A Beer Judge’s Diary: Balance?

By Ken Carman

 Oh, God: if I answer this wrong David Houseman might excommunicate me from the church of the holy beer judges: the BJCP. Would Mike Dixon prematurely desecrate my grave? Gordon Strong stop taking my obscene phone calls? (And he enjoyed them SO much.)
 But I must ask, “Is balance over rated?” Like when the winter slumber-er who hibernates is rudely awaken, don’t bite my digital head off yet… bear… with me.

Courtesy Wide Open Spaces

 I started judging in 1999, launched into what became “craft” beer in the early 70s, a homebrewer in 79. I eventually became BJCP, a columnist, co-creator of two homebrew competitions and general nuisance to my wife’s brother-in-law who keeps saying, “Beer is only hops, malt, water and yeast.” I’ll hint at facts that contradict that claim. No great shakes. I enjoyed annoying him long before he started reciting that Reinheitsgebot-based mantra.
 Look at it this way, even before Prohibition-driven Great Brewery Die Off American brewers were marginally more creative. Early on in our country’s history everyone brewed, or at least their wives or slaves. Most brews were loosely based on already established styles brought here from England, Germany… Sometimes “loose” was good, sometimes not. These styles eventually were bastardized, too often so beer
Women were our original brewers in many cultures, slaves too.
could be brewed quicker, cheaper, easier and/or, yes, with local ingredients.
 This shift from style specific balance, like what happened to Vienna, turned some beer into DMS bombs, or what may have eventually became the recipe for “I Can’t Believe It’s NOT Butter!” Standardization was a profitable way to provide country-wide consistency. But it also created styles; widening the appeal of beer to more people. That’s a good thing.
 For many years Craft lingered; so fragile. A/B, Miller and distributors had so much power. Yet once Craft exploded innovation went nuclear. Brewing history is filled a drive towards consistency then expansion, style specificity then innovation.
 Porter, Stout, Gratzer, Gose, Lambics, Weisse… does anyone believe Jehovah came down and said, “Let there be…?” Someone screwed up, someone broke stylistic rules, some were accidents: like shipping beer under adverse conditions to India or Russia. I suppose it could be claimed the Budweiser-ing, Miller-ization, of the America came about via creativity too: but more “inspired” by money crunchers.
Courtesy Freaking News

demanding brewers brew cheap, consistent, beer that offends no one, except perhaps those concerned with variety. Brewer’s creativity came in the immense skill it takes to brew a quaff with nothing to hide behind. They didn’t always succeed: some brews in the 50s and 60s had serious defects, like being so buttery Land O’Lakes now sells that recipe in tubs. OK, that was a joke, but not that far off description-wise. (Yes, Rolling Rock, I’m making fun of you.)
Courtesy Quirk Books
 The extent they went to market beer was creative too, in a very slimy sense. Malt Liqueur jacked up to new levels was advertised heavily in ghettos. Satan rose out of the earth’s butt crack spawned Zima: taste sacrificed for an “easy” drunk.
 Supposed attempts to be just a tad more unique were more marketing ploys. Killians comes to mind. Even back then, with a less trained palate… What the hell? Do they brew in a butter churn?” Fort Schuyler was like chewing on an old cob of corn. I swear Schmidts was fermented in cardboard. Dare we say Billy Beer? I heard the Billy’s out in the Midwest was awful, the Billy’s FX Matt brewed in upstate New York actually might have qualified as a well hopped pale, only I think it was a lager. However, couldn’t it also be argued even the less palatable breaks with established styles helped push us towards new styles?
Acme Brewery courtesy foundsf.org
 Then in an old Acme manger Fritz the beer virgin gave birth to reincarnated Anchor Steam: the modern Craft movement was born! But it would be many years before sour Raspberry Imperial Stouts or Beard Beer. Going “out of balance” gradually became “in.” But all this has happened before. Berliner Weisse, Witbier. Banana or clove sense in beer? That’s not all that Gesundheitgesneezen!!! Germans take pride in claiming they brew “clean.” Exactly how does the sulfur sense in some lagers provide qualify as “clean?” Maybe by Mr. Earthen Butt Crack himself: Lucifer?
 The mistake some make is thinking “balance” is some set of rules that applies to all beer. Brewing is more like a cross between Tao, Gnosticism and Buddhism: truth is found within. Balance is specific to each brew, new styles often created by taking a style out of balance. You want what
Courtesy techcrunch.com
provides pure pleasure; or at least to be drinkable. If there were one set of steadfast rules Black IPAs would considered out of balance. No, balance isn’t over rated, it’s very style specific and “balance” is an inward journey.
 Can balance be outward focused too? I suppose. Over boiling hops can destroy balance: unless people discover that appeals to them. Fresh hop brews can have what once might have been considered excessive grassy sense, so who knows where adjusting palates might take us next? I brew mostly braggots. I do what many brewers of Gueuze do: blend. I find, for various reasons, hops don’t provide the best balance, so I use many things: spices, jalapeños. I often “dry hop” with whatever I think might provide the best contrast. Via blending my mead and homebrew I find the balance within each new adventure.
 A lot of the small, creative, brewers do the same, or something similar, to
Courtesy Refining Fire Chiles
find their “balance.” Who knows where all this will go next? I’m excited, a little weird-ed and somewhat scared all at the same time. Hey, really, chocolate covered cricket beer? OK, I enjoyed trying odd entries like what won “most creative” at Jackalope’s Let’s Get Weird Competition. But, personally, you can have all the Zima-like creations you like. To me, no matter how well “balanced,” that never eliminates the gack out of yack.
  What’s next, scorpion beer? Hmm, maybe…

KenA Beer Judge’s Diary is one of many columns by Ken  Carman, Certified BJCP beer judge, homebrewer since 1979 and seeker of both simple and complex quaffs who once upon a time thought he didn’t care all that much for beer. Then he discovered brews beyond the standard fare’ available on the east coast in the early 70s. Thus the adventure began.

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