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 styleís 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)."
Thatís 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.)
Iím 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
It was our job to test the mettle of these whoppers.
We faced imperial nut browns, double (or triple) pilseners, overcharged
malt liquors ("Whatís this," I asked, "Olde English
1100?"), and super wits. Itís easy to make fun of beers
like this Ė and I have, in the past Ė 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 itís not as simple
as just dumping in more malt. There are issues of yeast health, proper
attenuation, and maintaining drinkability. But come on. What weíre
talking about is a couple brewers sitting around and saying, "Damn,
wouldnít it be cool if we made a bitter at 9%? Dude, that would
Sorry, thatís not innovation.
Itís 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, butÖputting more beans in a burrito
doesnít make it something else. Itís just a bigger burrito.
I donít 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 itís blowing out through the ends because itís
got too much stuff for the tortilla, or the ingredients arenít freshÖitís
not an imperial burrito, itís just more sucky burrito to
Thatís the problem with some of these beers. They
just arenít 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 hellís
Itís 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 youíre thinking about getting a pils? So many of these beers miss
the point. A super witbier? What is the best characteristic of a
witbier? Itís refreshing. An 8% beer is a lot of things, but
"refreshing" is not usually the descriptor that pops to mind.
Iíve said before that American brewers have swung
too far from the pure pleasures of lager
beers. We react against them because thatís what had hammered
beer variety almost completely flat in America, an unending sea of bland
lagers. But weíre 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 thatís plenty bland.
I think we are making an equally big mistake in
swinging too far from the whole German model of brewing. The Germans donít
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 donít have a lot of variety in their
beers, itís true, but the beers they do make are very well made.
I donít 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 itís 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, doesnít mean you
The beer that finally won the categoryís 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 theyíre far from what Iíd 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,