The Futility of Either/Or Thinking

As he is wont to do, Andy Crouch set tongues a-wagging this week with a rant against both beer cocktails and collaboration beers. He received a quick rebuttal from the Wench – or rather a Facebook-driven revival of an older post in defense of beer cocktails – as well as kudos from the inestimable Mr. McL, and who knows how many other yeas and nays.

To explain my position, I must retreat first several years, about twenty or so, in fact.

As a neophyte beer writer, I regularly encountered people who would approach beer of any variety with the simple dismissal of “I don’t like beer.” (I still do hear this, though not nearly as often, but let us leave that matter aside for now.) To these people, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, “beer” was mainstream lager. They had tasted it; they didn’t like it; ipso facto they did not like beer.

My response to these self-depriving souls was the same then as it is today. “Beer is a multi-headed beast,” I say, although not necessarily in those exact words, “Just because you don’t like what you have tried thus far needn’t mean that none of it is to your taste.”

If you have read Mr. Crouch’s self-described “rant,” you may have some idea of where I’m going with this. Having partaken of both beer cocktails and collaboration brews – we know not what sort of quantity of each, since he offers no such information – he declares that he has found both lacking and thus declares “Death” to them.

I’ve made a few beer cocktails in my time, and have sampled the mixology of others, and several, indeed I’d go so far as to say many of the combinations I’ve tasted have been quite delicious. At their best, as I have stated time and again, they are neither better nor an attempted improvement on the original beer, just a flavourful attempt at something equal but different.

And let’s face it, beer cocktails are in their infancy, so there are bound to be any number of sad and ugly ones taking up beer menu space. That’s the way it goes, indeed the way it was in the early days of craft brewing. (Lord knows, at the GABFs and other beer fests of the early 1990’s, and in bars and restaurants and my own tasting cubicle during the same period, many an unbalanced or poorly designed or unintentionally sour or buttery beer crossed my lips.) But the industry improved with time and experience, as beer cocktails are bound to do should the “death to” hoards fail to get their way.

Mr. Crouch’s position on collaboration beers I find much harder to comprehend. For the sin of being the product of two or more brewers working together a beer should be condemned? Really? That makes as much sense to me as do those who scream “anything but chardonnay!” when, in fact, they really mean “I’m tired of over-oaked butter-bombs.”

Granted, Mr. Crouch goes on to proclaim his distaste for “confusing and disjointed…beers,” with which I heartily agree, but why tar all collaborations with a single brush? I have tasted many fine collaborative brews from producers both prodigious – I’m looking at you, Stone Brewing – and selective, and one of the finest beers I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing in my almost seven years on All About Beer Magazine’sBeer Talk” panel was Fritz & Ken’s Ale, an Anchor-Sierra Nevada collaboration. Others have been less successful, but so what? I could say the same about any number of single brewery beers.

So you’ll hear no dismissal or “death to” from this writer. I’ll take each beer or cocktail (or spirit or wine) as it comes and judge accordingly. In fact, the more the merrier!

14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Futility of Either/Or Thinking

  1. My real complaint is that they are costly fun – and that all too often it is at my expense and the fun is all the gathered brewers’, never reflected in the bottle. So, again, no thanks unless I get a heads up from someone like you, Mr. B, who has to slog through all these Frankenbeers for professional purposes.

  2. stephenbeaumont

    That’s what they pay me for, Mr. McL, so pleased to oblige!

  3. brewhilda

    Well said and well written. If life were either/or it would be boring. Rather, it is choice/preference with a willingness and open-mindedness to try something new and not remain stagnant.

  4. Ashley V Routson

    Well-writ, Steve-O.

    I also thought that the title “DEATH TO” was a bit dramatic. Death to beer cocktail and collaboration beers? Should we just call for an end to all creativity and innovation. Everyone is entitled to opinions. Let Andy hate beer cocktails and hate collaboration beers all he wants. One day, I’m going to trick him by serving him a really well made beer cocktail. And when he asks what’s in it I will laugh triumphantly and say BEER you curmudgeon!

    PS: Stephen you are the best,

  5. Mike

    Well, I’m not sure what you call a “beer cocktail”, but my parents used to drink beer with syrup when they were very young. It was called a Berliner Weisse. Westmalle, at their pub (the monastery’s, not my parent’s), serve a mixed dubbel and tripel. The old pub used to serve lots of cocktails made with Westmalle beers, but I’m not sure the remodeled version does.

    There is virtually no innovation in the dishonestly named “craft” beer industry. Almost everything they’ve done has been done before. (Take the example above of my parents drinking beer cocktails between the wars.)

    Collaboration beers? More marketing nonsense. This is all part of the one-off, really rare, really expensive marketing gambit that keeps the suckers coming. The point is not how they taste, the point is the function they serve.

    • stephenbeaumont

      The modern beer cocktails of which we speak are much more complicated than the mere adulteration of Berliner weisse with sickly sweet syrup, Mike. Check out the chapter of recipes I wrote in “The beerbistro Cookbook” or beermixology.com for an idea.

      As for collaboration beers, the point — for me, at least — is precisely how they taste. As noted above, I have sampled some tremendous ones, each the result of skilled and inventive brewers — not marketers — working together.

  6. Mike

    Stephen, I wasn’t saying that a Berliner Weisse is identical to the beer cocktails of today. Rather that it IS a beer cocktail and is evidence that today’s version is neither innovative nor creative.

    I don’t quite understand your point about collaborative beers. Are you saying that one brewer can make a good beer, but it takes two (or more) to make something wonderful? I would think there would be a fair few brewers who might take exception to that.

    • stephenbeaumont

      And I’m saying, Mike, that adding syrup to a beer doesn’t make it a cocktail. What I’m not saying, however, is that true beer cocktails are anything new, as the Beer Flip, among many other historic beer cocktails, will attest.

      As for collaborations, how many ways must i say it? I like good beer whether it is the product of a single brewer working on a small kit in her basement or a multi-brewer collaboration. My point above is that it’s silly to dismiss an entire group of beers on the basis of one or two bad experiences.

      • Mike

        Stephen, I’m glad you finally see my point about beer cocktails. FYI, the definition of cocktail from dictionary.com: “any of various short mixed drinks, consisting typically of gin, whiskey, rum, vodka, or brandy, with different admixtures, as vermouth, fruit juices, or flavorings, usually chilled and frequently sweetened.” Take out the liquors, substitute beer et voilà – beer cocktail. BTW, beer cocktails, by that very name, have been popular for many years in Belgium and are variations on the Berliner Weisse formula: a beer mixed with syrup.

        As I originally wrote about collaborations: the point is not how they taste, but the function they serve. Would there be a point in singling out beers brewed by redheads with one leg? Or how about brewers who can’t play any musical instruments? Silly, right? But, when two well-known brewers (aka rock stars, in the beer-geek bizarro world) work together that is somehow different? No, it is precisely a direct appeal to those aforementioned beer-geeks who place higher values on one-off, rare, generally unobtainable beers, ie, the ones who have been paying hundreds for Westvleteren beers on Ebay.

        I’m not dismissing a “group of beers” because of “one or two bad experiences” (I’ve never drunk any of those beers so my experience is neither good or bad), I am simply focusing on the primary reason for their existence.

      • stephenbeaumont

        This is growing tedious, Mike. I know full well what constitutes a cocktail and never suggested that they were anything new. What I am trying so desperately to make you understand is that modern beer cocktails, and indeed some colonial era ones, are much more complicated and complex than the simple addition of syrup to a Berliner weisse.

        Further, I would equate the collaboration beer idea to what happens when musical artists get together and jam. Two or more minds working together to create something quite different than what either or any might do on their own, sometimes extraordinary and sometimes mundane and sometimes, like Andy said, confusing and disjointed. But just as I love the album “The Super Super Blues band,” with all its sparring and flaws, I admire collaborations, warts and all.

        You have commented here enough for me to know that you have a hate on for almost anything North American beer-related. I don’t know why that is, but it is your prerogative. Me, I take every beer experience as it comes and try to assess it from as neutral a perspective as possible, be it North American or European, a collaboration or the product of a single brewery, of a style steeped in tradition or something new and wacky.

        To do otherwise would not only be a disservice to my readers, but also to myself.

  7. Mike

    Stephen, a cocktail is a cocktail, whatever adjective or noun you throw in front of it. You are quite correct that this is getting tedious because the only point I have ever made is that beer cocktails are not new or innovative. A point on which I thought we agreed.

    I do NOT hate everything North American beer related. I have a strong distaste for the beer-geek mentality whether North American or Danish. I see evidence that there are more and more “average” beer drinkers in North America – people who have an equal distaste for Bud Lite and Arrogant Bastard. This to me is proof that beer geeks may be having fun, but they are doing nothing to help small breweries trying to survive by making good beer accessible to everyone.

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