Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.
These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.
It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?
In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.
But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.
But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)
These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.
For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?
It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.
I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.
What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?
Last night when reading Mitch Steele’s book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, I came across this excerpt from a poem by British poet A. E. Housman which Steele used as a chapter epigraph. I recognized two lines, which will be familiar to many of my readers:
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.
Spot the familiar lines? I’ll explain just in case. The quote “Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man” is referenced frequently in beer culture. It appears on T-shirts and in books, and is quoted endlessly on websites dealing with homebrewing and craft beer.
It’s one of those quotes we use to validate our passion, to reclaim some respect in a world that doesn’t always understand our love of beer and occasionally confuses us with the common alcoholic. With such quotes, we seek to remind the world that many drinkers are also great thinkers: from poets (Housman) to politicians (another famous quote is uncertainly attributed to Benjamin Franklin) to philosophers (ditto, Plato).
The Housman quote has always caught my eye because of the reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote to – in his own words – “justify the ways of God to men”, something Housman appears to claim beer can do even better. I’m not Milton’s biggest fan, but I’ve read and enjoyed Paradise Lost and was always impressed that Housman seemed to echo one of my beliefs: that a good beer is a work of art as inspiring and enlightening as the world’s great stories. But I never read the rest of Housman’s poem until today.
So imagine my surprise when I read the last two lines above: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.”
Wait, what? Did Housman just say that ale is for guys who can’t think?
I was shocked and confused. I felt unfairly ridiculed and indignant. Was Housman calling beer drinkers morons? Was the malt/Milton quip actually intended as a mordant satire of the self-professed mental acuity of beer drinkers Housman saw as deluded, stupid oafs? Worse still, had beer lovers around the world been bandying this quote around proudly but out of context, little realizing that if Housman were still alive he’d be laughing at us behind his awe-inspiring mustache?
Beer guys aren’t smart? Preposterous! I mean, we all know someone who fits the Hank Hill profile: a canned-lager guzzler of simple tastes, few words and fewer thoughts. But that’s just a guy who drinks beer. A beer guy is a different breed of cat entirely. Beer guys are typically nerds of a unique variety: walking encyclopedias of zythological wisdom, holding databases worth of information in their heads about beer styles, hop profiles, and personal tasting notes collected over years of self-study. Many of the smartest and most educated people I know are beer guys, and are also brilliant in other unrelated professional/creative fields. And that’s not even counting the many scientifically-minded beer writers I don’t know personally, but who have amazed me with complex descriptions of brewing chemistry and biology in terms far beyond the comprehension of my degree in English literature and classical studies.
Which brings me back to Housman, and the fact that if there’s one beer-related skill I learned in college (let’s qualify that with in class) it’s how to analyze a poem about beer. If I wanted to understand what Housman was trying to say, I needed to read the poem in its entirety. It’s entitled “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” and the complete text of it is here. It’s from a collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad, and I’ll spare you the chore of getting through a full analysis of the poem. I’ve written enough of those for one life.
The gist of it is that some drinking buddies complain to their poet friend that the poems he recites are depressing, and they’d rather have him sing a dancing song to cheer them up. The poet replies that if they want cheer, they need look no further than the beer in their cups. But he cautions his friends that the joy gained by drinking is false and temporary, and once the buzz is past, the harsh realities of life remain. Poetry, he says, should be somber, to inure oneself against these harsh realities.
The poet doesn’t have anything against beer or the people who drink it; in fact, he’s a lover of it himself. He calls it “livelier than the Muse”, and better than Milton at showing humanity a fleeting glimpse of the divine. The “fellows whom it hurts to think” are all of us – beer guys, wine guys, even guys who don’t drink. He’s not saying we’re stupid and it hurts our brains to think, but that we are human and it hurts our souls to think about the world’s imperfections.
And so my short-lived indignation on behalf of my fellow beer nerds proved unnecessary. Far from making fun of us, Housman offers a poignant, if somewhat sobering, message on the role of alcohol and art in our lives. All things considered, it’s a pro-beer message, though with a warning that beer offers only a temporary distraction from reality (but what else can we ask for from the sensory pleasures of food, drink or entertainment?).
But in context, the quote isn’t quite the joyous celebration of beer’s awesome power that I thought it was, and I bet I’m not the only one surprised. It’s a valuable lesson in the importance of learning the context of anyone’s words before we go around quoting them.
Several days ago I celebrated my 37th birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the day I became a homebrewer.
The day I became a homebrewer was not the day I brewed my first beer. That day was long ago in the remote fog of memory we call the 1990’s. It was the year I turned 21, and I got a 2-gallon Mr. Beer starter kit for Christmas. It came with a can of prehopped malt extract and called for a pound of table sugar. There was no boil and I think Fleischmann’s baking yeast was involved. At bottling (a week later!) I spooned loose sugar into each bottle for priming as directed.
The beers tasted like cider vinegar. Carbonation varied wildly from bottle to bottle. At the time, I assumed bad taste and inconsistency were inevitable. After all, I made beer at home, dude! I laughed at the comments and pinched faces of the friends drinking with me and enjoyed the buzz. Remember, I was 21.
And despite the results, I had fallen in love with the idea of brewing my own beer.
I was also trying to finish college, and didn’t find time to brew again. When I left home for grad school, Mr. Beer traveled with me. But it stayed in the box, and for years I kept it in the closet of one apartment after another until one day I finally just threw it out, vowing to brew again “someday”.
Four years ago, I got another starter kit on my birthday: the Coopers Micro-Brew Kit. In some ways it was like Mr. Beer grown up. The fermenter was bigger (30 liters/7.9 gallons). It came with proper brewing yeast and sugar drops for consistent priming. But the extract was still canned and prehopped, it still incorporated simple sugar (dextrose boxed with the kit) and recommended no boil. The beer also came out cidery, not how I wanted.
But I also got several books about brewing that birthday. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew piqued my interest immediately and I read them from cover to cover. My homebrew wasn’t great, but I was reading about how great homebrew could be. I soon understood why extract-and-sugar kits yielded cidery beers. I realized what my own mistakes were. I looked forward to the next batch and considered what I would do better.
I had become a living embodiment of learning, ambition and self-challenge in the pursuit of better beer. I had become a homebrewer.
I brewed four Coopers batches before I ever touched grain or hops. Then I started working with extract, steeping grains and hop pellets. Then partial mashes for a year, and my first mead and cider. Less than two years after I got my Coopers kit, I brewed my first all-grain beer.
Now when I drink a pint of beer made from scratch from my own recipe, I’m often amazed how far I’ve come. And from what humble beginnings.
Extract-and-sugar systems like Coopers or Mr. Beer (which was purchased by Coopers in April 2012) are looked down on by many homebrewers. Some of that contempt is deserved. These systems oversimplify brewing to a fault: by limiting exposure to real ingredients and brewing processes, they take a lot of risk out of brewing, but at the cost of greatness. It’s almost impossible to fail to make beer with them, but equally impossible to make very good beer with them as sold. It’s disheartening to think of how many “homebrew curious” people must walk away from the hobby forever after tasting one batch of Coopers or Mr. Beer and assuming that’s as good as it gets.
There are also those who deride the kits for taking all the brewing out of “brewing”, and compare them to powdered drink mixes or boxed cake mix. Okay, maybe. You can’t just pour tomato sauce out of a jar onto microwaved pasta and say you made spaghetti from scratch (at least not in the Marchese family). You get more out of brewing when you put more of yourself into it, sure, but everyone has to start somewhere. With extract-and-sugar kits, you learn the basics of sanitation, fermentation, and carbonation: three essential skills a new brewer has to master, and for which there is simply no workaround in the home setting.
So extract-and-sugar is “brewing” more so than buying a six-pack is, just like jarred spaghetti sauce is “cooking” more so than going to a restaurant is. To say Coopers/Mr. Beer is “not brewing” implies that there is such a thing a “real homebrewing”, which I find a bit pompous.
Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by our hobby? Walking into a homebrew shop for the first time can be terrifying for the uninitiated: shelf after shelf of mysterious products, bro-chatter filling the air with arcane jargon, and opinionated staff members with eccentric facial hair. My wife Lisa once ranked the homebrew shop as equal with the neighborhood comic book store as an intimidating bastion of male geekdom (and she lists beer and comics among the things she geeks on).
And there’s the cost. Extract-and-sugar kits offer a reasonably priced entry point into a hobby that can be expensive to break into, with a minimum of specialized equipment and ingredients so that if you don’t get bitten by the bug, you haven’t blown the baby’s college fund on shit you’ll never use again. These days, there are other inexpensive options available such as the Brooklyn Brew Shop 1-gallon all-grain kits that can be found at many non-specialty stores. Those kits didn’t exist when I started brewing, so I don’t know anything about how good they are. I’ll admit they seem cool.
But all-grain brewing introduces a lot of variables. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Brooklyn Brew Shop kits produce better beer than extract-and-sugar kits in a best-case scenario. But if something goes wrong, there’s a lot to troubleshoot. Why not master a few basic techniques first and then learn additional techniques one at a time?
Ultimately, there are many paths to the same goal of making the beer you like in the way you enjoy making it. The point I’m making is just that there’s no shame in the simple extract-and-sugar kits. With a little knowledge, like I had, they can be the start down a road to bigger challenges and better beer. And that, after all, is why we do it.
I’m pretty sure every homebrewer and beer geek has at least one personal story about how they surprised – and perhaps even converted – some non-craft drinker they know with the awesome power of real beer.
Maybe one night in college you handed an Imperial IPA to your malt liquor chugging buddy, and he quickly commended it before twisting open another 8 Ball. Or maybe you once convinced a co-worker to try a fruity wheat beer at a happy hour instead of a hard lemonade, and she now stocks her fridge with lambics. Or maybe you triumphed over decades of wine supremacy by pulling off a really successful beer pairing with a dinner, to the amazement of friends and/or family. My latest such story is a variation on that theme: a 3-course dinner with beer pairings, served in my own dining room.
The day was Thanksgiving (November 22 for those reading outside the U.S.) and the objects of my proselytization were my wife Lisa’s family: my mother-in-law and father-in-law in town from New Orleans, and my sister-in-law and her husband visiting from the United Kingdom. To set the stage, let me introduce them instead as: a coffee drinker, a whiskey drinker, a Bud Light drinker, and a foodie/pub manager from the south of England.
Out of everyone in attendance, Lisa was the only person who was as convinced of the greatness of this idea as I was. She co-envisioned this event with me but couldn’t join us in the beer tasting thanks to an unfortunate medical condition called “expecting our first child” that isn’t expected to clear up for several months. This toast is for you, X.
The dinner itself was rather unorthodox. We haven’t done turkey on Thanksgiving in my house for nearly ten years, and saw no good reason to start now. We decided to build an utterly un-Thanksgiving-y menu with several commercial Central Texas beers from my cellar as inspiration, while also giving everyone in the family a chance to cook something. Here’s what we came up with.
I should disclose at this point that I don’t usually cook. Brewed beverages and the occasional steak are all I make that’s fit for human consumption, so most of the actual cooking (except for the steak) was done by Lisa and my brother-in-law. But I did choose the beer, so I’ve snatched the right to bill myself as director of the whole production.
Salad Course: Romaine with blue cheese, pecans, dried cranberries, and homemade mustard vinaigrette paired with a bomber of South Austin Brewing Company Saison D’Austin. As a longtime fan of this ubiquitous local saison, I had been dreaming about this pairing for a few days beforehand. This is a very light and refreshing saison, and everyone at the table enjoyed it (especially my sister-in-law the Bud Light drinker). But I found it lacked the backbone to stand up to the bold flavors of the blue cheese and mustard. Something with a bit more spice and/or funk would have served the dish better, so next time I’ll go with something a little more intense – a more phenolic Belgian or something with some Brett – and save the Saison D’Austin for a cheese course.
Main Course: Grilled sirloin with a coffee-chipotle rub served with a relish of tomatoes, tarragon and mustard; dill-roasted tricolor potatoes and oven-roasted asparagus paired with a bomber of Jester King / Mikkeller Weasel Rodeo Imperial Oatmeal Stout. The rub and the steak were the only food items I prepared myself, carefully trying to match the flavor profile of the beer, which features chipotle and kopi luwak coffee. Coffee and pepper were more pronounced in the steaks than the beer, if I do say so myself. But the pairing was a match made in heaven, and the in-laws enjoyed it all so much that we actually drank not just one bomber of Weasel Rodeo, but also the second bomber I had chilled just in case.
Dessert: Pecan pie from the Salt Lick paired with a 12-ounce bottle of Real Ale Sisyphus Barleywine Ale from 2011. Okay, so we didn’t actually make the pie, and I had no idea how it was going to pair with the 2011 Sisyphus, which I had never tried. As it turned out, the rest of the family were stuffed and satisified by now, so the barleywine was shared by me and my brother-in-law alone; 6 ounces for each of us was more than enough. The beer was robust and nutty with toffee overtones, and I thought quite a good match for my favorite pie in the Austin area, though I found myself wishing I had some good vanilla bean ice cream to complete the ensemble. I wasn’t disappointed for long, though, because I soon found myself satiated and … well, let’s just say “sleepy”.
So. A fantastic dinner that we had fun preparing together, and a great opportunity to demonstrate for visiting family why I’m so excited about the Central Texas beer scene. Hopefully I even got them thinking about beer in new ways. Would I do it again? Hell yes. And since there’s nothing “Thanksgiving” about this meal, I may do it again before next year’s holiday season. I hope it inspires you to try something similar.
A friend reaches into his cooler at a BYOB party and pulls out two cans from Austin Beerworks: a Pearl Snap Pils and a Fire Eagle IPA. Knowing his preference, I hold my hand out for the IPA while he keeps the Pils. As our cans crack open in unison, he asks me, “Why don’t I like that one again?”
I think for a split second. “Because it’s got more hops, which makes it more bitter,” I say. “But it’s also sweeter and has more alcohol. It’s really just more everything.”
I’ve opened with a quip, and I’m considering going into more detail. But while I’m thinking about what to say next, everyone at the table laughs, and the conversation resumes. The moment has passed, and the chance to say more about what makes those beers different is gone.
Of the friends I hang out with regularly, I’m #1 or #2 in beer geekdom, and the only one currently homebrewing. That makes me the “beer guy” in the group. All my friends like craft beer, but most aren’t into it like I am. They come to me with their beer questions. I’ve been asked to order for my friends at bars and to suggest thematically appropriate beers for parties. It’s a role I’m honored to play, but it comes with responsibility.
I’d love for my friends to love beer as much as I do. If they knew it like I do, they’d love it like I do, right? I must tell them everything I know! Right?
But no. When asked a question, I have to be careful with my answer. I have to give just the right amount of information. To cover the basics in enough detail to keep their interest piqued, but not to get so bogged down in the minutiae that I lose them along the way.
At the BYOB party, if I answered my friend with an hour-long lecture on the difference between the noble hops in the Pils and American hops in the IPA, I can just about bet no one at that table would ever ask me a question about beer again. I know I’m a damned interesting guy, but even I don’t want to listen to me speaking for that long. If I scare my friend away from wanting to ask me about beer, then I’m doing it wrong. The mission is to nurture his curiosity, give him information so he can make a decision about when and where he’ll try that IPA on his on (if ever).
So I chose a simple, funny answer. A few facts and a tacit invitation to ask me more. He didn’t ask me more – not then, anyway, but maybe I had planted a seed.
I hope everyone reading this has at least one or two people they can seriously geek out about beer with. But even if you do, I know you’d love to get all the rest of your friends on board too. But they’re not all going to. Some may be on their way, and some of them will get there eventually. Not all, but some.
What can we do to help them along? Be there for them, but don’t push. Be their sherpa on the climb up the mountain. Give them the information and the encouragement they need. They’re your friends. You know them. You know what they need to hear. Answer their questions but don’t bore them or scare them away. Let them take baby steps. Craft beer is booming, and to the neophyte, the options are intimidating (don’t we all remember our first time?). Help them navigate those options with comfortable sojourns outside their comfort zone, and don’t go too wild too fast. Be gentle. They’re new to this.
Offer a schwarzbier to a friend who always reaches for Guinness. Offer a light beer drinker a Bohemian-style pilsner or even an APA. If they like that, give them an IPA (not an Imperial!). If your friend trusts you enough to take your recommendation, honor that by introducing them to something they’ll like, and thank you for later.
I see it as a sacred duty. But of course, I get a little too serious about stuff like this sometimes.
As for my friend, I talked with him again a couple of days later. He told me that after spending the previous afternoon downing Pearl Snaps, his tastebuds had gotten tired of it and so he went looking for something with a little more flavor. He reached for one of those IPAs left over from the BYOB, and enjoyed it so much he had a second one.
Mission accomplished. Phase one, at least.