Are session beers the Lowest Common Denominator? Can they only aspire to quench thirst? Are they the Norman Rockwell to extreme beer's Jackson Pollock, just "illustration" compared to "avant-garde art," unable to "generate excitement, spawn creativity or lead us to new ground"?
Don Russell defends "extreme beers" in his Joe Sixpack column today with just this phrasing. I suppose I should be mildly honored; the column was apparently inspired by my recent BeerAdvocate magazine article "Extremely Boring?" (not my suggested title, BTW), which was a little 1500-word contrarian counter-weight to an entire issue that fawned over extreme beers and their brewers. It must have been one hell of an article: folks like Tomme Arthur and Sam Calagione were scrambling to refute it before it even came out, before they'd even read it.
Don at least got the point of that piece: that extreme beers get all the attention of press and geek, that the session beers that most breweries are making -- and making well -- are getting the back of their hand. Even Stan Hieronymus (and to say "Even Stan" does him a serious disservice, but let it stand for now) recently noted the ridiculous dissonance: "The 25th highest-rated Imperial/Double IPA at Ratebeer.com gets a 3.96. The top-rated Dortmunder/Helles gets a 3.71." 'Nuff said.
But Don then exaggerated something I gave him as a requested comment. I am quoted in his column:
"You can hide crappy brewing with a ton of hops or a barrel of malt," Bryson explained in an e-mail. Though he said he enjoys well-made extreme beers, [emphasis added] he added, "I also don't think most of them are that innovative. They're just big. That's what I find boring."
And so Don said, "Bryson calls extreme beer "boring.""
I thought it was pretty clear that I was saying that I found beer after beer that just "goes to 11" boring. That's what I said before here, and I would respectfully request that you go read that Buzz from my site, "Just Because You Can...", if you haven't already. I'll wait...
Okay? If you couldn't be bothered to read it, I understand: I've got a busy day ahead, too. So here's the nut:
This is what passes for much of the vaunted "innovation" in American brewing: turning up the volume.... Sorry, that’s not innovation. It’s about as creative as making a burrito with twice the stuff. Sure, you have to use a bigger tortilla, maybe even make them yourself to get them big enough, and you have to put in more spices to balance the additional beans and beef, but…putting more beans in a burrito doesn’t make it something else. It’s just a bigger burrito.
And that's what I find boring. You've got a new beer with a whole lotta hops and massive amounts of malt? That's nice, pal, but it's been done. Don't expect any more attention than, say...another brown ale would get. You put nuoc mam in your beer? That's interesting, but does it work with the beer to make something good to drink? Or is it just a weird ingredient?
I do not find truly innovative extreme beers boring. I loved Tomme Arthur's Lost Abbey beers at a recent Monk's dinner. I thought Sam's Red & White and Black & Blue beers were damned good. I'll even go along with the premise that some beers are coming out today and just getting a nod and a smile that would have been labeled "extreme" three years ago. The envelope's been pushed, no question.
But I don't go along with Sam Calagione's argument that beers we consider session beers today were once extreme beers. Don apparently does. "Twenty years ago, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was extreme beer" he says in today's column.
As it happens, I had my first SNPA just 5 months shy of 20 years ago, in Tahoe City, Nevada. I remember the day clearly, a great day spent with a lifelong best friend, my son's namesake and godfather. I remember it more for the rollicking powerboat and jetski rides on Lake Tahoe (and a warmly welcome dram of Glenlivet afterward) than for the Sierra Nevada. But the beer was great with my lunch, it was fresh and cool, and it quenched my thirst. Pretty sessiony stuff.
As I said, I remember the day clearly. The lake rippling in the breeze like a constantly cracking mirror, flashing bright points of sunlight in a dizzying pattern of chaos. The clouds towering over the mountains that rimmed the valley, tumbling over themselves in billowy hummocks. The crisp scent of the circling pine forest, the crunch of the hot sandy soil underfoot, the chatter of the roadside stream. Most of all, I remember the high-altitude blue sky, pure and clear and amazingly cerulean, sky as sky ought to be.
Session beer, Norman Rockwell? Maybe, which wouldn't even be that bad. If Norman Rockwell was "just an illustrator," the very best beer writer alive should be so creative.
But thinking back on that day in Tahoe, thinking back on that beautifully drinkable -- even then! -- pale ale, I think session beer's more like Maxfield Parrish. Incredibly beautiful and technically accomplished art, with subtleties that mere illustrators can't touch, and wholly, completely, accessible to both the casual observer and the educated critic.
Is extreme beer the avant-garde of brewing, as Don posits? Sure, no question. Is it open to misunderstanding, to ridicule, just as modern art and music has been? You bet, and that can be just as ill-considered.
But here's the thing. It's not about the extreme part: it's about the beer.
As any art historian can tell you, Picasso was a skilled painter before he ever put both eyes on the same side of a nose. It's easy to slap paint randomly on a canvas, to torch random bits out of a piece of steel, and call it art. It's easy to stuff a bunch of hops and malts into a kettle and call it extreme. But if you screw up your hydration, or get sloppy with your fermentation regimen, more hops don't mean a thing.
I'll say it again, and again, and again: well-made extreme beers are great to drink. I enjoy them, I'll continue to enjoy them, and I don't find them at all boring. But a poorly brewed or constructed extreme beer is worse than boring, it's not good beer. And even a well-made copycat, me-too extreme beer, an extreme beer that adds nothing to the discussion, is nothing more than a local brewery's line extension, a recognition that you can get some business by making something like that beer from Colorado/California/Delaware that's been selling so well at the local bar.
Kind of like making something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Yuengling Lager. So are you an artist? Or an illustrator? There are only so many artists. I have no difficulty believing that there are artists making session beers, lavishing love and genius on them, and making them the very best beers they can make, every day. That's exciting to me.