I judged a beer competition recently. I'm no "certified beer
judge," I'm just a beer writer, but they put me on the best of show
panel for the "best beers in New York" at the TAP New York
fest in the Catskills. I gave it my best shot. The other three people on
the panel were homebrewers and enthusiasts, no pros. There was another
four-person panel judging for the "best beers in the Hudson Valley,
again, three homebrewers and enthusiasts and a beer writer: Pat
Ravida, from Yankee Brew News.
We got nine beers. I didn't know whose beers they were, which
is how it should be. So the four of us started sampling, sniffing and
tasting. I ran down through them in pretty quick order, just looking for
ones that either knocked me out or were obvious drops. There were two
quick drops, and one beer that really stood out, an almost Baltic
porter-ish doublebock that I was sure was Wagner Valley's Sled Dog
(turned out to be DJ Swanson's Double Trouble Doublebock from John Harvard's on Long
Island, and my hat's off to him). There was a very hoppy pale ale, a
hefeweizen, and a stout that were also pretty good.
When the rest of the panel was ready, we started talking. One
of my drops went out immediately, the other one of them had picked as
his favorite. I can't speak to this, I really have no idea why. But the
thing that I noticed was that only two of the panel were pushing for the
hoppy pale ale. I thought it was too hoppy for its body, hop tea, and
that's what the other guy with me said. The one woman on the panel
(who I otherwise pretty much completely agreed with) seemed outright
confused by this: it's hoppy, it must be good. Damned if I was going to
bow to that. We prevailed, she let it go, and we compromised by picking
her second choice, the hefe (Saranac, and that's great news: easily
available, good hefe in a 12 oz. bottle!), over the stout (Chelsea's
Oatmeal Stout: Chris Sheehan rocks on stouts) when the two got into a tie
for 2nd and 3rd. Eventually we were all happy, and I was pleased because
all three were drinkable beers: the doublebock was big, but delicious.
Meanwhile, over at the other panel... They were having
problems reaching consensus. We couldn't tell what they were arguing
about, and didn't want to know: it was their panel, not ours. When the
results came out, I was pretty sure I knew what the problem had been.
Second and third went to Davidson Brothers of Glens Falls for their
Scotch Ale and Oatmeal Stout, and first went to Troy's
Rauchbier. Wild screams of delight at the announcement, and I thought,
man, how'd Pat talk 'em into that one?
Don't get me wrong. I'd had Troy's Rauchbier and enjoyed it. I
had asked Peter
Martin how much smoked malt was in it: 50%, and he'd smoked it himself,
with beechwood (that part didn't surprise me at all: they do everything
in-house at Troy). It was a very smoky beer. And that's what one
brewer snarled as he left: "Best beer in the Hudson Valley? There's
maybe 10% of the people here who can drink a pint of it!"
At first I thought he was just bitter. But the more I thought
about it, the more I thought: he's right. It is extreme. And I
started to wonder if that was what had won it the first place.
Because we beer-lovers, we geeks, if there's one thing we like,
it's extreme beers, beers that hang it out there, beers that we can
drink and thump our chests and say, "Yeah, now that's a beer!"
Especially if the beer is so smoky, so hoppy, so sour, so extreme...that
other beer-lovers can't handle it. You'd better believe that
makes us feel good.
What children we are. I've been watching this take place over
the past 10 years, beers getting more and more out there, and the geeks
just racing after them in a glowing haze of lupulin and alcohol, with maybe a
little brettanomyces floating around the edges. But the big-selling beers in the
craft movement are anything but extreme: Fat Tire, Sammy Adams, Widmer
Hefeweizen, even Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Geeks disdain them, and have
nothing good to say for a brewpub that puts out a range of flawless,
delicious, drinkable beers that don't go over 6.0% ABV or 36 IBU.
Look, what's one of the most extreme breweries out there? My
good friends down to Delaware, Dogfish Head. What are they known
for? Insane stuff like World Wide Stout (20+% ABV), 90 Minute IPA (90
IBU), Midas Touch (brewed with a combo of malt, grapes, and honey). I
like all of them, hell, I really like the World Wide, one of the most
drinkable überbiers out there. But my most favorite Dogfish Head
beer right now is the bottle-conditioned 60 Minute IPA, one of
the tastiest, smoothest IPAs I've ever laid lip to. (Yes, that's my
quote on the six-pack holder, and no, I don't get a dime for that.)
Apparently everyone else thinks so too: in less than six months, this
new beer has become the brewery's best-seller.
Extreme beers are fun. I know some people who drink them all
the time. But I know people who do nothing but look for the next Grab
My Hab' hot sauce, too. I love these guys, but I have to wonder...do they
understand subtlety? Do they appreciate the beauty of a perfectly brewed
Dortmunder Export? Do they lust after a beautifully conditioned cask
Mild? Do they drool at the thought of a cellar-cool unfiltered
I talked to some brewers about this, and something Bill
Covaleski of Victory Brewing said struck me. He laid some of the blame
at the feet of beer writers for being entranced by writing about the big
beers. "Try as we might to consume
responsibly and keep the roads safe," he said, "we face a
tougher challenge doing so when our desires draw us to the 9% brain
benders. My view is that skewed attention is bad for beer
diversity and simply irresponsible journalism. There is plenty that is
noteworthy about a Munich dunkel to a beer-curious reader. Does the beer
media need to take their stylistic cues from National Enquirer?
Only if they are not thinking. Big picture, guys!"
Big picture, indeed. Huge beers are getting a lot of
attention lately. Do yourself a favor: take a break. Get your geek
friends together for a session of session beers. Get together for a
night of card-playing, an impromptu film festival, or go fishing. But
don't bring single bottles of brain-wallop. Bring cases of session beer.
Bring beer that promotes conversation on other topics, not itself.
You might find that you have a lot of fun, and enjoy the beer
tremendously. You might even get to know your geek friends beyond what
they know about beer. Beer is more than just the flavor,
just as it is more than just the alcohol. Beer is a social lubricant:
grease your conversations! I'm not saying drop extreme beers.
Just remember that they're all part of the mix, and think more often
about your favorite 5% quaff. It deserves your admiration, too.