Just this past June, I found myself at the American Beer Fest in Boston (not to be confused with the Great American Beer Festival being held in Colorado next month). I know it seems surprising, but there it is. Having my time in the Boston area limited to approximately 30 hours, with many of those hours already revolving around tickets for a Red Sox game bought in January and the desire to finally go on a tour of Fenway park, only allowed me a small planning window for the Beer Fest, however. I got in touch with a bunch of friends and told them to meet me at the VIP Party the evening before the Fest.
The VIP Party was a rather special event. For one thing, it was for Very Important People, which is clearly why I was there. It was catered (by the Sunset Grill and Tap, my favorite bar in Boston), and it was a time when a lot of brewery owners and brewmasters man the booths and dispense beer rather than volunteers. There was a special showing of the film American Beer, and, to say it plainly, there was a whole lot of beer. Being the VIP Party, of course, this was really the time when breweries were bringing out their biggest and best to show off. And that, surprisingly, is where I started having problems.
Now, hold on. Don't think for a moment it's because I'm going soft on beer. No way, no how. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. It's because I really like to drink it.
See, the biggest and the best in this case was almost exclusively in reference to alcohol content. 90% of the beer featured there was over 10% alcohol, and some of it was as high as 17% - 20%. In fact, there were only 2 beers there that were actually legal to sell in every state in the country.
Most of them were really amazing brews. Great mention goes to Harpoon's Triticus, a limited edition "Wheat Wine-style Ale" aged in (one of) 3 different types of barrels - Syrah, Gewürztraminer, and Whiskey - the last being my favorite. It clocked in around 11.5% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) and was truly an absolute pleasure to try. It was a really heavy, almost sweet, thick brew. The kind of thing that you wanted to pour into a snifter and sip.
And there's my problem.
I really like beer. I want to drink it all night. And while I enjoyed tasting this gem of a brew, I don't want to be permanently relegated to a dram in my goblet whilst lounging in the den enjoying a cigar in my smoking jacket. I want to go hang out with friends after work and have a few pints without having to be scraped off of the floor.
The craft brewing movement has been taking off in the last few years. In fact, while mass market brands of beer have seen a drop in sales growth over the last couple of years, a number of craft breweries have seen double-digit growth in consecutive years, and the sector as a whole had sales increase by 7% across the board last year. Many more people are enjoying craft beer than in years past, and they have over 1400 craft breweries to buy beer from.
This puts craft brewers in a new position. Making craft beer is no longer entirely unique. While it's still a small minority of the beer consumed in the U.S., they know very well that they're not alone in making their products. Competition is increasing in the craft brew market, and the desire, and perhaps even the need, arises to make something new and to stand out against the crowd. In addition, we've seen wine become much more accessible to the uneducated palate in the past decade or so. More people see drinking wine as an accessibly classy thing to do. It's not snobby anymore, it's fun.
That is a market that craft brewers want to tap. Educated, affluent, professionals who have the money to go out and spend $40 on a bottle of wine, would be just as likely to go out and spend $15 on a bottle of beer to be enjoyed in the same manner if only they can be convinced that beer isn't the drink of the shotgunning frat-boy masses, right? Maybe.
Unfortunately, many craft breweries believe the only way to reach this goal is to go up. More alcohol! More hops! Make it stronger! Make it more bitter! Nobody's ever seen beer THIS strong before! Look how UNIQUE we are! Sam Adams and Dogfish Head have been going back and forth for years trying to create the strongest beer in the world - and succeeding. The Sam Adams Utopias vs. Dogfish Head World Wide Stout battle (with Sam Adams currently in the lead) has recently topped 25% alcohol-by-volume. Yeah. 50 proof beer. That's stronger than a lot of schnapps, and much stronger than most wines.
Well that's great, guys, but what you've done is passed right by wine and made hoppy low-alcohol scotch. If I want scotch, I'll buy scotch. On very rare occasion, if I'm feeling particularly flushed with cash, I might want to buy a bottle of 25% ABV beer to try it out, but for the most part if I'm having a brew at home I don't want to be knocked on my ass by a pint. Rather, I'd like to have a beer with dinner because it tastes good, or pairs well with whatever I've prepared, or even because I just want a beer to relax. But I'd also like to be able to function for the rest of the evening and maybe, just maybe, be able to find my own nose without assistance.
I can't help but feeling that craft brewers are going a little overboard trying to prove themselves as a classy product, and in the process bypassing a really important lesson from the mass market brews. People buy Milwaukee's Best Lite by the 24-pack because they're likely to sit down and drink most of it over the course of an evening with a couple of friends. The nature of the drink itself has very little to do with the classiness of the situation. Drinking is a social vice. The majority of people aren't going to slug back a couple of 6-packs of beer or 3 bottles of wine or a half-bottle of schnapps on their own at home on a regular basis. It's all about the social situation. Make something that people can enjoy, contrast, and compare in great quantities and you've got yourself a hit. Make it taste great, pairable with food, and put it in an attractive package, and then you've got a classy product.
The ultra-strong brews are great for a very specific market, but I don't think it's the market that's giving the craft movement double-digit growth per year. Part of being recognized as a classy product is also being recognized as an accessible product. I like to get tipsy using alcohol, too, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
So this is my plea to the craft brewers: Don't get caught by the hype, guys. These high-alcohol brews are good novelties, but please don't focus on 'em. Keep your session beers going, and experiment with them. Keep making your low-alcohol, high-flavor tasty, tasty brews, because we'll keep drinking them.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.19.05 @ 1:07p
Hear hear! Alcohol-packed beer is fun as a lark, but what we really want is flavor. And like you said, something that pairs with food. People will happily down three or four bottles of wine at a small dinner party, but won't serve beer to their guests even if it's something nice.
Actually, maybe it's a bottling issue as well. Would people serve beer more often at dinner parties if it came in bigger bottles?
9.19.05 @ 1:14p
Myself, I tend to shy away from bigger bottles (unless it's for homebrew) because if I don't empty the whole bottle, then it's a pain in the ass to keep - what with the carbonation and all.
However, it might make it a lot easier to server at a dinner party if it was seen more like a wine option - bottle sitting open on the table, feel free to pour it into your own glass and enjoy.
Part of the problem, of course, is the marketing from the megabreweries - it does not exude class.
9.19.05 @ 1:15p
How did you get VIP access?
9.19.05 @ 1:16p
I bought a ticket.
9.19.05 @ 1:22p
There are a number of craft brews -- Ommegang and Allagash come to mind -- which come in larger bottles, and are quite handsome.
I'm torn on the Bigger! Faster! More! attitude in American microbrewing. I'd rather have quality over quantity, but I can't deny that the super-hopped beers have resulted in some truly American beers (such as the American IPAs), and I really like Dogfish Head's World Wide Stout.
9.19.05 @ 1:27p
Chimay and Dogfish Head also come in large bottles.
I agree - I'm glad that Americans are developing their own styles, even if I frequently don't actually care for them. However, this push for Extreme Beer just has to be moderated. It's just not accessible to the beer novice, and in the long run that hurts everybody.
9.19.05 @ 2:55p
I have a couple of large-bottle beers (Chimay's "Terrible" and my newly-acquired Sans Culottes) that have a place on my wine cellar racks. In each case, they are corked (like wine) and are meant to be shared (like wine), preferably over a meal or at least appetizers. Many more craft beers these days are being packaged -- and even marketed -- with an eye toward cellaring, which I think is a great thing. Several beers are made to continue the fermentation process within the bottle, adding to the complexity of the final product when you finally pop the cork/cap.
I think that after a certain point, higher alcohol beers (anything over 12 percent is starting to push it, to my tastes) lose some of the qualities that make beer...beer! I remember when Sam Adams first came out with their Triple Bock, in tiny little cobalt bottles. At the time, it was the most I'd ever paid for a single bottle. It was...okay, but as you say, Erik, it's not something you want to drink with a meal. I want to be able to recognize the grains that went into the brew and still have a light bite of carbonation to cleanse the palate. High alcohol beers, in my experience, have been too much like ports or brandies, often thick or syrupy. I like the smell of hops and malt. I want to know that I'm still drinking a beer.
9.19.05 @ 2:59p
I think that, as well as making the packaging more attractive for table use, brewers could focus on teaching people how beer pairs with food. I think most people have simple guidelines in their heads for wine and food (red with dark meats, white with fish and poultry) but not for beer and food.
9.19.05 @ 4:07p
Do you think people care as much about the packaging? I mean, I do, but I'm shallow that way and my wine savvy continues to evolve. But we had a bottle of Rioja (wine) left over from the IC excursion that I ended up with - pretty bottle, NASTY wine. So I wonder the impact
I totally agree about the beer/food pairing. I don't care for beer much and when I do have one, I want to have it with food. What do I think of as "beer" food? Pizza. Hamburgers. I know there are more options, but unlike wine, not enough attention is paid to this.
9.19.05 @ 4:19p
A few weeks ago I had a Chimay with a brined roast chicken and it was Awesome with a capital Awe.
I do think beer packagers are better than wine packagers about designing eye-catching, appealing labels that go with the names of the beers. I've bought plenty of beer just for the name and the label. La Fin du Monde, Old Rasputin, and our old friend Magic Hat #9, to name a few.
There was a beer called Apollo that I swear failed just because it was in a blue bottle. Beer in a blue bottle just seems too weird.
9.19.05 @ 6:22p
It might also let too much light in, which causes nasty flavors, although Erik would be the authority on that.
Dark beers, like stouts and porters, go well with chocolately desserts. One beer I bought just because of the name - Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness - goes particularly well with chocolate.
9.20.05 @ 12:08a
For pairing beer with food, a good rule of thumb is to follow wine-pairing instincts. The heavier the food, the darker the beer. Light foods like seafood or poultry work better with lighter beers (pilsners, lagers) while beef and game fare better with darker beers (bocks, brown ales, porters). There are as many beer varieties as wine varieties; you just have to educate yourself. Go to a beer festival, or a tasting at a local grocery or microbrewery, and discover what your palate prefers. Pick up a handy guide like Michael Jackson's (not that MJ) Pocket Guide to Beer.
Good hoppy beers like IPAs or bitters are exceptional with Southeast Asian cuisine, from India to Thai. The tangy beer really seems to work with warm spices like curry powder or ginger. In fact, one of my favorite bar snacks is ginger snaps with a hoppy beer.
And yeah, as Sarah suggests... try a deep ruby-hued porter with a slice of chocolate cheesecake or other semi-to-bittersweet chocolate dessert. It's at least as good as any merlot or cabsav.
9.20.05 @ 8:47a
That said, generally while you choose your wine to contrast with the food that you're eating, you want to choose beer to complement the food that you're eating.
One of my favorite tricks: IPA with muenster. Take a nice bite of good creamy muenster, take a sip of IPA, and everything mellows out. The hops blend in with the creamy mouthfeel of the cheese, and the carbonation cleanses the palate. It's really something else.