Monday, August 18, 2008

A Note On Balance

Our next entry in the Quivey's Grove Writing Competition comes from local student broadcaster, Matt Lange. It addresses one of my favorite topics, balance - and more specifically the lack of it in the modern American Craft Brewing industry. So, without further ado:

A Note on Balance
By Matt Lange
Co-host of Beer Talk Today, Saturdays at 4 PM on 91.7 FM WSUM
When Stone brewing came to Madison a few weeks back, they came on strong.  Seemingly out of nowhere Stone was on tap at Brasserie V, their posters were up at Barriques, and any liquor store with a decent craft beer selection had their bottles. 
Being that I live in Wisconsin, I have a very mid-western-centric view of the craft beer world, and I’d never had a Stone beer.  How did they gain such a presence in Madison so quickly?  Were they really so good that anyone with a taste for good beer was beating down the door to get it, or was there a big push from distributors to get a foot in the door of an already flooded Madison craft beer market? 
I went to Brasserie V to investigate.  While waiting at the bar I noticed a Stone coaster that told me that I probably wouldn’t like their beer, that “it is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth.”  I realize that this is just posturing, but I was still quite put off.  Who the hell are they to tell me what I’m going to like? Don’t you think that people who are in a beer bar that carries Stone beer probably have a taste for high quality craft beer? Arrogant Bastard is certainly an appropriate name.
Even with my anger at their ridiculous marketing, I do love a big beer when it’s done well, and I was intrigued, so I decided to give it a try anyway.  I ordered the Ruination IPA, which came highly recommended.  The first sip had a pretty impressive hop flavor, with a slight warming alcohol, but the hops were the center of the beer.  As I kept drinking the huge bitterness kept growing and growing, and by the time I got to the end of the pint my taste buds were so destroyed the bitterness was all I could taste.  It was one big glass of bitter.
I wrote Ruination off as something to please the hop-heads who want nothing more from a beer, but with the pre-Great Taste of the Midwest shindig at the Brasserie, I had to give Stone another try.  I mean, “Vertical Epics,” how could those not be good?  A companion gave me a taste of the 08.08.08 epic, and it seemed to have an identical hop profile to the Ruination, with a hint of Belgian yeast character that seemed to make it a bit more balanced (granted, I just had a taste).  I ordered the 07.07.07, which the Stone rep described as a big Belgian Saison style.  I love Saisons, and the reason they are so good is because they strike a fantastic balance between all the different characteristics: the malt, the hops and the spicy yeast notes are all there but no one thing dominates in a well made Saison.  But Stone does not seem to be a brewery of moderation or balance, and the 07.07.07 was no exception.  This time it wasn’t the hops but the spices that absolutely dominated the brew to the point of making it nearly undrinkable.  Coriander, clove, and cinnamon punched you in the face with nothing there to balance out the extreme flavors.  For the first time I can remember I actually had to send a beer back, because I couldn’t take more than a third of a pint, nor could I convince any of my craft beer loving friends to have more than a sip. 
Yet Stone is clearly doing something right to be expanding to Madison so rapidly.  They also have very strong ratings on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, especially for the Arrogant Bastard (which I have yet to try a full glass of).  But beers like the Ruination and the 07.07.07 seem to be part of the “extreme beer” movement that is sweeping the craft brewing industry right now.  There seems to be a race toward who can make the biggest, boldest, hoppiest beer in the history of man.  I find the results of this unofficial competition to be almost always bad, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Through the course of doing my radio show over the past few months (shameless plug: Beer Talk Today, Saturdays at 4 PM on 91.7 FM and, I’ve gotten a chance to talk with many brewers and other people from the craft beer industry, and almost everyone I have talked to, without any specific questions on the subject, have expressed distaste for the extreme beer movement.  Brian Haltinner, the owner of Maduro, felt that extreme beer is coming to an end.
“I think there’s been an explosion of weird extreme styles,” Haltinner said. “I think we’ll settle down into what we do best, the American ale style, and also experimentation with traditional styles of Belgian beers.  I hope so at least.”
Matt Van Nest, who as owner of Brasserie V is clearly a fan of Stone, had a very similar sentiment when asked where he sees the future of American Craft Beer.
“Craft breweries have already done extreme beers in all the styles, so I think you’ll just see refining those styles and getting better at what they do, because I don’t really know where else you would go with it at this point,” he said.
Now I don’t think that being refined and being extreme are mutually exclusive.  Case and point is Bell’s Hop Slam, the 10% abv double IPA that has tons of hop flavor and yet is oh so drinkable.  I had a chance to talk with Larry Bell at the Great Taste and ask him about Hop Slam.
“I believe in making sure there’s enough malt in there to balance things out,” he said. “Yes, there’s bitter there, but it’s really all about hop flavor.”
Bell also suggested a possible geographic explanation.
“That’s probably a difference between us here in the middle part of the country compared to some of the west coast people,” he said.
So maybe that’s it; maybe it’s my Midwestern attitude that causes me to prefer things that aren’t quite as extreme but a little more refined.  Or maybe Stone is right and I don’t “have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate” their extreme beers.  Either way, I’ll take my balanced Midwestern brews any day.


  1. I couldn't agree more. The whole thing was sort of "Emperor's New Clothes," wasn't it? Everyone sitting there drinking away happily with all these "amazing beers" that were bordering on undrinkable.

  2. Yeah, I tasted the 08 and thought it was better, but the 07 was just bad. I really love Brasserie V and Matt the owner is a great guy so I feel bad writing about it, but that's just how it was. One point that i should have mentioned though is that these beers are meant to be aged and consumed on 12.12.2012, so the 07 was designed to be aged for five years. SO maybe the spices will chill down by then and turn into a complex, drinkable beer. Only time will tell but for now it's not good.
    But I didn't want this to be an anti-stone article, more just using them as an example of a trend I don't like in craft beer.

  3. I also find myself in complete agreement on this issue. I don't mind trying a "kitchen sink" variety at the Great Taste or a situation like that, but then it's acceptable to dump the beer if it didn't work. But these are almost always experimentals, not necessarily destined for the taproom. Just because you can doesn't always mean you ought to.

    And if I had seen a coaster like that I certainly wouldn't have bothered with Stone - there's a line between beer snob and asshole, even if it is tongue-in-cheek. That being said, I really enjoy the Stone Pale. I've only tried the Arrogant Bastard once. I'm not 100% sold on it yet but I'll for sure try it again.

  4. I for one tried stone because of the Arrogant Bastard add blitz. When I first read the "You're not refined enough to like our beer" bit I couldn't stop laughing. I thought anybody that takes themselves with this little seriousness can't be all bad and bought a six pack of the Oaked Arrogant Bastard which I thoroughly enjoyed. To each his own I guess....

  5. I actually finally tried a full pint of the Arrogant Bastard and it was a good brew. I felt like it had a very similar hop flavor to the Ruination but the extra malt in there made it a lot better. And like I said, A LOT of people like Ruination and Stone in general, so, as you said, to each his own.


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