etched in stone while another pontificates that all formal definitions are obsolete.

Thankfully, Martyn Cornell provided some reason to the conversation and yet another term to help describe what we beer enthusiasts like. He used the post to promote the idea of “fine beer”, you know, like “fine wine” or “fine dining”. I’m all for it, but I won’t use this space to go into that. His main point is the same point I’m trying to make. Basically, the labels we use to describe what we like (craft beer, indie rock) are just the words that make it simpler to tell outsiders or newcomers what we like. It’s a way to organize store shelves and record bins. It doesn’t adequately describe all the reasons we like what we like. It’s shorthand. It’s easy, almost lazy. (Martyn didn’t say this exactly. I’m sort of paraphrasing.) So, the energy spent defining lazy terminology is energy wasted.

I will continue to use the terms “craft beer” and “indie rock” to describe my tastes in drink and music. I will probably also try to define these interests with each blog post. However, I am not trying to define these specific terms for you. What I am attempting to do is to define what I like and why. I am trying to make the case – like many have done before me – as to why this is important. I am not attempting to define beer and music for you. I am just trying to engage the conversation, the thing that goes neglected when we have to define everything.

Disappointment Leads to Redemption

Posted in Beer by SM on November 20, 2011

I spend a lot of money on beer. Sometimes, I’ll spend a lot of money on just one beer. One such beer or series of beers is Odell’s Woodcut series. These are special brews that a small batched, one-offs with a hefty amount of booze, flavor, and cost. I assume the “wood” portion comes from the oak barrel aging they do, something they are demonstrating a great aptitude for with this series.

I’ve had a couple of the series in the past. The high price point makes me hesitate, but the rave reviews from beer nerds I trust convinced me to buy number 5 in the series, a wine-barrel-aged Belgian Quadruple. Even in the ballpark of $25, I felt it would be a nice beer to try. Part of me wanted to age it, but an opportunity to share it with a friend who appreciates such beers arose and I popped the cork open to consume.

The only problem was that there was no “pop.” After a slight struggle, the cork simply slid out. This worried me, but I poured two tulip glasses anyway. The first looked flat, so I poured the second aggressively. Yep, still flat. Normally, I would be mildly annoyed, but a beer this expensive coming out this flat was a real disappointment. I ended up finishing off most of it as my friend moved on to something else.

Why didn’t I pour it down the drain? For one, it was $25. Otherwise, it was a pretty awesome beer, even without the carbonation. Figs, raisins, cherries, assorted dried fruit dominated the beer. The oak present in this beer was nearly perfect. Some beers feature too much oak and some are too mild, every oak-aged Odell brew I’ve had is perfectly oaked. That touch of vanilla from the woods is so well-balanced that I nearly forgot the beer’s faults. The booze was there, but it was unnoticeable despite it sitting there at 11%. All this made the experience even more disappointing as it could have been one of the best beers I’ve had this year with a little carbonation.

As I normally do, I reported my beer on Untappd. I asked whether or not the beer should be flat. Some high-end, high ABV beers can be flat. However, this should not have been the case for a Quad. My Untappd reports post on Twitter where Odell picked it up right away. They suggested that carbonation may vary with bottle aging, which as a homebrewer I know all too well. However, they asked me to email them. As of now, I don’t know what they will/can do for me, but just responding to my concern is a good sign. I suspect they’ll make amends somehow. Just another reason why I love the craft beer industry.

I’ll update the story as soon as something happens.

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Where Indie and Craft Meet

Posted in Intersections, Manifesto by SM on November 15, 2011

If you’re just stopping by for the first time, you should know that this blog explores the intersections between indie rock and craft beer. One aspect is simply the fact that we all love rock music and beer. The other aspect is the intersection between indie and craft. For me it’s obvious, but for others, it’s a stretch.

Indie is short for “independent.” To be independent, one must be self-sufficient, free from the tyranny and limitations of corporations more intent on making a buck than putting out a good product. Independent rock music and music labels are considered such as they are not a part of corporate owned music factories. There are only 3-4 of these major labels left, but they are huge. Still, as the majors deal with the handcuffs of corporate profit margins, indie labels are free to let their artists create.

Craft is generally considered a type of skilled work. Historically, craft was judged not only on quality but also quantity. In order to maintain a high level proficiency the production had to remain small. Larger production tends to remove the craft, creating product with increased simplicity and often more defects. When craft is increased, volume tends to shrink, but the quality of the output is pleasurable.

Indie and craft meet in both the music and beer industries. Indie labels also happen to demonstrate a fair amount of craft among its artists. This focus is lost in the craft at the majors as the shift is toward making music that satisfies corporate bottom lines takes precedence. And craft brewers are the most independent of beer industry as they provide a higher quality alternative to the three or so corporate beer producers. One could really call them craft rock or indie beer if it was desired and neither would lose meaning.

Now, don’t get me wrong, both indie rock and craft beer have intentions to make money. How else would they live? The difference between these guys and their corporate counterparts is that they won’t put profit ahead of the craft or their independence. Sure, some indies and crafties have sold their souls to corporations, but they are the exception not the rule. The indie and craft movements are about small scale and high quality. Corporations don’t know how to do this.

And we’ll gladly pay for whatever indie labels and craft breweries are selling despite higher prices. Even during this recession, these labels (as well as the stores who sell them) and breweries have seen steady growth. Craft beer especially is growing at an incredible rate. Even during economically hard times, we’ll find the money to support independent, craft producers of our favorite goods because we know that their products are worth it. This is no truer than it is for indie rock and craft beer.

Despite the success indie/craft producers are enjoying, our corporate overlords still rule the markets, but their share is shrinking. The large, corporate breweries are watching their sales drop as is the industry as a whole. However, craft beer continues to grow. The music industry is suffering as well. Yet, more and more indies are popping up all the time and they continue to put out music. If there’s room for these smaller players in their respective industries, then they must be doing something right.

So, the indie and craft markets are what’s king these days. They may not own high percentages of their markets, but they have found sustainable business methods that feature slow, controlled growth and a focus on the craft. They maintain their independence through their success. This is where they intersect. I think there’s a lot we can learn from indie rock and craft beer. That’s where this blog comes in. If I had time and this was my full-time job, I’d provide you with a lot of statistics. For now, you’ll just have my opinions and vignettes to go on. Here’s to building international coalitions through beer and Pavement and here’s to indie beer and craft rock.