Are we really chasing authenticity, flavour and story? Or just endless novelty?
If you follow North American beer writers on social media (and if not, you should) you might have seen this piece from yesterday, in which formidable beer writer Andy Crouch writes a perfectly balanced profile of Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co, and craft beer’s first billionaire.
Jim, it seems, is pissed off. His brewery has become so big, the hip craft beer joints that arguably wouldn’t be here without his vision will no longer stock his beers. His brand is no longer new, and the beers themselves, according to detractors, are mediocre and middle of the road. And he doesn’t think that’s fair.
While the claim that Boston Beer Co ‘invented’ craft beer can be challenged (the likes of Anchor and Sierra Nevada would have ultimately fathered the current craft beer scene even if Boston hadn’t been there) it is undeniable that BBCo has shaped it more than any other. Jim Koch was a graduate of business school and brand consultancy, and he used the big corporate brewers’ own tactics against them to create a challenger brand that ultimately took craft beer mainstream.
Amid all this brandspeak, what about the beer? Is it really mediocre? Well, not in the eyes of the judges of every single beer competition I’ve ever seen it judged in. It’s always winning prizes.
BBCo’s sin is to brew a wide variety of traditional styles very well, from Bavarian-style lagers to English-style bitters, from wheat beer to Kolsch, from seasonal specialities such as pumpkin ale and Christmas ale to mainstream-style beers that balance flavour and accessibility. Andy’s article says that, reluctantly, Jim has now been forced to brew West Coast-style hop bomb IPAs just like every other craft brewer.
And Jim Koch is not alone. Another piece that went online yesterday features the brewers of Widmer and Deschutes – two more American craft beer pioneers – defending themselves from attacks from the craft beer community. Their crime? Being so good at what they do, they’ve grown substantially to become big businesses.
This all strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic.
Curiosity about flavour is one of the defining characteristics of people who like interesting beer. It’s always great to find something new. But with so much new stuff around, we can forget the old.
It happened for me with Belgian beer. Ten years ago Trappist ales were the centre of my world. And then I discovered North American IPAs, and then their British counterparts. When I found a dusty bottle of Chimay Blue in my cellar a few years ago, I realised I hadn’t had a Belgian beer in years, and tasting it rekindled an old love affair. Now, Saison Dupont, Westmalle Dubbel, Duvel, Orval, Rochefort and St Bernardus are back at my beery core, despite having no new news, no rock star brewers and little distribution in craft beer bars.
Forgetting old favourites in the rush of the new is one thing. But actively deciding that beers or brewers are boring, bland, middle of the road or sell-outs simply because they have been around for a while, or have grown much bigger than they were, is foolish, snobbish and blinkered.
This is why it pisses me off when craft beer neophytes slag off ‘boring brown beer’ and include all classic best bitter in that description. Sure, some traditional beers are boring and bland, just as some single hop IPAs are monotone and grating after the first pint. But there are wonderful examples of both.
Sure, some breweries do compromise on quality, ingredients and brewing time when they grow and the accountants take control. Others stick steadfastly to their principles. And as Gary Fish of Deschutes says in the second piece linked to above, commercial success can improve quality. Though it pains me to say it, Goose Island IPA is actually a better quality beer since it has been brewed with cutting-edge A-B Inbev technology than it was on knackered old microbrewery plant that couldn’t keep up with volume. Budweiser Budvar remains one of the best quality lagers in the world, thanks in no small part to its 90-day lagering. Timothy Taylor Landlord is one of the finest ales on the planet when kept well. All are dismissed by craft beer purists whose definition of the word ‘craft’ has more to do with scale and novelty than with any measure of skill or quality.
Which brings me to Rekorderlig.
I’m sure most fans of the latest craft breweries would run a mile from any suggestion of similarity to drinkers of a glorified alcopop constructed from industrial alcohol spirit, sugar and artificial flavourings. But the success of the faux-cider alcopops is based entirely on novelty: it’s all about which flavour variant is coming next. As soon as they run out of different combinations of fruit syrups, they’ll run out of road.
Let’s not allow the current momentum in beer go the same way. Because at the moment, it looks awfully similar. One brewer creates a single hop citra IPA, and everyone else does. Then that gets boring and it’s all about ‘saisons’ brewed with the contents of the brewer’s spice cupboard, some of which are about as authentically saison as Rekorderlig is cider. Then it’s endless different takes on Berliner-Weisse. And so on. And woe betide anyone who doesn’t follow the path, who instead simply carries on making great beer that was fashionable five years ago, and sells it in greater quantities now than they did then.
Last year, I was deeply impressed by relatively new kids on the block such as Wiper & True, Siren, Tiny Rebel and Orbit. I was also pleased to see the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Waen reach new levels of scale and skill. But I also wondered why Otley, Redemption and Windsor & Eton didn’t seem to be getting the chatter and buzz they once did.
Thornbridge celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. My adoration for what some argue is the ‘original craft brewery’ is no secret. But I’m starting to hear rumblings about them that would sound depressingly familiar to Boston Beer Co, Deschutes, Sierra Nevada and others: they’re too big. They’re blander than they used to be. They’re selling out and going mainstream.
Craft beer, whatever you want to call it, has gone mainstream. Now, it’s growing up and maturing, and it already has several generations of brewers. Without the pioneers, the rest wouldn’t be here today. And while today’s newbies push the envelope ever further – which is what they should be doing – the bigger, older breweries are getting better at what they do, building bigger names, and providing a bridge between the mainstream and the cutting edge.
If you simply reject their achievements and their vital contemporary role in favour of what’s new this week, whatever that is, you’re not interested in authenticity and story at all. You’re just following the latest fad among your peer group. And that makes you no more discerning, no cooler, no edgier, than the guy pouring his strawberry and lime flavoured ‘cider’ over ice.