Monday, February 4, 2008

This Imperial Post (or Some Comments From Places That Are Not Wisconsin)

Only two comments for today, both related to things we do not have in Madison:

A. Thankfully Wisconsin breweries are mostly free of the habits of others to develop "imperial" versions of beers that are in no way "big" beers. Take, for example, the Sam Adams Imperial Pilsner. A pilsner is a beer known for being a light, refreshing, soft, subtle beer. By beefing up the malt bill to increase the alcohol, it defeats the "light" nature of the drink. Pilsners should have some hoppy bitterness and aroma, but it seems silly to overload a beer with low-bitterness noble hops - it defeats the purpose of the subtle nature of the pilsner hop profile. Then consider the "Imperial Wheat Ale." A thick, alcohol-ridden sipping beer - why even call it a wheat ale? The "Imperial" additions defeat the entire, refreshing, purpose of the drink. You want to take big gulps to quench that thirst? Think twice when that beer is 10% ABV. So, what should they call it? It doesn't have the fruitiness of the Belgian Ale that it more resembles. The comments to last Friday's posts point out the inherent problems to marketing to the American public: namely, you have to call it something that people are familiar with so that they have a basis for understanding what it is like even if that label is not entirely accurate. In JT Whitney's case they make slightly off-style beers - and in this case, it is a beer that is interesting in and of itself, but its label creates an irreconsilable contradiction that only reflects poorly on the brewery.

2. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is also free of beers from Stone Brewery out of San Diego. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Stone is considered one of the top ten breweries in the world (or at least the country). Of the others, it is along with Founders, by far, the most widely distributed. Yet, for some reason, we still cannot get these beers here in Wisconsin. I had the pleasure of a vertical tasting of the 2006 and 2007 Double Bastard. They are amazingly complex, big, malty, bitter, plum and fig creations that demand and compel repeated drinking. But we have no access to them. Granted, there are lots of breweries that we don't have access to (Alaska and Brooklyn just to name a few). And while I would argue that it would be nice to have access to these as well, it is competition from breweries like Stone that make our own breweries better. Stone is willing to test the limits of style in a way that remains drinkable and surprisingly approachable; a philosophy that some of our own breweries could stand to embrace.

Thus, Wisconsin has the good and the bad. Be thankful that we have not embraced the ridiculous creation of big versions of subtle beer styles. However, when undertaken in a thoughtful and responsible manner seemingly normal styles can be made sublime.


  1. What is that I hear? Is it the distant cadence of the jackbooted style Nazis?

    Why not celebrate diversity? The American craft movement would not exist if some anarchistic brewers hadn't dared to challenge the notion that all we needed to drink was more domestic Pilsner. Pushing what were thought to be immutable style guidelines has brought us the rich selection that we now have instead of just the rigid "brewed-by-the-book" major-market industrial beers. Why not an Imperial Pilsner or a Wheat Wine? They can be interesting and enjoyable to drink, too.

    Style rigidity is not where the progressive end of the business is going. Craft drinkers are much more entertained by new and interesting variations on the old styles.

    All of which makes me wonder about the concept of the Fauerbock Challenge as a beer contest. I find it odd that a brewery would have a contest to see who could make the best example of a crappy 50's lager. It is clear that Fauerbock, Hausmann, Esser's and others are banking on nostalgia-trippers wanting to drink an authentic version of the beer that put them out of biz in the first place. Why?? To repeat going out of biz again? Fred Gray won, which doesn't surprise me, as Gray's long ago mastered the skill of brewing bland beer. Gray's was on the cutting edge once, with their Oatmeal Stout and Honey Ale when nobody else was brewing interesting styles, but they have been slipping gradually into being a bit-player in the craft biz. Now they are a nonpareil maker of Root Beer, mostly. The offerings at the Tied House are seemingly aimed at the wine-cooler crowd, for the most part. That might be why I don't see any hint of a craft-beer drinking crowd there.

    For a local example of how brewing non-traditional envelope-pushing styles can help a business, look at the Grumpy Troll in Mt. Horeb. Your favorite brewer, Rich Becker, brewed there as a side-gig for about 6 years. He made beer that spanned the spectrum from Bland to Astringent to Spoiled. Not one hoppy beer was made there in 6 years! Just endless variations on yellow beer. The craft-beer drinkers wouldn't go anywhere near the place. A year ago a new owner took over and hired a brewer that is not afraid to experiment with wild and crazy styles (and makes them well) and beer sales have gone wild.

    Maybe someday we will even see an Imperial Pilsner there....

    Dare to dream!

  2. Love the blog, keep up the good work. What are your thoughts on New Glarus Imperial Weizen coming out this month or the dangerously drinkable Dancing Man wheat which clocks in at 7.2% abv for a style know for its refreshing, highly-drinkable nature?

  3. Goose:

    Rich consulted for the Grumpy Troll, and his primary role was to develop their early recipes and train their brewer. The Grumpy Troll's former brewer is a guy named Stephen, who now brews at New Glarus. Stephen was only working part-time at the Grumpy Troll because none of its owners, past or present, would pay him a full-time wage. It was a lousy environment for brewing good beer. The Grumpy Troll's new brewer has done a great job. However, unless he's doing it for 20 hours a week at ~$10/hr, can you see why it's pretty silly to blame all of their past problems on their old brewer?


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