Written by Tom Becham
Let me put this out there immediately: I like extreme beer. I enjoy the spirit of experimentation that results in high levels of alcohol, extremely bitter, sweet or sour flavors, unusual ingredients, or anything else that stretches the definition of beer. It shows the ingenuity and versatility of a brewer, and can be an adventure.
That being said, I also feel that Americans being who we are, extreme beer has the potential to get way out of hand. This is, after all, the land of “bigger, better, faster, louder, more”. One can walk into a grocery store, and find several dozen products which have artificial strawberry flavoring that is easily 40 times more intense than actual strawberries. The danger in this country is that extreme beer could relegate some subtler, yet quite delicious, older beer styles to the scrap heap of history.
I have written before about the Culture of the Double IPA. For some beer geeks, it seems that the higher the IBUs (International Bitterness Units) the more desirable the beer. While much of this is no doubt due to appreciation of the quality of bitterness provided by hops, there is also an element of Rite of Passage, or even machismo, about it all. I frequently imagine that a great many beer drinkers have contests in which they quaff the most intensely bitter brews they can find, all the while trying to stifle the faces they want to make because they don’t really like the beer for itself, only for the “street cred” it gives them among their friends. Don’t get me wrong; I like a Ruination or Palate Wrecker as much as the next guy when the time is right. I simply don’t regard high IBUs as necessarily a mark of quality. For me, bitterness must enhance the overall effect of the beer, rather than being an end unto itself.
I thought that effect was confined to the world of hoppy beer, but alas, I am incorrect.
I recently joined a Facebook Group dedicated to sour and barrel-aged beers. Again, those are something I enjoy. In fact, for the past several years, my wife and I have attended the Stone Brewing Sour Fest religiously. I single-handedly got my local beer store to start carrying sours. But again, as with super-hoppy beer, I have standards, both with sours, and with barrel-aged offerings.
Sours should have more to offer than simply the flavor profile of vinegar. Likewise, a beer aged in, say, bourbon barrels, should have some of the barrel qualities showing on the palate rather than just tasting of bourbon. If that’s all you seek in a barrel-aged beer, might just as well add bourbon directly to your favorite stout or porter and save some money.
Sadly, many of the individuals on the sour and barrel-aged Facebook page don’t share my perspective. In fact, many of them have also made THESE types of beers a measure of machismo or a Rite of Passage. I’ve seen opinions praising sour beers which could quite literally strip the enamel from one’s teeth. Conversely, I’ve seen comments like, “This is straight-up s**t. Drain pour,” for classic sours like Duchesse de Bourgogne. Now, I perfectly understand differing opinions and tastes regarding beer. And it would be fair to say, “I didn’t like this one.” It is NOT fair to call something s**t, or a drain pour, when no less than the Godfather of all beer writers, Michael Jackson, has called something a classic of its style (as he did with Duchesse).
Admittedly, part of the problem is that too many beer geeks have no historical context into which to place their beer preferences or critiques. But it also has to do with the “extreme factor”, and is, I believe, uniquely American as a problem. It is legitimate to say that you don’t like a subtle beer style, like a kolsch, pilsner, Vienna lager or even a Flanders red (though I hardly consider that one subtle). But appreciating what makes a good one is still essential knowledge if you want to claim any true knowledge about beer. Lacking that knowledge doesn’t make you a beer geek; it makes you a beer snob.
The bottom line is that we all need to take upon ourselves the task of educating our younger or less knowledgeable beer geek friends about the history of classic beer styles. Even if they don’t necessarily like them.
There is no truth to the rumor that Tom Becham’s family name used to be “Beck Ham,” and they originally were run out of Bremen, Germany, for brewing a Kolsch in the wrong city, and soaking a pig in wort first before putting it on tap at their family Tavern: A Poxnard on ALL of Oxnard Tavern. But, not ironically since what you’ve read so far is the editor’s ATTEMPT at humor, he DOES live in Oxnard, CA., and has been writing for us for years. We have him fooled. We’re actually watching over him, waiting for the right time to swipe his best brew stash. Tom has done articles for us regarding brewing and brewpubs in many places, including Hawaii.