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August, 2003

A Plea for Subtlety

"One of the worst side-effects of the American craft beer movement is that, in a desire to distinguish from bland industrial lagers, the flavor scale has been tilted too far, and far too many people think that for a beer to be good it has to bitch slap you with flavor." 

-- Steve Jackson (no relation), on the USENET newsgroup rec.food.drink.beer

Never let it be said that I was scared by a beer. Disgusted, perhaps, nauseated occasionally, but I have never come across a beer that made me shiver and say, 'No, it's too much for me." Umm...with the possible exception of a very young Thomas Hardy's Ale I had back in the early 1990s. I was young, too.

Hoppy beers? Bring 'em on, I love 'em. Malt bombs? Hey, I drink EKU 28 for laughs. Smoke, sour, funk, weiss-clove, roasted barley, I've done it all, and smiled. I don't think that makes me anything particularly special, I just like those beers. Lots of people do. 

Lots of beer enthusiasts, that is. I've seen them line up for barleywines, rush a brewer's table for a massively bitter IPA, mark off the days on their calendars till a huge Belgian-type ale comes on-line.  I've heard them rave about those beers in conversation, praise them mightily on beer rating websites. I've even had some e-mails about them. 

That's fine, but...don't you ever get tired? Do you eat limburger and scallion wrapped in thin-shaved spiced goat meat every day? Do you always drink espresso? Is it always the stepping-out clothes, always the fast lane, always the roller coaster? 

Maybe...you need to slow down. Look at what you're doing. I've heard beer geeks crush Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as "pretty bland." Let me tell you: my first SNPA, exactly 16 years ago this month, was damned exciting, and a fresh one will still light up my life. 

You miss so much when all you do is run from one hop-giant to the next. There's more to life than Belgian-funk or Abbey-richness. I followed that path, mouth agape, hankering for one mighty beer after another, and marveling at what lambics could do, at the mouthy taste-chemistry of boldly hopped beers, and the weird esters you get from highly malty lagers. But I found the other paths, too. Clean, dry lagers that have a wealth of soothing subtlety in every sip, so teasingly delicious that they disappear from the glass. Round, cool, lively real ale, less than 4% ABV but so full of flavor. Saisons and witbiers, light and spicy and quenching.

Again, do I think that my love for the more subtle beers makes me special? Of course not. It makes me lucky, because there is a huge, full spectrum of beers that I am able to immensely enjoy. Many beer enthusiasts are stuck into a tight corner of the range, really only happy with a few big beers, kind of like...the poor benighted souls they laugh at for only drinking Bud and Bud Light.

If all you want is Imperial IPAs, Imperial stouts, and Imperial pilsners, well then, call me a Red, because I'm fighting Imperialism.  What's next: Imperial Helles? Imperial Berliner Weisse? 

Fight it. Re-discover the joys of a nice soft pilsner, a spritzy hefeweizen, a cool glass of bitter. These are great beers, delicious beers, and you're only cheating yourself if you spurn them. I have a brewer friend who knows beers inside and out, could out-geek your geekiest homebrewing buddy without breaking a sweat. Man doesn't care for beers over 5%. Period. Thinks they're overdone. Everything good and pleasing that can be done with a brewkettle and fermentation tank can be done under 5%. 

I still like hoppy beers, and big strapping beers, and funky beers. I like beers. But Victory just announced that they would be changing their Lager from an Export style to a Helles, and I'm so damned excited to taste it...that I know I like the little beers too. 

Think about it, if you're a beer-rater. If a pilsner is perfect, dead-on in every way, doesn't it deserve every bit as much credit, recognition, and points as a whopping great Imperial stout that could be hiding God knows what flaws under that burnt black skirt?

And don't you have some respect for the pilsner for not shouting?

 

Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: October 31, 2003