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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"You're not getting this, are you?"

I'm going to tell you about the Erie weekend (the pictures are too good to waste, and it was great to see this fest succeed so well in what is essentially virgin territory), but while I'm working on that, I wanted to take a break and talk about something that happened Saturday night, post-fest. It was about 11:00, and Woody Chandler and I had wound up back at the BrewErie brewpub, drinking porter and looking for Paul Koehler. Paul used to be the brewer at Pearl Street, in Buffalo; now he's working for Flying Bison, and looking like it agrees with him. I wanted to have a couple bourbons with him in honor of old times.

While we were working on our pints and looking for Paul, a guy came over and started talking to me; he'd recognized me and wanted to talk beer. Okay, I can do that, no problem. We talked beer, and we soon came around to finding that he was a homebrewer. From there it developed that he was a homebrewer with ambitions; he'd reached that point where he'd started thinking about going pro because he had what he thought were some good recipes. Well, okay, that's cool, that's how things get started. But then we started talking about the recipes: hops, hops, and more hops, 7%, 9%, 12%.

"What about a beer people can drink more than one or two of?" I asked him. "You might need to brew one of those."

He paused, looked thoughtful, and brushed it aside. "People drink anything they're told to," he said (or something like that; I was tired, we were drinking, it was late). "They just drink those weak beers because of marketing."

"Weak?!" I said. "5%'s not weak, and that porter I'm drinking is probably less than that. It sure isn't bland!"

Well, okay, he allows, but it's nowhere near hoppy enough. Hops do not equal flavor, I tried to explain to him, there are other components to beer flavor, and people like those other components. You can't get by as an all strong, hoppy beer brewery. (Paul had showed up by this time, and we were drinking Wild Turkey 101 and more porter.)

Mr. BigBeer of course brought up Dogfish Head, Three Floyds, and so on. I pointed out that all of them had struggled for years before getting their big beer agenda together, and they were all now pretty well established; someone starting from scratch might want to think about the local market.

"Well, I suppose that with enough marketing people would buy a 5% beer just to drink," he says.

"You're not getting this, are you?" I finally told him right to his face. "People don't buy 5% beers because they've been hypnotized by commercials. They buy them because they like the way they taste, and because they want to be able to drink more than one or two. They drink them because they want to have a beer that isn't going to sand-blast their palate. This isn't about marketing."

His wife eventually took him home; a friendly parting, really, he was a nice enough guy except for his session beer blindspot. But that blindspot continued to bug me, to the point of having to blog (and you know how I hate that).

Where does this attitude -- that people who don't like hoppy beers or big beers are stupid sheep who only think they like the beers they like -- continue to come from? Every time I ask that question, I'm assured that nobody really thinks that anymore, that we all get it, that Imus isn't really a racist... Yet every time we have a few after a fest, someone starts talking trash about "fizzy yellow beer drinkers" and how real beer drinkers begin at 6% and 50 IBU.

I'm not going to argue for session beers, or lambics, or malt-bombs. That's not the point, and besides, I've already done it. I want to argue against this pernicious and simple-minded "bigger is better" attitude among the geekerie.

Beer is nearly unique among alcohol beverages in that lower alcohol styles are still taken seriously -- at least by some experienced tasters. Lower alcohol spirits and wines are generally not well-regarded by critics, but most serious beer tasters will doff their caps to a good lambic or bitter. We should celebrate this. Beer is a drink you can tear into without getting swiftly whacked, a drink of moderation. Celebrate. Beer has a very broad sensory palate, not limited to one type of flavor. Celebrate. Beer is diverse, it has variety, this is what the whole microbrewery revolution is about.

People do not drink porter because it has been marketed to them. No one who makes porter has the money or the inclination to mount a huge marketing campaign to sell people on drinking porter. People drink it because they like it.

Hey, who knows: maybe some of the people who drink Bud do so because they like it! Maybe even Miller Lite!

Radical thoughts. Sorry, it's late. I know it's an article of faith among the cognoscenti that if people would just taste craft beer with an open mind, they'd all be drinking it. Nope. Not really. And there are millions of folks who drink 5% and lower beers all the time who love them: stout, helles, kölsch, pilsner. They're not all stupid sheep, and it's insulting to think of them that way.

Variety. That's what it's all about, and it runs both ways.


Steven said...

"Where does this attitude -- that people who don't like hoppy beers or big beers are stupid sheep who only think they like the beers they like -- continue to come from?"

It's people who have peaked in their palate education, looking for flavorful beer and can only find it with in-your-face styles. I was there once too, but I burned out and stepped back to my roots -- only to discover that those Helles' and Pilsners -- even the Bitter (not Best or ESB) had great, subtle, pleasing flavor.

I guess there are a majority of beer drinkers who have "peaked" in this era, but with so many thinking IIIIIPAs are the cat's ass, and the *only* beer to have, I wonder if ignorance will prevale too long.

Coincidentally on this same note, I discovered Summit's Grand yesterday. A Bohemian Pils (their words) of 5% ABV that is just a wonderful, flavorful beer -- right balance of sublime hops and malts, clean and satisfying. They're out there, we have to support 'em.

Lew Bryson said...

"It's people who have peaked in their palate education, looking for flavorful beer and can only find it with in-your-face styles."

Mostly, yes... But I don't think that it's necessarily a burn-out for everyone. I prefer to think of it as a burn-through, or maybe a moving up, a growth to sophistication.

In any case, it pays to keep in mind that we're talking about a small wedge of a small wedge; we're on top of this whole big beer thing because we're on top of the whole thing, and the whole thing -- the craft brewing segment -- is much more about Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Boston Lager, and Fat Tire than it is about Arrogant Bastard, 90 Minute IPA, and Orval. Never hurts to recall that occasionally in between bouts of hand-wringing (or bloviating, if you prefer).

Stan Hieronymus said...

Think how frustrating it must be to be a brewer who has been at this 10-15-20 years, out there educating the public about beer flavors and have a homebrewer wander over on a tour and explain how you can improve your beer (with more hops).

Lew Bryson said...

Seen it happen too many times, Stan. I don't think it's arrogance, I think it's an over-developed sense of camaraderie, the feeling of egalite that this movement has talked about and encouraged from the beginning.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Maybe it is a little bit of both - arrogance and camaraderie. But if small-batch brewers hadn't been bold some would call it arrogant) enough to think they could sell something different we wouldn't have the choices we have today.

As a commercial brewer said the other day, "Misguided passion is still passion."

Loren said...

The point should have been made, sledgehammer-esque even, that a homebrewer should KNOW that lighter, more subtle styles are more difficult to brew than these "Extreme" offerings. Creative or not. Hiding flaws is easier, no? Just can't polish a turd.


Scoats said...

I remember when bigger and hoppier was really cutting edge and exciting, which was pretty early on in the micro early days.

I predict session beers will be the rage very soon. You (and I and others) are just on the bleeding edge of the echo.

Maybe we will all find our preferences while still enjoying the other ends of the spectrum and respecting each other. Odder things have happened.

Lew, I'm sure you've had Boulder Hazed and Infused. It's supposedly only 4.8% or so. It's amazingly flavorful, I'd peg it at 7% if I had to guess without knowing. Hazed and Infused should be a poster child for session brews.

Steven said...

"I prefer to think of it as a burn-through, or maybe a moving up, a growth to sophistication."

I agree that's how it *should* be (that's how it worked in my case), but is that "small wedge" really that small and are they growing?

Back to the ratings at BA and RateBeer -- seems like the vocal majority there is in-your-face.

I just read some of the reviews of that Summit Grand I mentioned - the ignorance of flavor and style is almost distressing.

"Well, being a pilsner, I didn't expect much as this is not one of my favorite styles." Sheesh.

Lew Bryson said...

No question, and that's why I've been careful with my phrasing on this one. I don't want anyone getting the idea that I thought this guy was an idiot or a jerk. I didn't, I don't. I thought he needed some guidance, mainly because the last thing we need is another brewery start-up flailing and failing.

But as another brewer mentioned over the weekend (Charlie Schnable at Otto's in State College), we're entering another period of success, like the early 1990s, which means there's going to be another wave of wannabe's who are looking to cash in, like the mid-1990s. It is in our best interests to soften the destructive effects of that as much as possible: help the misguidedly passionate to succeed, crush the ignorant and arrogant, and kill bad beer ASAP.

Overwrought? Perhaps. But passionate. And not misguided.

Anonymous said...

All good points Lew. This guy has no sense of what it would take to run a successful brewpub. Even the mighty DFH has always offered Shelter Pale Ale, Chicory Stout and now Lawnmower Light. If all you are selling is the big stuff, you will sell much less of it and you can only charge so much for a beer.

Anonymous said...

I think there is some connection to big beers and the loss of community pubs as social gathering places.
I return to bars more because of the people I have met, staff and patrons alike, than for the beer. Of course I want great tasting well crafted beer, but I also want to be able to hang out for a few hours without falling off the bar stool.
Great session beers are just right for enjoying the people around you as much as the beer.
Please keep the session project alive and keep the suggestions comming.

Steven said...

"Misguided passion is still passion."

Wait, what? It's also still misguided -- passion alone doesn't make it good -- Pol Pot had passion, Imus has passion, misguided is the key word there.

"...and that's why I've been careful with my phrasing on this one. I don't want anyone getting the idea that I thought this guy was an idiot or a jerk."

Understood, I clearly got that from the essay. He's just "misguided."

Lew Bryson said...

I would love for people to be able to appreciate both ends of the spectrum of beer, and all beers in between. Well, maybe not ALL beers. Some of 'em just suck. But the extreme to session spectrum, let's say.

As I've said before, I don't consider myself better because I appreciate the more subtle beers. I consider myself lucky.

Lew Bryson said...

I fully agree with you, and I apologize: the Session Beer Project needs some love. I'll get on that.

Lew Bryson said...

Reading reviews of pilsners, hellesbiers, and the like on rating sites can be painful. There's a definite need for education on lager appreciation.

Lew Bryson said...

I assume you're TIC, here, Steven... we're talking missing the pleasure of a beer style, not mass murder or mass media insults! Misguided passion in a beer lover can often be opened up and expanded and taught. Good thing.

Steven said...

"I assume you're TIC, here, Steven... we're talking missing the pleasure of a beer style"

Sorry Lew - guess I was being "extreme" to make my point. But "misguided" is still the key word IMO.

"But the extreme to session spectrum, let's say."

I like to pride myself in enjoying - and *understanding* - that spectrum. I guess I never looked at it as "lucky," and that the lack of grasp by others might be something they can never overcome. Too bad, but why are *they* so prominent in the beer community?

And Kirby has an interesting theory on the US pub society.

Lew Bryson said...

I do feel that I'm lucky, lucky that I have so many choices that I can make and be happy with; not content, but happy.

But why are they so prominent? Because they're passionate...and that usually means that they're loud. They've found a really cool thing that they didn't know about before, and they want to tell everyone about it. Which is cool, too, but it's our job to help them expand their minds even further and realize that they've broken out of the box into a bigger box...and that they can think beyond that one, too.

Anonymous said...

"Reading reviews of pilsners, hellesbiers, and the like on rating sites can be painful. There's a definite need for education on lager appreciation."

Oh please let them be educated on the beauty of lagers and english bitters and milds. I'm glad to see that the next BA fest will have a "Night of Lagers". I don't know how people drink these massive "extreme" beers all the time.

Anonymous said...

If it's too big, or too're too old!

I think age plays a factor here, at least as far as alcohol content goes.

Before I got a real job, got married and had a kid, I was always looking for brash beers with lots of alcohol.

BTW, I turn 30 on May 24. You can trust me until then.

Unknown said...

How would one "educate" a the driver of a jacked-up F350 on the joys of driving a Honda Civic? Some people may not be in a place to see session beers as anything other than a waste of water. They should have a whole life ahead of them, and once their palates and social lives have dead-ended in quadIPAs, they will may looking for subtleties and moderation. I'd guess it's just the cycle of things. Haven't we all changed our tastes over the years?

Lew Bryson said...

I haven't so much changed my tastes as expanded them. I like bombing the bike on a steep downhill, I like riding a rail-trail with the kids. It just chaps my butt when some guy tells me that if I'm not riding one way -- his way -- I'm a weenie. Where's the difference between that and McDonald's telling me how I ought to have lunch?
The whole point of this is NOT hoppy beers=bad, 5% beers=good. It's about the insulting nature of saying that if someone's drinking a 5% beer, they're sheep that can't think beer on their own.

Lew Bryson said...

Again, like Brian, you're missing the point. It's NOT that big beers are a problem; I get so tired of explaining that some of my best friends are big beers.

My issue here is the narrow-mindedness that thinks that anyone who wants to drink something else -- a porter, a bitter, an amber ale -- doesn't really like beer, because the beer they like isn't hoppy enough or big enough. Of course they like beer. This is not about the freedom to have a big beer, it's about the freedom to have the beer you want without someone telling you that you're somehow wrong for wanting that the mainstream beer guys used to tell me back in the 80s and 90s.

Steven said...

"How would one "educate" a the driver of a jacked-up F350 on the joys of driving a Honda Civic?"

In a word, autocross. Spin that little sucker around some cones on a small track, slicing back and forth, feeling the Gs, sliding the back end out a little - you'd be surprised how much fun you can have.

Just as Lew says, it's not about the "extremes" being bad, just don't tell me I don't know what I'm missing if I'm enjoying a nice Spaten Helles or a Bluebird Bitter.

Dan Bengel said...

Well maybe some of these folks need to come to The Session Summer Of Love Fest on May 24,25,26. It's not your daddy's session beer anymore!

Steven said...

I'll show you all - I'm going home and having a Warsteiner Drive with dinner!! ;-)

Anonymous said...

A number of years ago I was sitting at Victory and struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. He talked about how he used to drink BudMillerCoors but now that he found Hop Devil he only drinks "good" beer. I then ordered a Golden Monkey and he asked me why I would order that "sh*t" since Hop Devil was the "good" stuff. He still had the same, narrow minded view that he had before, he only appeared to be better educated. Just because he was drinking a beer that many consider "better" or "more flavorful" than the macro-brews does not make up for the fact that his outlook is still all wrong. To truly appreciate beer you need to sample ALL beers, even ones you might not like or "get." It is the only way to educate your palette and understand where these "extreme" beers came from. That is why I will still have a BudMillerCoors every now and again...if someone buys it for me. ;)

Bottom line, a lot of folks THINK they know alot about beer because they seek out the biggest and baddest around but they never take the time to truly learn and educate themselves about the full spectrum of flavors available. I actually feel sorry for them.

Harry Spade said...

Just to make an example of myself, and because I have nothing pertinent to add to Lew's points, I stopped at Victory last Friday and picked up a bottle of V-Saison and filled a growler with Throwback Lager. One kind of big, one kind of...session-y.

It was a good weekend. Thank God for variety and the ability to choose.

geoffrobinson said...

Don't wine reviewers favor the "hedonistic fruit bombs"? I wouldn't put too much stock into the the review scores on the two main beer sites.

Subtle will always have problems with proper appreciation no matter what the category. That's why it is called "subtle." If everyone appreciated these qualities, they wouldn't be subtle.

Why did Jesus speak in parables?

Stonch said...

That's one great thing about CAMRA festivals here in the UK - its all about session beers. Row after row of casks of session beers, with just a handful of "extreme beers" thrown into the mix to mark the occasion. You appreciate a big beer so much more in that context.

Lew, you need to come over for the Great British Beer Festival this year. It's in August. I'll be your local guide!

Lew Bryson said...

GBBF is on the list, Stonch; not this year, but maybe 2008. Just the thought makes me swoon.

GenX at 40 said...

I go back to my extreme water concept, Lew. You need the angle on the session and it must be founded the respectability of lightness.

I disagree to the point that people are not affected deeply by commercials. We are what we are taught and we experience what our teaching guides us to. So the macro brews are the subject of the lesson learned from TV ads and massive bombs are the lesson learned from the large "" spinoffs. We do not have a story for the third way of the session in the way Stonch notes CAMRA provides for real ale in the UK.

BTW, I have a cellar full of 10% beers that are gathering dust as I move through the sessions on a regular basis. Their role is exactly as Stonch says - the extra special treat. We need a new way to describe the alternative. Maybe "table beer" or "everyday craft beer" - which are all about that skill in framing good water.

A Good Beer Blog

Lew Bryson said...

I absolutely agree that we ARE deeply affected by commercials and marketing. I am faced with evidence of it in myself practically every day, much to my chagrin. What I meant in my post was that people don't choose porter, or bitter, or witbier, for example, because of marketing, at least not in the U.S. market. They come to those choices as natural as is possible in this fallen world.

As for the story...we're writing it. Here. And people are picking it up. The latest issue of BeerAdvocate announced that the Brothers Alström and I will be doing...something (to tell the truth, we don't know exactly what yet) to champion session-strength beer. That's got weight. Eric Asimov wrote about session strength beer in his NYT blog recently. It's peeked over the horizon, and that's very, very good.

"Extreme water." I see what you mean, but I'll be dipped if I can see it working!

Rick Sellers said...

Great story, wonderful comments. I've been guilty of the over-enthusiastic love affair with all things big - the days with 8% was small and 70 IBUs was weak. I think it is a phase, and certainly not sustainable for lifelong beer drinkers. I've rediscovered session beers in the last couple of years, and am happy it is warming up and more and more are coming to market now.

I don't think this is unique to beer enthusiasts though. I look at the 'foodies' who swear by eating the richest, most flavorful foods day in and day out. I think that is the same issue - there's a period of discovery and excitement with big beers and big food, and for many it is like a switch that is flipped that drives them to discover all they can in that thread of taste.

I do find it odd these days going to a good beer bar with a handful of taps, but nothing under 7%. I think this will correct itself naturally, again, because it just isn't sustainable for those who really appreciate a good beer.

Great comments here - glad I stumbled across the site. Thanks.

Alan said...

Extreme Water: there has to be a way. Fresh, clean, daily requirement, healthy. Its got to be there. And, frnkly, I expect you to pick up these ideas and run with them, Lew. I can only feed you so many of these gems. ;-)

Steven said...

Couldn't you call caffeinated water or vitamin enriched water "extreme" water?

Can't wait to see what BA & Bryson can "cook" up.

Lew Bryson said...


You're right on the foodies and all their sub-categories: hot peppers, chocolate, fat, offal, rare, and so on. I think most do move beyond. I just wish they weren't so dismissive when they're mid-phase!

Welcome to Seen Through a Glass!


Anonymous said...

You know, I've been doing this beer thing for 30 + years now. I'm tired of the debates too. I just want to enjoy my beer, be able to drink more than one if I want or have something huge if the mood strikes me (It rarely does anymore).
I no longer feel the need to take notes about what I'm drinking, do some long drawn out analysis of the flavors, or whatever.
I just want to be able to choose a well-made brew and sit down and enjoy it without too much thought. Most often that choice will be an accessible beer like Bluebird or maybe a growler of some beautiful, precision lager from my local Gordon Biersch. Lew is correct; I don't need to be maligned for drinking what I like. After all my taste is the bottom line for me. I've done all the big brews and next hip new thing in the beer movement for a long time. I'm through being cool. Just let me drink what I want to drink.
Chuck Triplett

Lew Bryson said...

"I'm through being cool."

Didn't Devo do a song about that?

I'm with you, Chuck, but then what the hell am I going to write about?!

Jeff Bearer said...

Hey Lew,

Glad to see you writing on this topic. I was starting to think that maybe Greg and I were going on too much about appreciating subtle beer. It seems all too often we either find ourselves in a rant usually about Stone; or preaching about how people who think they have reached the pinnacle of your beer appreciation with Pliney the Elder have not seen it all, usually winding up on how wonderful the Dortmunder style is.

Lew is 100% right about having more than 2. And this is frustrating me at the moment. A new Max Mex opened up 3.1 miles from my house, it's non, smoking, I was on top of the world. But the bar manager is stuck in the extreme beer phase. Out of their 23 craft taps they something along the lines of 4 DIPA 6 IPA 3 Imperial Stouts/Porters A double white. And the list goes on and on.

I wanna have more than 2 too. Thank god that they are carrying the East End Brewing Session Beer as a welcome change of pace from the rest of the menu.

One point that Dan Shelton made on our show was that these big beers are not the ones that are healthy for you. With beers that are 400 calories for 12 ounces it does not quite balance out with the good stuff that beer provides.

Time to go get that Dortmunder out of the fridge.

Lew Bryson said...

Well-said, Jeff. And Dortmunder rocks.

Steven said...

A Double White? What are we coming to?

Rich said...

Hi Lew,

I enjoyed the story about your meeting with the guy in the bar with the harsh views. As I am probably one of the "sheep" referred to in the story, I also have liked your supporting commentary about session beers in the wake the latest and greatest beers to be imagined, brewed, and then consumed.

Your story reminded me of a request I recently complied with from a friend I am trying to put together a beer dinner with. He asked for a "dream list" of bottled beer and among the Ommegang and the Allagash
selections I put down Kronenbourg. Later, he asked me about it in a surprised tone. I explained that I drank a lot of it in France last summer and it was great with sushi.
I could have said PBR, which I drink for watching "My Name is Earl", just to stick a fork in him to get over the beer geek holiness.


Lew Bryson said...

I know what you're saying, Rich. I like Stella. I find it a refreshing, tasty lager on draft. In fact, not long ago, I had draft Stella and draft Pilsner Urquell side by side, and all things being equal, I was happy to be drinking Stella. No beer geek I tell this to understands me. Sigh...

gary said...

Lou, at first I had a feeling it was one of my friends,now pretty sure it was not.But like they say opinions are like A-holes everybody has one. Right now I have 6 beers on tap the highest abv is 7 the highest ibu is 75 and I cant keep up with the 5.4 ABV and the 35IBU stuff.Opinions about beer are like opinions about motorcycles. Some belive if you dont ride a HD your not a biker, but I dont know how many none bikers rode their bike from Erie to Key West.So let say what they want and drink what they want.

Lew Bryson said...

Gary Burleigh, folks!

I drink it all, myself, but I put more of a hurting on your porter supply than anything else. Good beer, man!

Unknown said...

Hey Lew,
As always, thanks for spanning the globe to bring us a constant variety of sports - um, beers. Oh, you know what I mean...

One comment: You may have been more convincing on the merits of a lower alcohol beer that you can drink all afternoon without a glass of 50.5% liquor in your hand. Granted, the portion size is certainly different, but it's certainly a big flavored beverage...

And thank goodness people like Jeff are out there, doing their part at the Mad Mex Cranberry, DRINKING those session ales so they keep them on tap!

Scott - East End

Lew Bryson said...

But Scott! The glass of porter was in my other hand!

Richard Stueven said...

>"I'm through being cool."
>Didn't Devo do a song about that?

Time to bang some heads
Time to beat some butts
Time to show those Evil Spuds what's what

Seems oddly appropriate for this thread, I think!

have fun