Craft Beer’s Identity Crisis
Peanut butter, chai tea, lemongrass, oranges, roadkill, lemons, gunsmoke, dill: these are a few of the featured ingredients in craft beers on display at my local bottle shop. The variety does not stop there. How about a triple-pale ale, dry-hopped, cosmic-toasted, sour-peat-pilsner-stout loaded with enough alcohol to sterilize a barbershop comb? Is there a “normal” in beer anymore? And when did the word “infused” become the craft beer buzzword? Everything is infused.
The Identity Crisis of Beer as Seen By The Grumpy Beer Guy
Where will the insanity end? More importantly, where did it begin? When did craft beer lose its way and wildly veer from its seemingly solid moorings? It’s a full-on, four alarm, DEFCON 1 crisis of identity in the craft beer world. How does one explain it?
Grain, hops, yeast and water. Boom. Done. What’s so complex? Used to be, not so much.
Head back a few decades to a bar in Anytown, USA, and here’s the exchange you’d witness between a barkeep and a patron.
Barkeep: “What’ll ya have?”
Barkeep: “Comin’ right up.”
Patron: “Say, what’s that spot on Gorbachev’s head?”
So what happened? How and why did beer become so complex? Four ingredients, right?
Well, there’s chemistry involved. And special equipment. And taste evolution. And the internet. And Rick Astley. And fedoras. Of course you must have multiple recipes and facial hair and the right glassware and the perfect pairings and the appropriate temperature and snazzy labels and punny names and social media platforms and a mesh cap and a zillion styles and a crowbar to pry your beer out of the new thick plastic six-pack can holder that is great for the environment but still a pain in the ass (can’t we all agree on that, at least?).
The craft beer deluge began quietly enough with the stalwarts, the silverbacks — the Sierra Nevadas and the Anchor Steams among few others. That was all well and good until something clicked and it was, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
First came the hops, hops and more hops mentality. Everything became Hoptastic. It wasn’t a good craft beer unless a faint green cloud of hops vapor hovered over your pint glass of Hoptacular Hoppiness Ale.
Then it became time to fire up the alcohol booster rockets. After all, this is America, where everything must be bigger, better, faster, and stronger. So went the beer, and before we knew it, ABV became a conversation topic. To those of us new to this conversation, there was confusion, and it resembled an Abbott and Costello routine.
“What’s the ABV?”
“The ABV. What is it?”
“You mean my uncle’s Jeep? His four-wheel drive?”
“Is that a metaphor?”
“I just want a beer.”
“Fine, how about a Gose?”
“You mean like Casper?”
“Gose. It’s a style of beer. Want one?”
“Depends. How much alcohol does it have?
But you had to know the ABV answer because ignorance was dangerous, especially if this movement was kicking in as you were finishing up college, where the goal of beer consumption was volume not taste. Remember that morning when this lesson thudded behind your eyelids? You woke up wondering if you’d smoked a hop-filled cigar right before bed, and your tongue felt like the rug in a camel tent. Or was that just me?
And then hops and malt were no longer enough. There had to be fruit. Blueberries and oranges, with hints of kiwi and notes of lime. And there were beer tastings and classes where someone handed you paper and pencil to keep track of what was on the nose and what the finish was like and how much mango you got in that sip.
Here’s the deal—if what you’re drinking tastes more like fruit than beer, you don’t like beer. This is not a judgment, it’s a fact.
When I first began drinking coffee, I took it with cream and sugar, and plenty of it. I didn’t like it until the spoon stood up. One morning, my father watched me prepare my morning cup and said, “You must not like coffee.”
“What do you mean? I love coffee.”
What Does This All Mean?
Now, much older and a little wiser, I get it. And back to my original question. Why all the hops and the fruit and the skyrocketing alcohol content? Here’s the answer: Gary Coleman, Corey Haim, Macaulay Culkin and Dustin Diamond.
To name a few.
You see, folks, the story of craft beer could have been the tragic tale of a child star mired in the narcissistic bog of overnight success. As people clamored for the attention of child stars, the child stars, drunk with ego and immaturity, forgot who they were. To me, in fact, they didn’t have much of a chance to figure it out in the first place, and a downfall was almost certain.
Will craft beer’s meteoric popularity lead to an unfortunate flameout for the industry?
I don’t think so.
After all, Neil Patrick Harris managed to shrug off the shadow of Doogie Howser, while Drew Barrymore rose from the ashes of a brief alcoholic conflagration following her E.T. success. And look at Donnie Wahlberg. His New Kids on the Block fame and awful lyricism did little to hamper his rise. So not only is there hope, but there exists a fantastic upside that a quick glance at politics helps put into perspective.
The Power of Choice
In politics, you have a choice but that only takes you so far. You pull the lever for your choice and hope the majority of your fellow voters do the same. If they do? Great. If they don’t? Wait a few more years, and live with someone else’s choice.
And, thus, the glory of beer’s present success. If you want to go home with a six pack of a Helles lager, you don’t have to settle for a Russian imperial stout named after the darkest of dark forests. Choice is good.
I live in Atlanta’s northern suburbs where women do their mid-day grocery shopping in tennis skirts. I once played in a neighborhood poker game where the conversation revolved around fluctuating sod prices and yard service companies. Yep, it’s the burbs. And I like it here. In these neighborhoods, parents ward off speedy drivers with those nuclear-green, plastic turtles and “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” signs.
There are garden clubs and ultra-conservatives, manicured lawns and strip malls.
But tucked into one of those strip malls, right up the road from my house, is a great little place called Moondog Growlers, with forty beers on tap representing breweries from ten different states, two foreign countries, and an ABV scale that runs from 3.9% to 11%.
What if I want a growler and a six-pack? I head a few miles north to Ale Yeah! in Roswell, where I can peruse the shelves while the guy behind the counter fills my grower order.
And isn’t this a wonderful problem to have?
So I can get grumpy about the broad definition of beer, or I can celebrate it. However I choose to react, it’s nice to know I can do so with a pint of a simple pale ale while my friend across the table sips something infused with something.