As I have previously noted in this column, the history of the brewing industry is one of evolution: the ancient beers were grain, water, wild fermentation, and whatever those brewers of yore used to impart additional flavors, such as heather, za’atar, oregano, or a variety of regional fruits.
The first recorded use of hops in beer wasn’t until the ninth century. With the introduction of hops, many of the earlier herb infusions went away due to the fact that hopped beers seemed to last longer than the herbed brews. In the 1500s there was no such thing as an IPA, a stout, let alone an imperial stout.
These changes in the industry have happened for a variety of reasons — changing tastes, access to new ingredients, economic downturns, royal demand for something new and interesting — and all have played a part in beer being what it is today.
While evolution can be a good thing, it is also true — even in nature — that evolution can lead to dead ends. You might be one of those people out there who loves the heavily fruited sours, the big, hazy New England IPAs, or the pastry stouts. But that brewer who might be making it has very likely come to hate or resent these styles on some level. I recently talked to a handful of Maryland brewers regarding their frustrations with the rise of these currently popular beers. In an effort to protect them from blowback from the fanboys, I will be referring to them by names from literary works.
“Beer styles have developed and changed continuously throughout the history of mankind,” acknowledged brewer Klaus Baudelaire. “Typically these changes are adaptations based on technology, raw ingredient availability or political policy. For the first time, we have styles developing and changing based off social media popularity. We have a hoard of new brewers creating beers with false scarcity: increased amounts of residual sugars, and body so thick you can almost stand a spoon in it. The desire to hype one’s product has overpowered the desire to craft one’s product. We have lost the art of subtlety and balance.”
Veteran brewer Ahab sees parallels to what happened to the industry a few decades ago, when he first got into the industry.
“I started brewing during the first big craft boom in the 1990s. What scuttled that boom, in my opinion, was lackluster beer. The idea of craft brewing was still very new and a lack of well-trained and educated talent meant that styles were interpreted very narrowly and the resulting beer was boring. Customers lost interest and the boom went bust.”
The fruited sours are not inherently problematic, said Phillip Marlowe, who is happy to brew the popular styles, but recognizes that things can get heated when discussing those beers.
“Yeah, it’s hard not to have some strong opinions on beer,” he pointed out. “[At our brewery] we love some of the styles that are popular right now like hazy IPAs and fruited kettle sours.”
At the same time, Marlowe recognizes common issues that have cropped up across the industry with the rise of these brews.
“[We] have an open disdain for the practice of selling cans of beer full of unfermented fruit that will explode if left too warm. We have also never had a lactose beer that made us want more. Vanilla? Ahhhk! Get out of here ... Though we try not to go in on the gimmicky stuff, we do see the value in putting up a larger tent. A juicy IPA or fruity sour will bring in more people than an overly bitter IPA or a cask ale.”
This last point is a sticking point for some brewers, such as Ahab, who is something of a traditionalist.
“When the latest boom came about, I initially had high hopes. More educational and training opportunities and greater exposure to the international beer market seemed to produce brewers with greater knowledge and ability who knew how to brew genuinely excellent beer. Then, something changed,” explained Ahab.
He continued with his thoughts on the craft beer industry.
“The craft beer business became a victim of its own success, and saturation led to a need to differentiate,” he said. “Also, with seemingly endless money to be made, barriers to entry were lowered to the point where just about anyone could open a brewery and the talent level began to drop. Thus, Pandora’s Box was opened. Without an in-depth knowledge of styles and techniques, many people without the chops to have breweries suddenly had them and they need to fill tanks.”
And then on experimental brewing.
“Enter experimental brewing,” Ahab continued. “This kind of brewing can be done well by brewers who already have a demonstrated knowledge of brewing fundamentals and ingredient function. These folks start with solid beer and build educated experiments onto them. People without proper training, however, just toss a load of stuff together and see what happens. Often with embarrassing results. What surprised and dismayed me about this, though, was that people actually drank the hot messes these places were making. And now, here we are.”
More next month. Until then, be well, and drink good beer.