Monday, July 26, 2010

What is Beer?

At his blog “Desperately Seeking Session Beer,” Ken Weaver posted a really interesting interview with Dan Carey of New Glarus. The interview was supposed to focus on the Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart (which fit the definition of session beer laid out by Lew Bryson’s Session Beer Project, whether or not they really are sessionable beers), but much of the interview is spent looking at the state of the craft beer world as a whole. There are quite a few interesting opinions and revelations. The first of which is that the next unplugged beer will be an Abt:
“We’re making an Abt. Our next Unplugged will be an Abt, like St. Bernardus or Westvleteren 12, something like that. We’re going to be brewing that here in a few weeks, and that’ll be released in August.”
I thought that the Unplugged Quadruple they made a few years back was pretty good, but really intense. I’m excited to see what their Abt will be like.

Most of the interview focused on something that comes up a lot in conversations with beer geeks: whether “extreme” beers are a good or bad thing for craft beer in general. Dan seems to lean more toward session beer, making some interesting observations about craft beer sales and how extreme beer fits into the market:

“The easiest way for me to say it is, is the extreme beers are doing an important job for the beer business by forcing the medium up. Thirty years ago, a pale ale with 30 IBUs – that was like, woah, this is woah, this is, this is like way out in left field, this is, this is crazy beer. Now we have people who are pushing 100 IBUs and god knows what percent alcohol, so what that does is it pushes the medium up. Although the average person is never going to go for a 100-IBU beer, because these people are pushing the extreme, now the average person who was raised on Coors Light is drinking a 30-IBU beer and liking it. And so I think it’s a good thing.” I never would have thought about extreme beer in this way, but it makes complete sense.

There is one point Dan makes on which I disagree, or at least don’t agree completely, and that I bring up because similar sentiments have been made by many other people at one point or another:

“The problem with and BeerAdvocate is that you get this little snapshot, that people will drink a glass of beer sitting around in their underwear in front of their computer, and you have to scream really loud to be heard, but beer is not meant to be drank that way. It’s a social beverage, and something that you sit around with friends and enjoy. So personally, I don’t want to drink a 9% alcohol beer. Anything over 5 or 6 ounces, I can’t take it, I can’t buy a 22-ounce bottle of 9% alcohol, because I’m going to dump about two-thirds of it down the drain because there’s no way I could drink it.”

This is a very common complaint about the craft beer movement, and one that, setting aside underwear-clad internet-screamers, I can’t really understand. Beer obviously has an important place in larger social situations. At the bar-b-q or the baseball game or the family reunion, beer is, as Kirby Nelson would say, an adjunct to the enjoyment of life. This is one of the things that beer can do, but it’s not the only thing. It can be a beverage that you enjoy without thinking too much about it, or it can be something you analyze and scrutinize. It doesn’t have to be taken seriously, but it can be. Writing off hard-core beer geeks who write reviews and trade beers and take pride in having tasted all of the top fifty beers on rate beer, or whatever it may be, ignores the fact that these internet interactions with like minded obsessives are social interactions, albeit non-traditional ones. And while you may not want to drink a whole 22 oz 9 percent abv beer by yourself, sitting in your living room with a couple of beer geek buddies enjoying that bottle can be a great social experience.

Whenever I hear people say something like “beer is about enjoying a few pints with friends and family on a cool summer evening with the breeze blowing through the trees and bla bla bla…” I always think yes. I love doing that. That is one great thing that beer can do. But it’s not the only thing. It’s far too dynamic a beverage to be shoehorned into only one use, and ignoring or writing off everything else is a bit dismissive. And while this interview focused on all the positive aspects of session beers, of which there are many, I feel like the man who chose to brew an Iced Barley Wine probably agrees with me.


  1. I think the point even "online" interactions being nontraditional social interactions is an important one. These aren't "really" tastings in a vaccuum, and it defintely has all the markings of beer geeks getting together and tasting - all of the reviews start to mention the same things, bigger beers tend to better than session beers, etc.

    And, yeah, keeping in mind the "Imperial Saison", the far from "sessionable" Old English Porter, and the Iced Barley Wine, sessionability and summer evenings are just one of the many places that beer is appropriate.

  2. Agreed that online forums can be alternate social settings. I think it differs, however, when "beer tasting" becomes "beer taste-making": When a "community" has an agenda, when reviewers are competing with one another, when biases are obfuscated by relative anonymity and internet expert/tough-guy syndrome sets in, I cease to think of online interaction as analogous to real-time social interaction. The organic checks and balances of face-to-face human contact get tossed aside, and the social component is secondary to critical one-upsmanship and cork-sniffery becomes the preferred method to assert authority and competence. In this way, I understand Mr. Carey's point. (And I don't think this is unique to the on-line beer review world...)

    But putting aside the social psychology of those participating in online forums in general (and the organizational psychology of beer review forums in particular), I think that the BA's and RB's of the world are a great resource and do a splendid job of raising awareness of the breadth of the industry.

    Wait, what were we talking about again?

  3. I totally agree with your first paragraph, Chris, and agree with many criticisms of BA and RB. I guess my main point was that I hate hearing people say "That's not how you're supposed to enjoy beer, you're supposed to enjoy beer this way!" Which isn't really what Dan was saying, but is something I hear a lot that really bugs me. There is no one way to enjoy beer.

  4. Hallelujah, brother Matt. There is certainly more than one way/place/context to enjoy beer. And it is possible to enjoy more than one type of beer as well. And if you are a Stella fan, there are exactly nine very particular ways to pour a beer (Go, Jeff, go!)

  5. I think DC is making some good points about "trying to be heard" by the underwear crowd. As a side point lets hope the underwear is on and not around the ankles. I like RB and BA for snap shots of a brewery. When I travel I look to these sights for reference on what I should try. As a side note I think New Glarus has enjoyed lots of love on these websites. So they shouldn't complain too much


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