Beer and Pavement

10 American Craft Beer Myths

Posted in Beer by SM on December 23, 2011

I had a lot of fun responding to Ding’s list of ten American craft beer myths, but I figured that I should provide my own list. Ding’s was a pretty solid and engaging list in its own right. So, I will have to come correct with my own.

10. Higher ABV beers are just better.
I’ll admit that I fall under this myth’s spell from time-to-time. It’s that easy trap of “more is better” we Americans find ourselves in on a consistent basis. Then, after we’ve suffered through a nauseating night of thick, molasses-like beer product, shaking off the alcohol-induced blindness, we realize that reaching only for beers over 10% ABV is not always advisable. Conversely, we are often pleasantly surprised that the 6% beer in our hand might be the tastiest experience we’ve had in a long, long time.

9. Lower ABV beers demonstrate a brewer’s skill better than high ABV beers.
This is a big myth I’m seeing all over the beer blogosphere, particularly from beer purists. While I won’t deny that it takes a particularly skilled brewer to make a flavorful beer at 5% ABV or lower, I also won’t pretend that there’s no skill in making double the ingredients work in conjuring up a light and refreshing 9% beer. Let’s face it, there’s skill in brewing good beer that both allows you to drink all night and that puts you under the table with one sip. The point of these first two myths is that ABV really should have little to do with judging a beer, yet many enthusiasts and bloggers spend a lot of time on the subject.

8. Imperial stouts are the ideal pairing with chocolate desserts.
My favorite dessert beers happen to be imperial stouts, especially of the chocolate or bourbon barrel variety. However, when considering what pairs best with my chocolate dessert, the most ideal match is something that contrasts the chocolate. Beers such as lambics and krieks, brewed with tart fruits, make the best pairing with a rich chocolate cake. Why overwhelm and muddle the taste experience with more of the same? When we drink imperial stouts with chocolate desserts, it’s hard to tell where one taste begins and where the other ends. Pairing a cherry lambic with chocolate leaves no doubt.

7. The more hops, the better.
Although I am a huge hop head, I understand and respect constraint. I love Mikkeller’s 1000 IBU, but going that beer is incredibly balanced and nuanced. There can be too many hops in a beer. Aside from the overwhelming bitterness that can leave you cotton-mouthed, there can also be unintended consequences. Let’s take into consideration some of the bigger double and even so-called triple IPA’s out this year. Particularly those east of the Mississippi, there was a presence of onions and garlic in these highly-hopped beers. I don’t think this was due to brewer error. I just think there was something off about this past year’s hop harvest. When you’re dumping an enormous amount of an ingredient into any concoction, the  smallest off flavor will multiply exponentially. Besides, we need some malt in our beer-y diets now and again.

6. Bourbon barrels are nothing but awesome.
Here’s another trend in brewing that I actually like: bourbon barrel aging. However, I grow tired of every heavy beer tasting like bourbon. It seems to me that we could all cut out the middle man (beer) and just drink bourbon straight. This is something to which I am not opposed and have imbibed on many occasions (thanks to my bourbon whiskey and scotch drinking wife). Sometimes, it’s preferable to just drink beer or bourbon.

5. Bombers are a headache.
I’ve recently read a few rants over the economic failure and wastefulness of the bomber. While I cannot argue that the bomber is economically a better choice than the individual 12 oz. beer, there are other advantages that come with bombers. If you do the math, the bomber is ripping you off. The trouble is that many states, including this one, do not offer extensive sales in individual 12 oz. bottles. So, comparing the two bottle options is not usually applicable. (In MO, one has to buy at least three individual bottles that originate in six-packs.) What the bomber does better than any other delivery system is that it promotes the sharing of a beer with a friend. Sure, a big 11% imperial stout should be shared, but the 11 oz. each friend receives seems about right. If you’re not into sharing, the bomber is also ideal for one evening’s worth of beer as two is my usual number when not getting hammered on the holidays.

4. Anything with a cage and a cork is excellent, not to mention classy.
As with many a beer myth, this one is all about image. It’s not so much that beers that are corked aren’t good; it’s that capped beers aren’t sophisticated. Two of the classiest, highest-of-the-highbrow beers that I know and enjoy are Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Jolly Pumpkin (also of the artisanal ale varietal). These breweries brew beers that are perfect for a special dinner and/or occasion. Who needs a cork to be classy?

3. Craft beer must overtake wine.
Seemingly, American craft beer’s entire existence has been spent fighting for a spot on the table next to wine. Wine is seen as the classier, more apt to pair with food alternative to the blue-collar drink. Maybe that’s true for some, but we beer folk know better. Beer pairs better with food than any beverage. It has a range of complexity that wine just can’t duplicate. Still, the craft beer community feels it has to fight the myth that beer isn’t wine’s equal. Well, they’re not equal and neither are apples and oranges. Beer and wine are just different, not different in all the ways we’ve been taught by food and wine critics, etc., but different culturally, chemically, and nearly every other possible way one can imagine. Beer doesn’t need to surpass or even equal wine. Beer presents its own strengths at the dinner table, but it also contains the unique ability to go anywhere: the ballpark, rock show, fancy-pants dinner party, children’s birthday parties, etc. The zero-sum game between beer and wine just doesn’t exist and why should it?

2. One has to know the history of beer to truly appreciate its value.
Once again, I get the sentiment. I understand why the controversies over the Oxford Companion to Beer are so…well… controversial. However, I don’t think one has to know the full history of beer to appreciate what’s in one’s glass. Remember that first beer epiphany? Likely, you didn’t know that beer could taste that way. You probably had no clue as to what monks in Belgium do to pass their free time or that Asheville, North Carolina is a craft beer mecca. The true story behind the IPA probably had nothing to do with your first love affair with a big American IPA. The history of beer is important, but it shouldn’t override the enjoyment of great craft beer.

1. Breweries growing larger means their quality sinks.
I’m pretty anti-corporate around these parts, but that doesn’t mean independent businesses shouldn’t grow and expand. Several larger craft breweries  receive a lot of slack for expanding production. The argument is that the quality they produced as small breweries is lost in the expansion as they approach the size and production of corporate, rice-adjunct swill makers. I’m sorry, but no matter how many hotels and European breweries Stone Brewing Company builds, they will never make beer like BMC. The same goes for Fat Tire, Sierra Nevada, even Sam Adams. Despite some fatigue over these breweries and their ability to over-saturate the market, a lack of quality is not a quality these larger craft breweries share. If anything, growth has allowed them to experiment with new lines of beers and special releases. Would there be a Lips of Faith Series had New Belgium capped their growth? Would Stone be able to put out all those collaboration beers? Would Founders have ever released CBS in a bottle had they not expanded? The fact that these companies can grow in this economy proves that they are doing something right.

Now, poke some holes in my arguments in the comments and like me on Facebook. I’ll post a list of indie rock myths as soon. Stay tuned…

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A Response to 10 American Craft Beer Myths

Posted in Beer by SM on December 20, 2011

Ding has some things to say about myths the American beer fad has perpetuated. I’ll ignore calling the craft beer movement in this country a fad, but the myths and supporting details make a ton of sense. The post is interesting and a little better informed on the American craft scene than some British beer bloggers seem to be. I mean, the man lives here and can see first-hand what’s going on here in the states. I’ll respond to his post directly here. Then, I’ll write my own and maybe even another for indie rock or something. That’s three posts in response to one. I’m efficient here and get the most out of one good idea. Thanks, Ding. BTW, when I agree or disagree, I’m commenting on the assertion that the following statements are myths being perpetuated by the US craft community.

10. All craft (non-macro) beer is good, and all local beer is good.

Agreed. I used to think this as it seemed to me that anything craft or local was better than corporate versions. However, as I’ve had the opportunity to try a vast array of craft beer, I find it’s not good just because it’s craft and/or local. Of course, I’ll always choose whatever is local or craft when faced with limited options.

9. It’s wonderful to have more beer in cans.

Ding said…

Mmmmm, well I suppose it’s nice to have the flexibility that cans can offer, but far too many people are sacrificing the quality of the beer for the convenience of the container.

Disagreed. Maybe Ding knows something that I don’t, but I have yet to find anyone who chooses a canned beer over a bottled one simply because it’s in a can. Besides, cans offer more than convenience. They keep out light better than bottles. The oxygen issue is a draw, IMO, with bottle potentially exposing more oxygen over time and cans exposing more during packaging. Still, I get that this is not a reason to go with cans, but I have yet to meet a beer enthusiast who chooses beer based on their containers. In the end, we all want our beer poured into the proper glass and subsequently down our gullets.

8. It’s limited, it must be great!

Agreed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been letdown by a rare beer that isn’t really much better (sometimes worse) than the beer I can get every day from my local store. I don’t base my beer consumption solely on online ratings, but they can be helpful when buying beers you’ve never had or even heard of. One thing that I notice in these ratings is that rare beers with low numbers of reviews are generally higher than equivalent beers that have a wider distribution/production. I suspect this is partially because some recognize how rare and special the brew in their glass is based on beer geek envy and this clouds their perspective. Plus, the more of a particular product that’s out there, the more likely there are differing opinions or even the occasional bad batch. What I’m rambling about is that I completely agree that rare does not always equal better, but they can be a lot of fun.

7. Session beer is now gaining popularity in the USA.

I agree and disagree. The traditional, British definition of the session beer is not gaining popularity here in the states outside of a few beer purists and old farts. There should be room for the traditional session beer in the craft beer scene, but it doesn’t seem to be happening just yet. It may take off as brewers improve their craft and drinkers grow weary of the assault on their tongues and livers.

The part I disagree with is that the “American session” is growing in popularity. I get that a 5-7% is not a session beer by definition. I won’t engage that argument. However, Americans generally see higher ABV beers as just as sessionable as a 4% beer. Granted, no one should drink as many 6% beers as 4%, but the dividing line does seem a bit arbitrary. That said, the American session beer is growing in popularity, I believe. A lot of folks are taking a step back from big beers and rediscovering nice brews at a reasonable ABV level. It’s a minor point, but I think that’s where the American beer scene is right now. Baby steps.

6. More is always better (number of breweries and number of beers).

Agreed. This myth is perpetuated here because that’s how Americans think about every industry. More is better. Not quite. There are a lot of amateurs out there trying to pass themselves off as craft brewers. Although, I don’t have as much faith in the market correcting this issue as some, I think it will help to weed out most of the mediocre beer cluttering store shelves.

5. More is always better (taps in bars).

Disagreed. Of course, I’m assuming a bar only uses said taps for craft beer and respectable imports. I love variety and it’s nice to have options. I’d rather have most beers on tap. I can get bottles at the store for much less. Give me beer on tap and give a lot from which to choose. (I will concede that if Ding is implying that more taps means more opportunity for crap beer, then I’d have to agree he’s correct there. Still, I’ll stick with my original answer.)

4. Imperial and highly hopped = better.

Agreed. Of course, the statement itself is often true, but it’s not 100% true. For example, a strange trend I and others noticed this year is the presence of onions in our ultra-hoppy beers. Not all, but several Midwest and East Coast imperial IPA’s have displayed this character. I blame the hop harvest. It seems if there’s an off-flavor in an ingredient, those off-flavors are only magnified when used in imperial doses. Also, I have begun to appreciate the smaller beers that are just brewed better. Regardless of how many hops one puts into a brew, balance is a hard thing to attain, maybe even harder in imperial beers.

3. British beer is undergoing a massive revolution inspired by American brewers.

Agreed. However, I’d say that said revolution is happening here in the form of increased attention toward British beer thanks to those inspired by American craft beer. I don’t know any beer geeks in my circles searching out British beers outside of BrewDog. The Brits love their tradition and they love their beer. There’s no revolution going on there. They didn’t have a prohibition like we had. So, technically, Ding’s right on this one.

2. If it’s from a country with a (relatively) new brewing tradition, it MUST be great.

Agreed. However, the Scandinavian beers are generally pretty good, interesting at the very least. Still, this is mainly due to newness. We go for what’s new and proclaim it different than anything done before. Every beer should stand on their own, regardless of origin. Just because it’s from an unexpected place doesn’t automatically mean it’s good.

1. You can put ANY beer in a cask and get a good result.

Agreed. Although, I’ve been lucky so far in that the beers I’ve tried on cask have been pretty good. That said, I’m not sure much was added to the Jolly Pumpkin beers I had on cask in DC, but the Stillwater dry-hopped with Citra hops was incredible. Casks should be used sparingly. Ding, once again, is dead on… However, he suggests that these beers must be malt-forward. On that point, I obviously disagree. Beers go through an incredible metamorphosis when properly dry-hopped. Sure, not all beers are suited for the cask, but more than Ding might suspect.

Be on the lookout for my own list of American craft beer myths and one for indie rock as well.

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