Monday, February 16, 2015

What's Next For Local Beer? Pyrotechnics Versus Quality. Notes From a Beer Amateur


Scotch ale is a great beer. Malty and almost semi-sweet. Done right, it is one of my favorite beers. And tasting one recently brought me to a very weird question.

I am not a beer authority. I have been lucky enough in life to get hang out with some of the better ones. I published Michael Jackson years ago when I was at Running Press. And I was lucky enough to work with Tim Webb, Ben McFarland Stephen Beaumont, and Joshua M. Bernstein among many, as well as local beer authorities like Josh Christie, Chad Polenz, Julia Burke, and others.

That doesn't make me an expert...it makes me a dilettante.

Now, there are two things I want to say here. First, I have been a HUGE fan of the craft beer explosion. I have had immense fun watching what's been going on.

Secondly, I love seeing the inventive new products coming from the craft beer explosion. I love the experimentation and I love the collaboration. I think it is all very cool!

Thirdly, I am friends and acquaintances with a number of brewers, and I love talking to them about beer, and have even worked on a few collaboration beers myself.

That said, I am left wondering where we are with the craft beer revolution. Right now I see the evolution of a paradigm - the Pyrotechnics Versus Quality Beer.

Already there has begun a backlash of the over hopping of craft beer. The double and triple IPAs, the Black IPAs. It seems these days if it' not over hopped, it's not considered good. And I applauded the original trend. But of course, nothing in America succeeds like excess. I, like others, think the trend has gone too far. Brett too seemed to be the rage for sometime, though I seem to suddenly be hearing less and less about that.

I guess you can say that about almost every category. From Pumpkin stout, to chocolate stout, to gingerbread stout, etc.

But here's what I am wondering. I have skin in the local craft beverage business. And I am a fan. But here's what I ask as a drinker, and then some... Where does it all end? When do we just brew good beer instead of crazy beer? Is it all pyrotechnics, or is settling to be a quality maker not enough?

My favorite brewery, though I love trying beers from Mikkler and all the others, are places like Samuel Smith, Brooklyn Brewery, and a handful of others.

If all you do as a small brewery is concentrate on wild new experiments, then at what point do you flare out?

Asking someone to be the next Samuel Smith, by the way, is like asking someone to be the next Mouton Rothchild. In wine terms, Samuel Smith's is a First Grown brewery.

But where does the madness end? Or doesn't it?

I come to this question because I recently went somewhere, I tasted a lovely Scotch Ale. I love Scotch Ale. This was luscious and malty and just perfect. And I was relieved. Because the last two or three Scotch Ales I've tried were completely over hopped, and ruined in my humble opinion. There so many classic styles, is it not enough to make three or four or five well?

I am not trying to be a curmudgeon. I am a beer fan. And I love the experiments and trying new things. But the industry cannot sustain this level of experimentation forever. I saw the shakeout in the 1990s, and expect, in the craft business, that one will happen sooner than I like, and I will lament the loss of our fellow brethren. I might be a loser myself...lol. I am a business owner. I know these margins are thin. I am rooting for these guys. But when the shake out happens, who will be left standing?

There are smarter minds than mine on this question. As I said, I am a dilettante. But the landscape is rising up around me. In the Hudson Valley alone there are near 15-20 breweries. And around the state, there are multitudes more. I love it. I think the malling of North America has been a disgusting farce. And there is a certain glee I experience when I see the ghost malls springing up over the landscape (I admit a kind of self-righteous, sadistic Cormwellian sneer at these), and I love that the craft beverage business because it returns uniqueness to the individual regions. I love tasting new things and I love tasting things that are peculiar to a region. I like that local thing. I like that uniqueness. It is what makes traveling fun!

I know I am asking a big question. I know there is no answer. I know I am not equipped nor own the bonafides to give a proper answer. That's for the big guys to take on.

But from my lowly spot on the beer totem pole (actually I am not even on it), as a local purveyor, I wonder if it will affect the region and the other craft beverage producers? I am sure someone can even turn the question around on me, and ask them same of the wineries or the distilleries or the cideries.

But the question remains, at one point doesn't quality win out over pyrotechnics? Does making good beer beat experimentation at one point? Maybe I'm wrong and this was a waste of space, but I thought I'd at least ask the question. How does local beer sustain itself for the long haul?

To me, it all rests on a simple glass of Scotch Ale.