This is perhaps the wrong time of year to write about rethinking your beer, what with all the holiday beers, with their myriad flavors, but I got to thinking about beer yesterday when I read that there’s a proposal before the Ohio House to increase the alcohol level in Ohio beers from 12% to 21%. You can read about it here. And here.
While I’m certainly not against restrictions, and I’m definitely not against creativity, I’m a little nervous that we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, craft beer is still only about 6.5% of the entire beer market. There’s a lot of work to be done to bring the other 93.5% of the market up to speed that craft beer is simply awesome.
We are fortunate to experience a time when the rules of what is beer are being rewritten. Beer styles not seen in this country for decades are being brewed. Porters, stouts, Belgian this and French that. New beer categories are being created. Even if you aren’t a fan of some of them, you are still a witness to this nascent revolution. Imperial IPA, anyone?
However, most beer drinkers still haven’t digested what we’ve already done in the name of craft beer. And some of us who love craft get stuck in our ways. Some reasons we may not be ready for super-high gravity beers:
MACRO BEER COMMERCIALS TELL US WHAT BEER IS
Beer should be ice cold. Beer is for partying. Beer should have no aftertaste. You should be loyal to one brand–theirs. All these statements fail at elevating beer to what it is: an extremely versatile beverage that spans the spectrum of everything from a reward for mowing your lawn to celebrating a milestone in your life to celebrating the season before you.
If a beer drinker gets all his education from commercials aired during a football game, us beer geeks will always be the minority. More important, if we start offering beer that is turbocharged with double digit ABV, we will distance ourselves further from our macro-beer consuming breathern.
So what mistakes do craft beer drinkers make?
There is nothing more annoying than someone who mocks you for what you do. Whether it’s making fun of someone because she won’t try your five alarm chili, or chiding your buddy for drinking yellow, fizzy beer, you’re going to turn that person off.
OK, you all get that. But what about a beer geek poking fun at another beer geek because you’re drinking Turbocharged Bitter Badass and he’s drinking a pale ale? That might even be a worse offense.
There’s a time and place for every beer and there’s no reason to trash-talk entire styles. In fact, the best way to learn to appreciate everything that craft beer has to offer is to try it all. Maybe you forgot how good a wheat beer can be. Challenge yourself up and also challenge yourself down. Enjoy them all as objectively as you can and appreciate them for what they are.
EQUATING HOPPINESS WITH BITTERNESS
I’ve heard it all. People won’t drink an IPA “because I don’t like bitter beers.” People who are disappointed with an IPA because it’s not bitter enough. Liberally hopped beers are booming in popularity, and we’ve got some world-class examples here locally. Most people still don’t understand hops, though.
Hops are a “seasoning.” There are many variety of hops, and they all have their unique characteristics. Bitter, yes. Fruity, yes. Pine-like, yes. Hops are essential to a great beer experience. However, bitterness is controlled by your brewer.
The longer hops boil in the kettle, the more the bitter characteristics come out; the shorter the boil, the more the floral, fruit, pine and other aromatic characteristics show up. The art of the beer recipe is using all these components much like a composer uses instruments. It’s all music, but you’d never confuse Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with the Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated.
Don’t equate bitterness and hops. Equate a bitter finish to early hop additions!
JUDGING BEER BY ITS COLOR
“I don’t like dark beers.” Wha?
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve gotten to try a beer with their eyes closed. “Wow, I don’t normally drink dark beers, but this is good!” On other occaisions, I’ve poured a sample of Guinness and our Alexander’s Russian Imperial Stout for a comparative taste.
After drinking the RIS, the Guinness always tastes like water. This is not a knock on Guinness. It’s a dry stout and world-class. But comparatively, a dry stout can’t hang with an RIS (and shouldn’t have to.) Same color, two completely different experiences. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
OBSESSING OVER ABV AND IBU
While both ABV and IBU can inform a beer drinker of what he may be getting into, this information is less important than enjoying the experience. Try to think about potential flavor, aroma and mouthfeel instead. It’s more interesting to think of beer this way and gets you over the notion that you could be “wrong” about your assessment of the beer.
Get over these lab numbers (although we’ll continue to let you know what they are for our beers.) When you’re tasting, think about descriptors like they do in the wine world.
BEER IS ONE DIMENSIONAL
Or maybe two dimensional.
Even though craft beer has made great progress in the last two decades, mainstream beer lovers still have a msiconception about beer. For them, beer is either bland, yellow fizz water (I”m pretty sure they wouldn’t describe it like that!) or it’s bitter.
This makes sense when you think about it. They either drink their favorite macro, or they’re handed a hop bomb from their buddy who says, “Here, try this. See what you’re missing.” I’m pretty sure if I started out with a 120 IBU triple IPA brewed with ghost peppers, I’d stick to my beer too.
Instead, why not offer them something more accessible? Here at the ‘House, we usually point someone inexperienced to MacLenny’s Scottish Ale. It’s a little malty, with subdued hops, some toffee-like caramel notes to discover. While many have graduated to many of our more challenging offerings, this one remains our best seller.
Why? Because sometimes you just want a clean beer that refreshes. Do your Bud Light mate a favor and suggest this one to him, if you ever hope for him to step into the world of craft.
PIZZA, PRETZELS AND WINGS, OH MY!
It’s an unfortunate misconception that beer goes with pizza. Or pretzels. Or wings. And that’s about it.
Beer is arguably one of the most versatile beverages to pair with just about any food. A hoppy IPA is perfect with spicy Indian dishes; a Belgian Trappist beer is a fine accompaniment to a standing prime rib roast. Wheat beers are great with seafood, and the list goes on.
One of my personal pet peeves is that wine pairs best with cheese. While I won’t argue that there’s a lot of enjoyment in those pairings, I’ll argue that beer goes better than wine with cheese. I was with a group who went to Rockmill Brewing a year ago summer, and we took a bunch of expensive cheeses with us. The pairings with Rockmill’s various offerings were sublime.
One simple reason beer goes so well with cheese: the carbonation naturally cleanses the palate between each bite, setting you up for your next cheese. Try that, wine!
MORE IS BETTER
There’s a difference between complex and obnoxious. While some higher gravity beers are a wonderful trip, let’s face it. 90% of beer drinkers still find pale ale intimidating.
To bring it all around, while I’m not against increasing ABV in the State of Ohio, I’m a little concerned. Until we learn to appreciate the vast varieties of beer we already do have, and we show our macro-loving beer friends the way into our world, we just might be getting ahead of ourselves. Can you imagine your mate trying a 16% barleywine as an introduction to craft beer? It’ll make our job even harder.
Maybe this is all just a cautionary tale to my brewery brothers in Ohio, though. We may some day be allowed to brew up to 21% ABV, but that doesn’t mean we have to jump in with both feet. Our time is better spent getting everyone to appreciate the world that is craft beer today, and save the ultra-high gravity tricks for another day.
Share your thoughts with me. You’ll help shape the future of craft beer in Ohio.