The Latest From Lew

Just Because You Can…
“Any style of beer can be made stronger than the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style’s character and the additional alcohol. The brewer must provide the base style that is being created stronger and/or appropriately identify the style created (for example: double alt, triple fest, imperial porter or quadruple Pilsener).”
That’s what Garrett Oliver read to our judging panel at the Great American Beer Festival just two days ago. We were getting ready to judge the “Other Strong Ale or Lager” category, facing some big beers of 8% and up; Garrett was the table captain. The whole point of the category was to cover beers that had bulged out the top of their “base” category, the so-called “imperial” or “double” beers. (Get all the 2006 GABF winners here.)
I’m not against up-throttling beers. Doublebock came along over a century ago, and has proven itself in the marketplace and on my own happy tongue. More recently, double IPAs and double red ales have proved popular enough to have been granted their own categories. This category is kind of the proving ground for super-sizing beers.
It was our job to test the mettle of these whoppers. We faced imperial nut browns, double (or triple) pilseners, overcharged malt liquors (“What’s this,” I asked, “Olde English 1100?”), and super wits. It’s easy to make fun of beers like this – and I have, in the past – but there were two disturbing aspects in the beers entered in this category.
First, this is what passes for much of the vaunted “innovation” in American brewing: turning up the volume. Honestly, I realize that it’s not as simple as just dumping in more malt. There are issues of yeast health, proper attenuation, and maintaining drinkability. But come on. What we’re talking about is a couple brewers sitting around and saying, “Damn, wouldn’t it be cool if we made a bitter at 9%? Dude, that would ROCK!”
Sorry, that’s not innovation. It’s about as creative as making a burrito with twice the stuff. Sure, you have to use a bigger tortilla, maybe even make them yourself to get them big enough, and you have to put in more spices to balance the additional beans and beef, but…putting more beans in a burrito doesn’t make it something else. It’s just a bigger burrito.
I don’t mind bigger burritos. I ate a couple whoppers while I was in Denver and I enjoyed them, much as I enjoy a well-made big beer. But when a big burrito is full of undercooked beans, or it’s blowing out through the ends because it’s got too much stuff for the tortilla, or the ingredients aren’t fresh…it’s not an imperial burrito, it’s just more sucky burrito to plow through.
That’s the problem with some of these beers. They just aren’t well-made, or even well-formulated. There are an unfortunate number of these steroidal monsters that are flabby and fat with malt. I tasted an overstrength sweet stout that used a whacking great shot of hops to cover how overly sweet the fortifying process had left it. Sweet stout with a big bitter finish? What the hell’s that?
It’s a mess. There was a “pilsner” that was hugely malty, and it was thick, heavy, sweetly hoppy, almost syrupy. Are those words you want to hear when you’re thinking about getting a pils? So many of these beers miss the point. A super witbier? What is the best characteristic of a witbier? It’s refreshing. An 8% beer is a lot of things, but “refreshing” is not usually the descriptor that pops to mind.
I’ve said before that American brewers have swung too far from the pure pleasures of lager beers. We react against them because that’s what had hammered beer variety almost completely flat in America, an unending sea of bland lagers. But we’re throwing the baby out with the spargewater: lagers are not necessarily bland, any more than ales are necessarily interesting. Believe me, I judged American “hefeweizens” as well, and that’s plenty bland.
I think we are making an equally big mistake in swinging too far from the whole German model of brewing. The Germans don’t do a lot of experimentation. They stick to making what they know, and they put all their energy into making that the best, most consistent way they know how. They don’t have a lot of variety in their beers, it’s true, but the beers they do make are very well made.
I don’t think American brewers should stop innovating. I also judged strong barrel-aged beers, and although there were a few clinkers, this is a wonderful category of beers, started only 10 years ago. But after tasting a shocking number of beers that were tainted with diacetyl or DMS, beers that were oxidized or simply stale, I do think that maybe we should remember that it’s a good idea to master the basics before trying to improvise too much.
We need to reach a compromise position between the German model and the Belgian. Innovate, certainly, but keep your focus on technique and solid formulation. Avoid the temptation to throw in more malt or hops because it would be cool. As an old girlfriend always used to say, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
The beer that finally won the category’s gold medal was a wheatwine from Rubicon in Sacramento. It was magnificent; complex, rich, and not cloying or over-hopped. It was a well-thought out beer. Innovative? Maybe not; wheatwines have been done before, although they’re far from what I’d call a popular style. But it was quite different, and definitely well-crafted. It was one of the better beers I had last week. Way to go, Rubicon.

We’re suckers for Imperials, but Lew is usually right about these things. It’s just hard to find fault with a beer that has a ton of taste and clocks in at 8% ABV plus. Unless it costs too much.


~ by bojangles on October 9, 2006.

One Response to “The Latest From Lew”

  1. No doubt. I do love most imperials (especially imperial IPAs) but just loading more hops or more malt is not going to make it a better beer. Just a stronger one. Beer should not be a test of endurance; it’s not Fear Factor. I am hoping that American brewers don’t do the “Bud in reverse” thing and make all beers so strong and loaded with alcohol that it renders them undrinkable.

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