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Friday, March 9, 2007

SBP: Are session beers the LCD?

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 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.


Steven said...

"So are you an artist? Or an illustrator?"

You're pushing my buttons on purpose, aren't you?

Was N.C. Wyeth an artist or an illustrator? I'll answer with, yes. As I would in response to a question of my own profession. Yes, I am an illustrator - as well as an artist.

Is the brewing art as black and white as Rockwell & Pollock (anyone remember the SEP cover where Rockwell actually recreated a Pollock?)? Just as the visual arts - even the musical arts are not, I can't believe the brewing art is either.

More to the point, I agree with you in that extreme for the sake of extreme is boring and mundane -- How many IIPAs can you sample before craving a Dark Bock or Oatmeal Stout?

And yes, walking before running is best, but does it always result in success? I'll use music as my analogy - from an undeniable artist, but not necessarily one who pleases everyone all the tme: Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis?

I'll compare Davis to Dogfish Head; Kind of Blue/60 Minute - love 'em.
Sketches of Spain/90 Minute, can't get into 'em.

I'll compare Sierra Nevada to Dave Brubeck - love all the selections.

2 different artists, both experimental. One more grounded than the other?

Does that make me less avant garde and thus some incarnation of a 50s square? I don't know, I'll report back when I can compare Stan Getz to another brewery.

Rambling rant over.

Lew Bryson said...

Ah, success.

Extreme beer does push the envelope, in thinking as well as drinking.

I'm really with you, Steven. There are definitely mere illustrators, but just as definitely there are illustrators who are artists: my point with Maxfield Parrish.

I had another example -- interestingly enough, also a musician -- that I cut before posting because of trying to keep focus: J.S. Bach. Definitely not avant-garde, not even in his day (as Mozart and Beethoven and Prokofiev were), not even ground-breaking, but an unquestioned towering genius, who at the same time created music that was immediately accessible and destined for immortality. Session music?

Stan Hieronymus said...

I thank Don for re-igniting this conversation and giving us something to debate, but I too have a busy day and must look forward to joining the conversation here later (and probably ranting in my own space).

The short: I agree with Lew. I don't entirely disagree with Don.

But I do disagree that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was ever extreme. To paraphrase Garrett Oliver, it was a return to normalcy.

The rest of the world drank, and still drinks, beers with such hop character - and Americans had before.

Let's also remember there is vast territory between session beers and X beers.

Even Stan (you made me grin, Lew)

GenX at 40 said...

I think the lowest common denominator argument ignores one critical fact. Extreme beers are about pushing the importance of certain characteristics of beer - alcohol level, hop level, even roastiness levels. Good low alcohol beers push the importance of the two most important elements of beer: yeast and water quality. Without all the other sensory overload, these quite pillars of a good beer have to shine through. And if you have a hard water stout or a sour yeasted ordinary bitter your beer is going to suck. It takes as much or more craftsmanship to achieve balance and dignity in these styles. Do not think of them as being "small canvass beers" so much as those quieter parts of the overall zymurgistic symphony. They are not junior versions but actually a means to display the finer arts.

How often have you had a light ale and thought it was more refreshing than a lager as it expressed its water content in a most wonderfully watery way? If not the elephant in the room, water quality is certainly the most the ignored element in much beer making. With a session beer you can run but you can't hide. Maybe that is why there are so few - brewers lack the skill to turn the volume down.

A Good Beer Blog

Harry Spade said...

The Bach analogy is interesting, as I believe many of his compositions were created as lessons for his students.

And to put another spin on the music comparison- I spent spent several years taking guitar lessons, and there was a concept that in order to break the rules one had to know what the rules were in the first place.

Session beers aren't the LCD in my opinion, they're the bedrock, the benchmark, the bread & butter. And if someone is bored with that they must lead a life of yearning and disappointment.

Back to work...

Lew Bryson said...

Good point, Alan, although I'll beat any extreme brewers to the punch and point out that they do push yeasts to extremes both in simple alcohol tolerance and in flavor profiles, and they also use non-standard yeasts and bacteria.

Water as an extreme factor. Very flippin' interesting. Not sure I buy it yet, but it's worth thought.

Steven said...

"I'm really with you, Steven. There are definitely mere illustrators, but just as definitely there are illustrators who are artists: my point with Maxfield Parrish."

I'm probably too close to the subject, and I agree with you that Parrish is/was an outstanding talent, but I've always looked at the group as all illustrators are artists, not all artists are illustrators. Probably why I chose the music analogy instead.

Anonymous said...

"A return to normalcy," Mr. H? Perhaps so, but these events don't take place in a vacuum. I believe that Sierra and, much more so, Liberty and Foghorn before it were extreme for their time in the sense that they went against the prevailing winds, big time. People might have been drinking higher IPA beers in Germany and Britain at the time, as you note, but they sure weren't in northern California.

Further, If I take your and Garrett's point as a given, brewers have been using bacteria in their beers (consciously or not) and fermenting to high alcohols and using funky spices for centuries, so isn't much of the Tomme/Sam/Rob Todd stuff likewise a "return to normalcy"?

Anonymous said...

First off I want to say I like both ‘Extreme’ and ‘Session’ beers. I think both have a time and a place that fits them perfectly, sometimes even the same time and place. I also find Don Russell’s writing entertaining and informative. But I have to say I was surprised by his comment “They're dependable, go-to favorites that satisfy the lowest common denominator, namely, thirst. They make you happy.” Make you happy I agree with whole heartedly, but lowest common denominator? Come on – when I think of that coupled with the word “thirst” spring water comes to mind. I’ve been to more than a few fests, beer dinners and special events in my many Beer Geek years and I have to say some of the best beers I’ve had could be called session beers. A case in point was last years Harrisburg Brewers Festival – there were many wonderful, imaginative and stylistically ‘spot on’ beers there. But the one I remember the most was a session beer from East End Brewing Company of Pittsburgh. Well crafted, balanced, rich and tasty! I went back for it more than any other beer there – and that, at least in my mind, is saying something. Don goes on to say “But these beers - no matter how competently they're brewed - will never generate excitement, spawn creativity or lead us to new ground” Well I’m not so sure about that, again take a look at (or taste) East End’s Kvass - Russian Bread Beer. Part of the Session Ale series. Session strength – yes, competently brewed – heck yes! Extreme – maybe. But will it lead us to new ground? It already has. And East End also makes some damn good “Extreme” beers too! My point is that a session beer can take MORE artistic crafting than say a 2IPA in that it is much less forgiving. Not to detract from Extreme beers but if you make a mistake while brewing a Pale Mild or Helles you know it.

Lew Bryson said...

Stephen B., Stan H.,

See, this is where the conversation runs into the stumbling block that Stan has already commented on: what's "extreme"? Everyone defines it to his or her liking, Humpty-Dumpty style: it means just what they choose it to mean, nothing more, nothing less. You say "those beers were obviously extreme," Stan and I say no, and who's to say who's right? Why, no one. It all depends on the definition of "extreme beer," and I for one see no point in even attempting such a definition.

Given the way Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has steadily grown without anything going for it other than its taste, I'm hard-pressed to see it as extreme. Was Sam Adams extreme at one point? When did beers like that stop being normal and become extreme? Did they have to go through a dead period when they weren't around before they could become extreme?

To quote myself from USENET many years ago: "It's like determining how many hop cones can dance on the head of a barley kernel or something like that." Which fits this whole debate, of course, I know.

The truly frustrating thing about this debate is that it's even happening. I don't know of anyone that I respect who loves "extreme" beers and actually despises good session beers.

There is no real argument here. All I ever said is that session beers aren't getting the press or the attention or the hype that extreme beers currently do. I've also said that I don't like extreme beers that are not well-made, or that are "me-too" beers, but I don't think that's particularly controversial.

Any arguments to that?

Alan said...

Think of it this way, Lew. Water is the only element in beer that you can not make extreme by throwing in more. Its extreme form can only be through the relative reduction of other elements. So, in a great session beer, it is not dilution but celebration of the thing that makes up 90 to 94.5% off all beer.

It is like the white space in a fine watercolour painting as opposed to the thickly layered on oil of an old master or a modern abstract that hides any glimpse of the canvass underneath. Neither is better - they really only have different goals.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Still only here for a moment.

In defense of Don, he chose to use the definition Sam Calagione came up for in his book ("Extreme Brewing" - a title Sam admitted to be a little uncomfortable with long before the book came out):

"Calagione says it's any beer brewed with at least one non-traditional ingredient - say fruit, or wild yeast - or with an excessive amount of at least one traditional ingredient, like hops or malt."

This is why one of my New Year's Even resolutions was not to call beers "extreme" without offering a a definition.

And this thread proves finding a definition of "extreme" ranks right up there with defining "craft."

SNPA: Innovative
Dogfish WWS: Extreme
Allagash Interlude: Innovative
Jolly Pumpkin Bam: Innovative (and a session beer)


Lew Bryson said...

I saw that definition. I choose to say no. All lambics are extreme? All fruit beers are extreme? I ain't buyin' that.

As you apparently concur: trying to come up with a definition seems fruitless, or at least bound to create further arguments.

Anonymous said...

May I offer this, then? Our oenophilic peers -- hmmm, that sounds vaguely rude -- are presently engaged in a similar debate over the "Parkerization" of red wines: big bodies, high alcohols, loads o' extract. Does this mean that the tastes of the average punter are potentially changing due to the influence of these monster reds? Of course it does. Does it mean that the ubiquitous chardonnay is going to vanish any time soon. Not a chance.

Lew's right: there is no debate here. Good beer is good beer, extreme or otherwise. The big, bold bastards out there are leading the vanguards of taste, and we're complicit in it all by putting them in print (largely because it's what our editors want), but the majority of craft beer drinkers out there are still happy with over two million combined barrels of Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams.

Anonymous said...

I was at Iron Hill's "Belgium Comes to West Chester" and my "best of show" beer there was Harpoon's Wild Ale…a nice 5% golden ale with a great, funky, barnyard Brett character. Crisp, refreshing, UNIQUE, and just the thing to hit the spot without hitting you too hard. Now don't get me wrong, there were a lot of wonderful beers there (thank goodness for the $1 taster glasses!) but how many 9-10+% beer can you really enjoy in one sitting? I want to be able to have more than one beer a night! It was so nice to see something so "extreme" be so approachable.

Stan Hieronymus said...

To two things Mr. B brings up:

- I have always had a little problem with Garrett's "return to normalcy" thesis in there isn't a history of Americans brewing saisons, Baltic porters, etc. But these are normal beers elsewhere.

Including beers made with wild yeast. One of Tomme's points early on (see the link at the top) was that he doesn't consider the beers he makes extreme. I agree that most aren't.

- I do fear there are beer analogies to wine's alcohol creep. Alcohol can obliterate flavor as well as enhance it.

Loren said...

This past weekend was the annual Split Thy Skull festival in Brooklyn, NY. My fave beer of the ENTIRE day?

Brooklyn Antwerpen Ale.

Yeap...a 5% session ale. Pretty much the ONLY beer of Saturday that grabbed me by the balls and never let go.

My point? None I guess...


SteveG said...

Were Sierra, Liberty and Foghorn really all that unprecidented in their day? I think the first two introduced a lot of people to the cascade hop, but where the hop levels they represented a new thing to the brewing world? They may have been extreme beers to some - particularly Americans - but I doubt they were to the brewing world at large. If being extreme in the eyes of somebody out there is how you define extreme beer then I guess they were extreme. From that prespective though most craft beers are and always will be extreme. I think defining extreme as being cutting edge (for good or bad) on some level relative to the big picture of brewing (as in global) is more productive.

>>so isn't much of the Tomme/Sam/Rob Todd stuff likewise a "return to normalcy"?<<
I think there is an enormous difference between allowing nature to have its way with your wort and learning how to control fermentation agents that many see as untamable. I've been playing a lot with brettanomyces lately, I can say there is a world of difference between bacterial infection and manipulation.

Anonymous said...

SteveG, you and I are on the same page. My point is that the Anchor and Sierra brews were extreme for Americans at the time, as you observe. (And BTW, I'm not sure how I transmogrified "IBU" into "IPA" in that post, but I hope the meaning came across.) There was basically no cross-continental drinking at the time -- think of how many early craft brewers say they were influenced by trips to Europe, rather than European beers imported to the States -- so based on what even educated American beer drinkers knew at the time, those ales were well beyond even the high end of the norm.

As for the wild yeast thing, well, I was just trying to make a point, although the creative use of bacteria-infected wood, going back at least as far as the early days of porter and old ale, can certainly be said to be more creative manipulation than simple infection.