Reaching Beer’s Outer Limits
As I mentioned in a previous post about the importance of imports, an outside stimulus to the derriere is sometimes necessary to motivate one to reach beyond the rut or comfort of stasis. That swift kick may come in the form of competition from imports. It can also come from the introduction of new domestic products.
A kind reader referred me to an excellent article by Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker on the search for “a better brew.” While also functioning as an interesting profile of Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, the article points out two schools of thought on what Boston Beer Company founder, Jim Koch, coined as “extreme” beer. To Koch, “When you’re making an extreme beer, it’s like pushing beyond the sound barrier.” Brooklyn Brewing brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, on the other hand, thinks:
The whole idea of extreme beer is bad for craft brewing. It doesn’t expand the tent—it shrinks it. If I want someone to taste a beer, and I make it sound outlandish and crazy, there is a certain kind of person who will say, ‘Oh, let me try it.’ But that is a small audience. It’s one that you can build a beer on, but not a movement.
I think Oliver is right—you won’t build a movement on extreme beer, one that will get the macrobrew drinkers to switch over to craft beer. However, I don’t think that’s the point of these beers, nor is that what Calagione, for one, is intending for them to do. Broadening the diversity of beer does expand a corner of the craft beer tent; we just need to find a way to bring more people under the tent.
Look at Europe for contrast. The competitive landscape there is shrinking as breweries consolidate or are forced to close, reducing the amount of choice to consumers. Brewing there is increasingly about the bottom line, not the beer. That means Edward Scissor Hands is in the driver’s seat. This is why consumer organizations like CAMRA, PINT, and Zythos have circled the wagons to protect their brewing traditions from being destroyed by corporatism, just like Slow Food has done for cuisine.
In North America, on the other hand, the craft beer market is growing. This provides the competitive impetus for innovation. How does a brewer distinguish themselves but by coming out with something completely different, even original. American brewers have covered the common European beer styles quite thoroughly, even adding their own stamp to the degree that it has warranted creating American sub-categories. Now they are venturing into more esoteric styles, ones that are nearing extinction in the Old World—Gose, Kellerbier, Sahti, Steinbier, Wassail, Zwickelbier—and ones from the really old world that, until recently, have been gone for centuries and only revived through archaeology. Even traditional lambic is finding a dwindling audience.
With the U.S. being such a large market, there is room for ballsy brewers willing to push beer’s outer limits to succeed. The small market of B.C. makes it a lot harder unless you have some good financial backing and top notch marketing. Unfortunately, our breweries comfortably in the black are largely run by people in it for the business opportunity, not the beer. Don’t expect them to be raising the bar on creativity, much less release seasonal beers. To find the cutting edge in B.C., you’ll have to dig deeper and keep your ears open. What could be considered extreme beer here is often found at the cask ale festivals at Dix BBQ and Brewery in August and December. If you want more of a good thing, then you should make a point of attending and encourage the brewers willing to take a chance.
A curry pale ale, anyone?