In Defence of Innovation

Alan and Ron (and, to a lesser degree, Martyn) have of late taken to calling out innovation in brewing as simply another way to separate the punters from their money. Which is their prerogative, but excuse me if I decide to chime in, too.

I am fond of innovative beers. One I like took pale malt and fragrant hops, brewed them up with soft water and fermented the results with a bottom-fermenting yeast. It’s called Pilsner Urquell these days, and in 1842 its innovation was nothing less than the commencement of what is today the world’s most popular, and most bastardized, style of beer.

Another pair of brews arrived on the scene within a few years of each other, showcasing a particular variety of American hop, called Cascade, and starting not just a beer style, but a whole movement in brewing. Yes, Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale were pretty innovative in their day.

Hell, you could even say that in their respective day, all three of the above beers were, dare I say, “extreme”!

26 Comments

Filed under "extreme" beer, beer industry, beer prices

26 responses to “In Defence of Innovation

  1. I dimly recall a complaint made in literature and art against certain patterns of writing being “mannerism.” I am in no way suggesting expertise but at some level the mannered art becomes banal because the form is viewed as exhausted.

    I can’t speak for Martyn or Ron. My only personal complaint against innovation in brewing (if we can related that to X-treme) is that it is no longer very innovative. If, say, session beers were to take off with the nerd crowd or saisons were all the popular rage I would relish the innovation as there would be something new. Didn’t extreme jump the shark a ways back?

  2. I don’t think anyone is against innovation, as long as there is innovation. Many of the things that some believe, or sell as, innovative aren’t so much so.

    There’s also the cult of innovation for innovation’s sake that many are against, or put in other words, the worship of innovation, as if innovative beers or brewers were somehow better than that brew “just” good beers, and I think that is the point Ron wants to make.

  3. stephenbeaumont

    In general I agree with you, Alan. This is why I refuse to write of “extreme” brewing without the quotations or putting “so-called” in front of it, or usually both.

    However, as I have often said about Sam Calagione, every time I’m ready to write him off he comes out with something spectacular. It’s the same with many so-called “extreme” beers, like much of the stuff being turned out by Allagash — did you know Rob is debuting his Maine lambic-style beer at a lambic event in Belgium? — Firestone Walker, Russian River and, yes, Dogfish Head. Perhaps they aren’t that “extreme” or even particularly innovative, but they are regularly grouped in those categories and they are also, by and large, quite good.

  4. stephenbeaumont

    No question there exist truly innovative beers and also “innovative” beers, just as there are high-cost beers that are worth the price and others that smack heavily of gouging. What I think some of the current debate is doing, however, is tarnishing those that are the Real Deal with the same brush used upon the pretenders.

  5. ennislaw

    Unfortunately, Alan and Ron are spot on. The only thing innovative about these “extreme” beers is the marketing of same. Of course, since you earn your living from the marketing side of this industry, your defense is hardly surprising.

    • stephenbeaumont

      That I take exception to, ennislaw. I make my living from writing about beer (and spirits and travel and food), not at all from the marketing of same. And if you have read my work even a bit, you will know that I am ever ready to call out a beer that is purely marketing-driven for what it is.

      What I am defending are beers like the Firestone Walker 12 I enjoyed the other day. A blend of several different barrel-aged ales, it is what some would no doubt deem “extreme” or even innovative — despite the fact that neither blending beers nor aging them in wood is anything particularly new — but it is also one hell of a beer. In fact, in a tasting of eight or so exceptional beers, it stood out singularly as the best of the lot.

      • I would echo that exception were it mine to take. I think Stephen is very well placed to make decidedly neutral and experienced comment. I take absolutely nothing away from truly wonderful beers.

        But in addition to feeling that all that is “special” isn’t, I simply can’t afford them all the time – and that is admitted from my rare and humbly accepted position of someone for whom beer pays its own way in life through ads on my blog.

        As a result, I wish more attention were paid in the marketplace to making more wonderful moderately priced beers where the edge is in the yeast or the another aspect of the brewer’s skill. Hennepin from Ommegang is perhaps my favorite example of price point meeting wonderful. Were that there were more of that sort especially here in Canada.

      • ennislaw

        Your exception seems to be a distinction without much difference, you may not be writing directing from the marketing side, however, you certainly write about and off of the “buzz” in this industry, which is part and parcel of the same thing — not good or bad, just a perspective. Calling out a beer or three is not the same as calling out the industry.

        I think the concern for a lot of us, is that while this new and more exciting whacko beer introduced every other day, may be good for writers and brewers in the short term, I’m not sure it will be beneficial for beer consumers as a whole in the long term.

        As to Firestone Walker 12, what is the point of one good tasting extremely limited beer? I see it as brewery marketing high art. Why not make a good tasting beer that is widely available?

      • stephenbeaumont

        You may as well ask what the point is of a restaurant one can only visit every year or two, or even once in a lifetime, as compared to a casual dining joint with a great burger you can eat every second week. Variety, taste, experience, excellence…

        As for the good of beer consumers, in most jurisdictions today they are experiencing greater choice and range of flavours that ever before, and I can’t see any bad in that.

  6. I think that is fair enough – but how do you call out the gougers? And how do you point out the fantastic values? You have to talk about them openly and make price a factor in the wonderfulness calculation. We are not groupies. We are educated and sophisticated consumers. Relative wonderfulness for the price point has to be the consideration.

    • stephenbeaumont

      Granted, I have spent more time in my writing highlighting great deals than I have lambasting the gougers, but I will claim a certain amount of the latter, too. The answer to your questions, I think, is to do your research, whether on a blog or BA/RB or in the pages of a magazine or all of the above, and reach your own conclusions.

  7. To a large extend the whole “innovative” or “extreme” beer phenomenon is driven by people who either a) don’t like beer, and/or; b) desperately need something to say about beer (i.e. writers).

    The fact is most of the “innovative” beer is crap, a great deal of it is made a few times and is never seen again (for good reason), and a lot of it has precious little use to anyone except people who want to claim to have drunk it.

    Is constructive innovation in brewing possible? Sure. Does it happen very often? No.

    I’ll believe that we are ACTUALLY celebrating true innovation when new milds get as much attention from writers as Triple IPAs and Galactic Imperial Stouts.

    Until then, I’ll continue to believe you’re doing nothing but relentlessly playing to the lowest common denominator. More or less the equivalent of ever higher scoville ratings driving interest in the hot sauce field.

  8. Mike

    It seems to me what you are missing is that there is a great difference in the perspective from Europe and North America. In North America, for example, you have access to many European beers, as well as those produced on your own continent.

    In Europe, we have access to very few American beers (some countries, notably the UK and Denmark, get more than other countries). Secondly, many of the European beers you can buy, we cannot! So, for example, beers from Italy and Switzerland are almost impossible to find in northern Europe (Amsterdam, for example), yet seem to be available all over the US.

    And yet, we have access to much of the same information (and I use the term loosely) that North Americans have. So, for example, we read how wonderful and “innovative” de Struise beers are, yet, from our perspective, these are amateurs with little knowledge of brewing who seem to produce (in our experience) far more infected beers than drinkable ones. Even the drinkable ones, however, don’t seem to break any new ground.

    Can you imagine how we felt when Ratebeer named de Struise the best brewers of 2008?

    There is a lot of talk about “innovation” coming from the North American media (particularly on the Web), but there is precious little innovation to be seen in the samples that reach these shores.

    • stephenbeaumont

      Excellent point, Mike, and something you are quite right in suggesting I overlooked. Perspective, and context, is pivotal, after all.

      Oran, as much as I have voiced my own tiredness with the whole “extreme beer” thing here and elsewhere, I think it’s patently unfair to make blanket statements such as yours that “most of” it is crap. A good deal of what is regularly grouped under such categorizations is actually quite good, and occasionally truly innovative.

      And for the record, my own favourite hot sauces are uniformly far more about taste than heat.

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  10. Mike

    “As for the good of beer consumers, in most jurisdictions today they are experiencing greater choice and range of flavours that ever before, and I can’t see any bad in that.”

    Most jurisdictions? I’m afraid not, at least not in Europe. Furthermore, I am perfectly happy with the choice and range of flavours that currently exists here. I don’t need nor want a whiskey barrel-aged witbier or an over-hopped (with American Cascade hops) Dutch bokbier.

    More is not always better.

    • stephenbeaumont

      Really, Mike? Italy? England? Scotland? France? Even Belgium? All seem to me to have far better selection today than they did years ago.

      And while I agree that more is not necessarily better, the addition of Baladin to Italy, BrewDog to Scotland, BFM to Switzerland, Lost Abbey to the USA, Dieu du Ciel to Canada and, yes, Struise to Belgium has in my opinion bettered the beer scene in each of those countries. And those are, frankly, just the tip of the iceberg.

      • stephenbeaumont

        I should add that I’m not saying all of the above breweries are uniformly great, but rather that each has contributed something important to the furthering of their respective beer cultures, IMO.

      • Mike

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but are these not all breweries that are well distributed in North America?

        Here’s what I see: de Struise is a marketing company that sells 90 percent of its production to the export market (according to a provincial newspaper in Belgium). I had one mediocre BFM in Switzerland and, in NY, one of BFM’s famous beers – it was a Flemish red. I had one bottle of Lost Abbey brought to me by an American. It was infected and undrinkable.

        Some of these breweries may be improving the range in North America, but in their native countries? Frankly, I see no evidence of that.

      • stephenbeaumont

        Both the best and the worst BrewDog beers I’ve yet sampled were consumed in London; BFM I’ve tasted in Switzerland, the US and Canada; Baladin I’ve enjoyed in Italy and Canada; Struise in Belgium and a bottle I brought home with me; Dieu du Ciel only in Canada; and Lost Abbey in Canada and the US, and never once an infected bottle.

        Further, England, France, Italy and Scotland all have better selections today, and by far, than they did ten or twenty years ago. Even Belgium has changed dramatically over the past decade or so, hence the arrival of the thus-far-very-well-received new Moeder Lambic outlet in Brussels, with its 40 quality taps, unimaginable in that country until recently.

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  12. Mike

    Well, I’m afraid we’ve gotten a bit off-topic and it is probably my fault.

    If you don’t mind, we’ll focus on Belgium for a moment because it’s a country I know very well. If your premise is that innovation has improved the beer culture, I would ask how you see this in Belgium?

    If you want to use de Struise as an example, how have they been innovative and how has Belgian beer culture changed as a result of that? Before you start, I’ll simply say that I don’t see de Struise as innovative and the only way they have “changed” Belgian beer culture is that, thanks to the Ratebeer nonsense, Belgian media has had a new story to print/broadcast.

  13. You may as well ask what the point is of a restaurant one can only visit every year or two, or even once in a lifetime, as compared to a casual dining joint with a great burger you can eat every second week. Variety, taste, experience, excellence…

    Spot on!

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