Shocking, I know, but here’s the confession: Sometimes, when I’m at the beer store, I actively seek out imported beer.

I’m a little embarrassed about this to be quite honest. I really want to support the American craft beer industry, and especially my local breweries, but I often feel like my hand is being forced.

Okay. I can’t really make any apologies about my Belgians. I’m a lambic junkie. When I see lambic for sale, I have a hard time staying my hand, especially for an aged bottle of Cantillon, Oud Beersel, or, really, anything that Frank Boon produces.. There’s just not a good selection of American-made lambics (yet), and actually zero American-made lambic available on the shelves in North Carolina.

But I consistently find myself surreptitiously bringing home Scottish ales, English ales, milds, bitters, porters and even the occasional imported IPA. Twisted Thistle? Yes, please. Fuller’s London Porter? Any day of the week. Adnams Bitter? Load me up. Black Douglas? Every time I see it on the shelf.

But why? Why do I do it?

Because I can’t find a comparable American beer.

(insert stunned silence here)

I don’t know what your bottle shop looks like, but mine looks largely like a showcase sponsored by the hop grower’s association. For whatever reason that I’m not sure I understand, every damn thing in the store – seasonals aside – is loaded with hops.

I like hops. I do! IPA has a constant presence in my house. But sometimes, I want something different. Sometimes, I want a porter, or a stout, or a bitter, or a mild, or anything that isn’t sticky with hops. But wait! You notice I listed an IPA up there? Yeah! A British IPA, which gives me what I love most in an IPA: balance!

Hey, look. I get it. We’re Americans. Not only do we think we have to do everything bigger and better, but as craft brewers we’re trying to forge our own path away from the macrobrews and, really, every established style in the world pretty much ever. And that’s great! There’s a time and a place for a Double IPA. They are tasty beers. But that time and a place for a Double IPA is not every single time I pick up a beer. Sometimes, I want something else – some variety to take me away from the hops, and I have a hard time finding that on the shelves of my bottle shop in the form of an American Craft Beer.

To be fair – maybe all of this is a local distributor issue. Maybe the local craft beer reps are hopheads. That’s fair. I respect that. If that’s the case, I appreciate that they’re putting what they like on the shelves. Now if they could put more than that on the shelves, it’d be awesome.

But maybe, just maybe, when a lot of people think outside the box in the same way, the box just changes.

I’m not saying stop. By all means, forging our own way forward into new style territory is awesome (and, I might argue, constantly necessary – when we stop creating we die), and I want to continue to see it happen. But remember! Variety is the spice of life. If everybody is pushing the envelope by dumping in as many hops as possible, then.. well.. it’s all pretty similar, isn’t it? For variety, we have to move… what.. inside the box and not push the envelope? It seems counter-intuitive somehow.

A few months back, my Zymurgy had a listing of “The Best Beers in the Country” as voted by the readers or.. something. I don’t remember the methods, I remember the lists. The best beers were all IPAs and Double IPAs, etc. Pliny the Elder, Arrogant Bastard, 90-Minute IPA, and on and on. All awesome beers. The only non-IPA at the top was Old Rasputin, I think. The top 10 import list? (Not all of them, not in order, from memory): Guinness, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, Unibroue La Fin Du Monde, Chimay Grande Reserve; not a beer with hop character among them. It tells me that I’m not alone.

So, when you get a bunch of beer sales statistics together, it’s invariably noted that imports, while losing ground lately (probably due to cost), are still a large portion of U.S. beer sales. And I know why. Bud Light Lime counts as an import. Because sometimes, that’s the only way you can get what seems like a basic beer style. It makes me sad, but until I can find something comparable on the shelves (or have my own brewery where I can think inside the box like a REBEL) I will continue to support the breweries that give me the variety that I’m looking for, even if they happen to be overseas.

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Categories: appreciation, distribution, industry, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 14 Sep 2009 @ 12 19 PM

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 17 Jun 2009 @ 9:38 AM 

A little more history for you today, but this time with a poignant question. Behold this piece from Duke’s Digital Collections:

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought of after reading this was (click for a larger image, but I bet you know the ad):

Hops are the soul of beer

I think all this begs the question: What is the soul of beer?

I’ll be honest. I’ve always been a little irked by the latter ad, here. Hops are not to beer what grapes are to wine, unless the analogy centers around “a thing that grows on a vine that is ultimately in the beverage.”

If you want to think about it as a soul, I think we can safely say that grapes are the soul of wine. They are the primary source of fermentables, the primary source of variability. I don’t think that’s true for beer. Granted, one of the main reasons that the analogy doesn’t work is because beer has a more complicated list of ingredients than wine. But, let’s face it, as much as I don’t really want to agree with Pabst here, the primary source of fermentables and the primary source of variability in beer – if that’s what you want to call its soul – is really malt. (I am really interested to know what Pabst did with their malting that they thought was so exceptionally different.)

Yes, I can absolutely make my pale ale taste widely different with hops. I can go from grassy to piney to citrusy to cat pee. I can accent the malt or I can completely bury it. I can’t, however, make my pale ale into a stout or a kolsch with hops. For that matter, I can’t even make beer without malt – but I can make beer without hops, even if it won’t necessarily taste like what you and I think of as beer. Hops have only been an addition in ales in the past 500 years…. out of 4000 or so. Has it been soulless for most of its existence?

What do you think? What’s the soul of beer?

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Categories: history, marketing, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 17 Jun 2009 @ 09 38 AM

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 03 Apr 2009 @ 9:17 AM 

It’s Friday. Casual Day. Pie Day. Wear your jeans to work, plan on grabbing a beer this evening, and when you get a chance, kick back and enjoy a 1930’s German brewery in operation. It’s a fascinating overview of the brewing process. I especially like the shot of the guy emptying what amounts to a giant pillowcase full of hops into the kettle. Nice lab coat, man.

The candle trick at 8:53 is also pretty cool.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 03 Apr 2009 @ 09 17 AM

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