Mixed Beer News and Commentary

Written Danner Kline for bhamweekly.com

“‘Blue ribbon’ USED to mean first place!”

I’m going to change gears and cover a few different items of interest this week, some related.

First up, I’d like to offer some comments on an excerpt of an interview recently highlighted at BeerNews.org. The interview was with Nate Heck, head brewer at Salem Beer Works in Massachussetts. Online readers have an advantage in that you can follow the link and get the full context of Nate’s commentary, but I’ll summarize a few points for our print readers.

The most interesting part of the interview was where Nate was asked about his cynicism regarding the craft beer industry (surprising, as he is a craft brewer himself ). He made some points I agree with, and one or two I take issue with. I’ll begin with my biggest disagreement. Nate says, “The whole beer-food pairing thing is pretty lame, as well. Beer isn’t wine!” I do agree with the sentiment that beer should not be snobbified into being like wine. Beer is a friendly, approachable, non-intimidating beverage. I hope it stays that way. But it’s absolutely true that some beers go better with certain foods, and some beers go horribly with certain foods. Gaining some appreciation for which beers enhance which meals is a worthwhile endeavor. Just don’t get snobby about it.

A big point I agree with is that many craft beer enthusiasts have an evangelical fervor that is a little misguided—they try to get their friends to ditch their favorite big name lagers for a life spent devoted to IPAs, barley wines, and stouts. Per Nate, “Beer is not some binary thing. You can enjoy an ice cold PBR AND like Russian Imperial Stouts…at the same time!”

I’m 100% in favor of making people aware that the world of beer consists of more than just light lagers (I do this whenever and wherever I can). And I think we have a long way to go before craft beer gets the respect it deserves in society at large, so some “evangelical” activities are merited. But the unwashed masses don’t have to turn from their sins and be born again into a new life of nothing but Belgian strong darks and American wild ales. There’s nothing wrong with a beer diet that includes plenty of pale lagers, punctuated with craft-brewed ales. In fact, craft brewers need to respect the consumers who keep “macros” in their diet alongside craft beers because for the craft segment to hit big time market share it needs millions of such people.

This issue is closely related to another point made by Nate, “Craft fans seem to ascribe a false virtue to the small brewers and false vice to the big brewers out there. We laud some brewers’ success and vilify others for theirs.” I touched on the periphery of this topic a few months ago when I took issue with the Brewers Association’s definition of craft brewer, which hinged on production volumes (more on this below). There’s an inherent contradiction in the attitudes of many craft drinkers, who want the world’s hundreds of millions of beer drinkers to abandon products made by mega breweries in favor of products made by tiny craft breweries. But tiny breweries alone cannot meet the world’s demand for beer. The craft brewing segment needs to grow, and individual craft breweries need to grow, and 20 years from now some craft breweries may be very large by today’s standards. Craft fans should embrace this.

That’s the perfect segue into a tidbit of news I wanted to pass along, which is that the Brewers Association recently announced they are changing the two million barrel size limit on craft breweries I lamented in the column referred to above. Instead of peaking at two million barrels of production, a brewery can now produce up to six million barrels of beer annually and still be counted as part of the craft segment. This was widely predicted by industry watchers, because without this move Samuel Adams maker Boston Beer Company would almost certainly have “graduated” from the craft segment in 2010, grossly deflating numbers showing steady growth for craft beer. This was the correct move by the Brewers Association, and I expect a day will come when they have to amend their definition again.

And finally, a local programming note. On Sunday, January 30th at 4:00pm, the J. Clyde will host a Blind Imperial Stout tasting. A blind tasting is one in which you sample several beers without knowing what they are. The beers are numbered, you make some notes, and at the end the lineup is revealed. This allows you to see which beers are the best according to your taste buds, not based on Beer Advocate hype or marketing or what your friends are drinking. Blind tastings are my favorite type of beer event, bar none. Don’t miss this. $24 gets you samples of ten different imperial stouts and some great cheese. Call the Clyde at 205-939-1312 to make reservations.

“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to danner@freethehops.org