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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2006 Buzz

Sept. '06: It's Worth It

August '06: Messin' With Us

July '06: Break the Chains

June '06: Viva El Hefe!

May '06: Just Like Wine

Apr. '06: Mixed Messages

Mar. '06: We Print the Truth

Feb. '06: The Fairer Sex

Jan. '06: Best of 2005

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


October, 2006 

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 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 ("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 ROCK!"

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 plow through.

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 that?

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 should.

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, Rubicon.



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Revised: November 01, 2006