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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

BIPA: enough, already

Belgian IPA.

It wasn't until I got the Samuel Adams Longshot announcement today, where they listed the winners of this year's America's Got Homebrewing Talent competition (not their name, of course), that I realized how bloody tired I'm getting of seeing, hearing, and -- mostly -- tasting this classification of beer. (The winners, for the record, and congratulations to them: Richard Roper (Georgia), Friar Hop Ale (the probably just-fine BIPA that set me off), Rodney Kibzey (Illinois) Blackened Hops (a dark IPA...which I still like, for now), and Caitlin DeClerq, the Boston Beer Employee winner, with Honey Bee’s Lavender Wheat.)

It's just so freakin' American craft brewing. Take a familiar category of beer -- maibocks, brown ale, porter, or in this case, Belgian pale strong ales (a beautifully, broadly, Belgian category, admittedly, in which few are just like another) -- and hop the shit out of it, then proudly hold it up as A New Beer! Ta-daaaa! Never mind if it's freakishly sweet, or that the hop flavor clashes with the yeast character, or that every other brewer is going, 'Yeah, I gotta make me one of them' and the "style" becomes a glut (crap-ass sour beers, anyone?). Not to mention that American craft-brewing has become so influential -- a GREAT thing, overall, and very satisfying -- that Belgian brewers are doing it, with very varied results.

Yeah, I like some, like Poperings, De Ranke XX, The Bruery Mischief. Others -- like Green Flash Le Freak, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, and the one-shot (thank you!) Duvel Tripel Hop -- really verge into that Frankenstein's monster territory for me. I understand that this is how we progress, that the good succeed and the bad simply suck, and that every beer is not meant for me, but...

The aspect that most bothers me, about BIPA and other herd beers, is just that: the herd. Someone does a new beer, a really new thing -- Vinnie Cilurzo does Blind Pig, for instance. A couple other brewers taste it -- at the brewery, at GABF -- get inspired, and they try it. Then one of them breaks big -- it happens faster these days, thanks to the beerwebs and the competitive "yeah, I've had that...a YEAR ago!" nature they've fostered -- and literally a hundred brewers make them, not so much inspired by the art as by the buck. I'm all for the buck, it keeps craft beer alive, but guys...have your own idea. It may or may not get you the attention. But you can't do this kind of thing, and still complain about Blue Moon and Shocktop, 'kay?

Example: Weyerbacher. I've been a fan from Day One, largely because of two things. First, Dan Weirback's a scrapper; he's hung in there when other people would have quit, and he keeps trying things. Second, he's been -- except for some exceptions -- a contrarian. When everyone else was making wheaty fruities, he made a beautiful raz imperial stout; when everyone else made sweet tripels, his was dry and spicy. The exception? Dan did some following in the years around 2000. It got a little boring. Then he found his way again (with the help of an excellent brewhouse crew, led by Chris Wilson; kind of like what's happening at Flying Fish with Casey Hughes), and Weyerbacher is not a follower any more. And we are the richer for it.

It's not really BIPA I'm tired of. I'm tired of seeing so many new ones. Either innovate, truly and wildly and brilliantly, or give me something beautiful and solid, like the gorgeously classic Saison Vautour from McKenzie Brewhouse, or the unimpeachable quality of Troegenator, or the simple lines of Geary's London Porter. Stop chasing flags (a little Dante reference for you there). Make beer. Find your heart first, and then follow it.


Kevin Smith said...

Unfortunately, in the end, it's still a business and the dollar is king.

I can't really begrudge each of these guys trying to get a piece of the pie. Yeah, it would be nice to see more of them trying to jump out in front of the pack in regards to innovation - but I think it's hard, particularly for smaller breweries that are just as concerned with surviving as anything else. When you're worried about your bottom line, you can't dedicate tank space to a beer you're just not sure will sell. When you're making enough money, on the other hand, it's less of an issue.

Kevin Smith
Maryland Correspondent
Mid-Atlantic Brewing News

J T. Ramsay said...

Completely agree. The knock non-beer geeks have on craft beers that's spot on is all the gimmickry that filters into it.

Not for nothing, but I'd like it if local brewers concentrated on making their everyday brews excellent and less on all the one-offs that are not only hit or miss, but distract from their bread and butter product lines.

Alan said...

Perfectly put, Lew. I blame the hunt for the 20 buck 750 ml rock star solution. Too many brewers believe that is the answer to the money crunch and if consumers would just "get it" , learn to love botched experiments and think of themselves more as investors than consumers, well, then craft brewing would finally attain its proper place.

Slow and steady wins the race. Top quality accessible local beer spreading broadly is the higher road. Because when everyone is a rock star, no one is. And no one really is.

A Good Beer Blog

E.S. Delia said...

See: "India Black Ale."

Bob "Now go have a beer" Paolino said...

Psst... Rodney is from Illinois, not Georgia, unless he's very recently moved. Rodney would also have the distinction of having had TWO Longshot beers put into production. And I know we won't hear the end of it the next time he and I are judging at the same competition ;-)

But back to BIPA... When I saw Belgian IPA and Sam Adams in the same preview text, I thought you were going to talk not about Longshot, but about their current "Beer A" in the current Sam Adams festival "voting."

Finally, if you find BIPA to be gimmicky, how is the so-called Black IPA any less gimmicky, yet you don't seem to have a problem with those? (Also, one thing that you don't note in your blog post is that this year in a departure from past practise, the entire Longshot competition was ONLY "Category 23" experimental/specialty beers, so the winners were guaranteed to be at least somewhat "non-traditional.")

Oddly enough, a few Longshots back (this was when the competition was the full range of BJCP styles, not just a "Category 23" competition as it was this year), I encountered an American IPA with Carafa malt as the specialty beer in the Best of Show judging. Although we all agreed it was an enjoyable beer, we eliminated it relatively early, dismissing it as a gimmick and not really sufficiently expressive of the category, nor as good an example of its "style" compared to many of the other beers on the table. How quickly our perceptions change when the entire competition is "specialty" beers, I suppose, such that a similar beer was one of the winners this time around.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Two comments:

First, when I saw the headline, I figured you were ranting about black IPAs. Go figure.

Second, I think there's a chance you might be missing the forest for one particular tree. As far as the average beer drinker goes, or even the average beer geek, the Belgian IPA is still an anomaly. I know that around here in Baltimore, I can find--IF I look in the right places--Flying Dog's Raging [Rhymes-With-Witch] Belgian IPA on draft, and maybe Stone's Cali-Belgique and, if I look in the right place at the right time, Chouffe Houblon. To the vast majority of folks who don't have BeerAdvocate or RateBeer programmed into their iPhones, it's still a novelty. Right now, the "fad of the minute" here is fresh-hopped beers, and even with several interpretations (FD, Heavy Seas, Barley & Hops, Brewers Alley, Olivers), there's still rich variety.

Sure, if you're wandering the halls of the GABF, it may seem that everyone's riding the wave of the latest fad. The same would hold true if you were reading fashion magazines, or TV show synopses, or at an upscale restaurant/hospitality convention. This, too, shall pass. Just pray it's not replaced by a crazier fad, like bourbon-barrel aging (oops, too late) or smoked beers (nutz again), or....... kvass or chicha?

That being said, I agree completely with your support of Dan Weirback, for all the same reasons.

The Professor said...

I am so glad to see that others feel the same way I've felt about this stuff for a while. Way too much focus on gimmickry. Reinventing the wheel can often be bad enough, but I think that some of the new brewers don't even know what the wheel even is anymore. Of course, you're the end it is all about money, and cashing in on current fads.

I don't mean to imply that I think innovation is bad, or that there aren't some great brews coming from the small brewers (although it is increasingly becoming something of a crapshoot when tasting a new offering). In the end though, I honestly suspect that some local brewers don't concentrate on making excellent "everyday" brews is because they just don't have the skills to do it. It's too easy to hide one's brewing shortcomings behind massively ramped up flavors, calling it a new "style", and jacking up the price.

Kevin said...

I am glad you noted Poperings as it is one BIPA that all the ingreadients compliment each other. I am sick of beers that just add a ton of American hops to an established beer style when there is no cohesion.
As for being innovative, how about some Pale Stout( Craft brewers were once pretty good at reviving lost beer styles.

Martyn Cornell said...

… we all agreed it was an enjoyable beer, we eliminated it relatively early, dismissing it as a gimmick and not really sufficiently expressive of the category, nor as good an example of its "style" compared to many of the other beers on the table.

See, that's what I don't get. Was it a good beer? If so, give it a prize. If the BJCP had been around in 1842, would it have said: "Well, your - what did you call it? 'Pilsner?' - is an enjoyable beer, Herr Groll, but it's a bit of a gimmick …"

Anonymous said...

In the long run I think the phenomenon is turning off the casual micro beer drinker. those of you who devote your life to beer may love (or not) it, but for those of us who are casual, and who enjoy a good craft beer in a craft beer bar every now and then (and an occasional beer blog), it's getting to be too much, too daunting and too unpleasant.

Seeing 45 taps all with nondescript names and 3/4 of them some sort of BIPA or DIPA at $7 and 8% may be heaven to some but for many of us it just has us reaching for a lager draft.

Bob "Now go have a beer" Paolino said...

Reply to Martyn:

Just to clarify, the Carafa malt IPA _did_ get an award, it was first place in its category and that's how it got to Best of Show. We simply eliminated it from further consideration among a couple dozen other first place winners in other categories. Yes, we did consider it "gimmicky" and, for the category it was representing, not innovative or creative enough as an experimental/specialty beer to make it as good an example of that category as other contenders were good examples of their respective categories. (All that said, none of us dumped the remainder of the sample, and saved it to drink afterward... as a well made and enjoyable American IPA that just happened to be dark coloured and just a tiny hint of dark malt flavour.)

[For the record, the one we ultimately selected as Best of Show was some kind of light German-style lager (sorry don't recall specific style at this point, but a Helles, Dortmund, or G.Pilsener) that stood out for me at the very beginning, and was still excellent even after trying the other beers and warmer than initial pour, it was that good, even though this regional winner was not the one ultimately selected for the Longshot pack.]

steve, no "n" said...

What if you're just being cynical? Perhaps there are brewers out there that have tasted one or two and thought, "Hey! I dig this! I gotta take a crack at it...". Sure it seems like a wave, because it is. Like in a stadium when it starts with a few and soon the whole place is jumping up and "woooo"-ing -- except for a few crotchety folk who just don't get it.

Sure, there are brewers out there that are joining just to be a part of the club, but take away the "B" and think how many brewers brew American style IPAs (or, is it more egregious to brew a "West Coast" style IPA?), just because they sell?

And what's all this talk about Black IPA's? I thought they were CDAs? ;-) Which, for the record, I thought Troegs was heading towards with Dead Reckoning before all this "black" business started up.

Herman Bartels said...

there is nothing new under the sun, look the past to find the next great innovation

Rob Sterowski said...

Most companies in every industry are copying the leaders. There's no particular reason brewing should be any different, is there?

Also, Belgian brewers making these things is not really a sign of the influence of American craft beer, more a sign of the importance of the American market to those brewers.

Lew Bryson said...

Kevin, I don't agree. Filling a tank with a 7-9% BIPA to try to please a notoriously fickle slice of the market seems like a riskier proposition than filling it with witbier, or a well-made dortmunder. They're not trying to get a piece of the pie, they're trying to get a piece of the excitement, a piece of the hype. Much harder to grab, much harder to hold onto.

Lew Bryson said...

To the number of folks who noticed my cut-and-paste error (making TWO of the brewers from Georgia): thanks.

Bob: why don't I find "Black IPA" gimmicky? I don't find the beer gimmicky (it's actually been around for years, and it's a simple thing), but I do find the name "Cascadian Dark Ale" ridiculous. Is that enough?

And I didn't say anything about the "Category 23" aspect of the Longshots, because the post wasn't really about the Longshots, it was about BIPA; the Longshot announcement was simply the catalyst.

Lew Bryson said...

Kinda my point: they're not just chasing the latest, they're chasing the latest whisker of a percent of interest. Black IPA would make more sense, IMO, but that might be a personal thing. Making a really great IPA would be smarter. Making it consistently great would be brilliant. As far as the average beer drinker goes, witbier is somewhat exotic. Which is fine.

Lew Bryson said...

Bob...after that 'clarification,' I'd advise you to follow your sobriquet's advice.

Lew Bryson said...

I'd like for brewing to be different, particularly craft brewing. That's how we progress.

As for your other point...are none of the beers mentioned sold in Belgium? I hear wildly opposite reports on the importance of the American market to Belgian brewers: it keeps them alive, it's minuscule. Honestly, I don't know who to believe (and I don't believe anything I read about it on the Internet).

jp said...

RE: The American demand for Belgian beer, that is interesting. I would not be surprised to see the US as one of the top export markets for Belgian beer after France and the UK I have not seen a lot of Belgian beer in Germany (not sure how they can close the market to intra EU exports), but you just don't see it same goes for Holland and Italy to be honest aside from Stella I have not seen a lot of Belgian Beer in the UK either. It seems to me a lot of those smaller Belgian breweries might have found a real niche market and the US which provides them with their best margins.

Bill said...

I think it's pretty difficult to attribute motive to the brewers who "follow" a trend. I'd bet that the vast majority of those who bring these to market are all pretty jazzed about their interpretation. Remember that most folks don't try dozens of these things! As Dante also said, "Charley, they don't want beer with great taste, they want beer that tastes great." Wasn't that Dante?

Anonymous said...

Completely unrelated: session cocktails!

Bill, who's too lazy to re-log in under his Google ID

Unknown said...

As a Phoenician, I'd be happy to drink a credible locally produced Saison.

Glenn said...

Haven't seen you rant like this in a while, it's refreshing ;-) Interesting discussion, just want to throw a couple of cents of mine out here. FWIW I'm writing this while drinking a bourbon barrel stout (I'm thinking barrel's are getting to be a "gimmick" too lately)

What's a brewer to do?? If he perfects his craft and has two or three perfectly respectable "standard" beers, he'll sell them to most of his accounts. Don't forget guys this is a business to make beer that people will buy. So the brewer puts together some sort of special double/triple black, barrel aged belgian something to make a name for their brewery and only bottles it once a year..and now all of a sudden they have a following who camp out to get the beer on release day... Some might call that good marketing? And along the way they sell more of their standard beer because of the following for their special beer?? Just my 2 cents....

Anonymous said...

I can't tell the difference between when you speak your opinion and the sound of a fart

Alistair Reece said...

With all this next greatest thing chasing that goes on, I wonder how it is possible that my beer drinking highlights this year have been solid, classic versions of great beer "styles", both from Devils Backbone and both the kind of thing you could drink many pints of.

Sure the big, bold and downright weird has its place, but I go to the pub to drink rather than experience.

Darel said...

THANK YOU, Lew! As an American brewer I am getting tired of sounding like a hypocrite bashing American brewing practices. You hit the nail on the head - take a perfectly acceptable, enjoyable, drinkable style and HOP THE CRAP OUT OF IT. Belgian IPAs. In reality, IPAs in general. Go have a real English IPA - that's a beautiful, balanced beer dammit. Or, worse yet, take a good beer style, hop the crap out of it, and oh, yeah, let's add debittered black malt! Another new style! Yaay America! Personally, I'd like to see more American brewers try their hand at really crafting a true classic style - not crying innovation but displaying their skill, in say, a perfectly balanced Dortmunder or Scottish 60/. There are enough guys trying it - but look at the BA list of top Pilsners. Prima Pils? More hops than all of Washington state. Almost twice as many BUs as Pilsner Urquell. Scottish ales made with peated malt (WRONG!). American brewing has become more about ego and less about beer. Sorry - off my soapbox now.

Gary Gillman said...

While not opposed to "gimmicky" beers as such (as Martyn said, who knows when a classic may appear?), brewers need IMO generally to focus on making high quality pale ales, lagers, porters, stouts and the other traditional styles. Too much of the output I see is, well, average (or worse). True, there are stars in the categories I mentioned, but how high is the overall standard, really? It is much better than 20 years ago when e.g., extract and/or infected brews were common, but there is still a way to go.

I say, master the basic styles first before exploring exotica. That is good business strategy too, because it focuses on the long term.

All this said, I enjoy a good black IPA, or pumpkin stout (an emerging style with great potential IMO). If it's good, it's good.


Anonymous said...

I do agree with Lew's point, that when everyone jumps on the bandwagon with poor imitations, it lessens the accomplishments of the few brewers who have actually crafted a good example of the style. However, it is indeed a business and although folks like us may scoff at bandwagon jumpers, the owners probably don't have to think twice about whose opinion they valuse more: folks like us critiquing them online, or the 400 people lined up outside their brewery for the privilege of buying a bottled of a botched experiment on release day. sad but true.

Bob "Now go have a beer" Paolino said...

Lew, my point in mentioning (perhaps for the benefit of those who didn't otherwise know) that this year's Longshot was specialty/experimental only (Category 23) is that this year's result was *assured* to be what some would consider to be weird, gimmicky, or non-traditional, rather than a well-done traditional style, such as the well-made light German lager to which we awarded regional Best-of-Show a few years ago. A beer like that wasn't eligible for the competition this time, so the chance of the winner being something like a B (Belgian or Black) IPA was much higher.

(Of course, some entrants made lame attempts at justifying entries with bogus special ingredients or techniques, including "brewed with love," using melted ice for water, IPA with extra hops.... We disqualified those kinds of entries.)

Lew Bryson said...

Gonna have that beer now?

Katie said...

A bit late to the game, but this phenomenon is no different in wine or food. How many damned restaurants were serving sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese in the 80s? And as far as wine goes, look at how "old-world" wineries are now aiming to make more fruit-forward, overripe, oaky messes simply to please the cola-drinking American consumer? Trends are inescapable, and the only ones that ever really make a mark are those who innovate. Nonetheless, if there is one thing Americans can be counted on to do it's either to take a good idea and run it into the ground or take a bad one and run it into the ground.

Anonymous said...

Shit Lew....Lets make a Double, Quad, Imperial, dry hopped, American IPA. Oh and smoked too. Great post.

The Professor said...

Katy said: "Nonetheless, if there is one thing Americans can be counted on to do it's either to take a good idea and run it into the ground or take a bad one and run it into the ground."

This would be funny if it weren't so true!
Katy has hit the nail on the head.

Loren said...

Good topic Lew. But most think the only game out there is Follow The Leader and there's no such thing as Lead The Followers. And remember too, if there weren't lemmings in the world (just wait...they'll eventually fall to their death) think of the overpopulation?!?!

BTW, Black Belgian IPAs are the next trend. Called it.


LStaff said...

From the press release: "...I've been passionate about creating unique and interesting brews that challenge the perception of what beer can be," said Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Samuel Adams beer. "This year we asked homebrewers to push the boundaries and brew their own one-of-a-kind beers. I was very impressed by the quality and creativity of the homebrew entries submitted to this year's Samuel Adams Longshot American Homebrew Contest - Category 23"

I guess he wasn't so much impressed with the creativity than the ability to copy current trends in order to sell beer.

Way to inspire creativity in the homebrew community Jim.

BPotts said...

Loren - lol.

I think its worth noting that Poperings Hommel Bier and De Ranke XX Bitter have been around for awhile, long before the Belgian IPA craze ever existed. The "style", if one would like to call it that, has been around for a long time, dare I say centuries (considering XX is probably somewhat like what saison was like 300 years ago).

Leave it to American brewers to turn hoppy Belgian beers into a marketing tool!

Bob "Now go have a beer" Paolino said...

Loren, how about a
Pale Black IP(ale)A? :-)

Loren said...

"Leave it to American brewers to turn hoppy Belgian beers into a marketing tool!"

YEARS ago when I first tried De Ranke XX Bitter I remarked (BPotts you may remember?) on Babblebelt that it came across as a "Belgian" IPA and people thought I was retarded. Wait. What?

Damn I should've trademarked that.

Sean Inman said...

BIPA's haven't infested everywhere yet so I would choose to decry the constant usage of "Imperial" and "Double".

They may have been helpful descriptors of innovative styles a few years ago but now the terms have lost meaning to me and the beers seem too much of the same. When I started seeing imperial steam beers, I audibly said "can't they leave well enough alone?"

At least with BIPA, I know what I am getting in my glass.

JohnM. said...

Sorry, but I confess I just find this line of thinking somewhat amusing. So now we're complaining that American brewers are too innovative, too much into making the next "big thing?" Has it been that long now since the exciting choices on the market consisted of light lager A, light lager B and light lager C... and on occasion, if we were feeling especially adventuresome, maybe we'll go for some of that exotic imported light lager from Holland?

Given a choice, I'll happily put up with bewers that continue to try to push the envelope, even where (IMHO) the results are abject failures. As for complaining about brewers that hop the hell out of everything on planet, sorry you feel that way, but color me completely deaf to your siren cry. In fact, place me solidly in the camp of Tommy Nickels, who remarked during Lupulin Slam I that he kept on adding hops to his IPA, thinking it would eventually become too bitter for him, but that to date he still hadn't reached that point.

Too many BIPA's on the market? Perhaps, but I'll gladly put up with that odious set of circumstances thank you very much. Funny thing, the more BIPA's that come on the market, the greater the likelihood I'll encounter a Bruery Mischief (a beer I just adore). So what if I have to kiss a thousand frogs to find a beer like that... and I'll tell you something else too. The reality is that most of the BIPA's I've encountered have been pretty damn good, and some of the takes on the style are as unusual as they are interesting.

Each to their own Lew. Sometimes I'm in the mood for something solid as you put it (the Vautour Saison is indeed fantastic), but sometimes I'm in the mood to try one of New Belgium's Eric Leaps of Faith or even (in small quantities) some of Bruery's Black Tuesday.

Just my two cents, but I truly do believe we are in the golden age of American Craft brewing, and I attribute that largely to the willingness of American Brewers to not only push the envelope, but to also refine and redefine particular styles. If you don't want to try the latest BIPA with some novel yeast strain, and with apricots and sage added, by all means push it over in my direction. Who knows... I just might like it.