American microbrewers: can they be saved from Hopsessive/Compulsive Disorder?
I love microbrew. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you that I’m a proud beer snob and have been since first moving to Boulder in 1993. Colorado, along with states like Oregon and California, led the micro revolution in the ’90s and when I landed here I was absolutely staggered by the number and quality of local beers available to me. The state continues to be one of the the nation’s brewing leaders, with Denver/Boulder (as you’d expect) being at the epicenter. Some interesting facts:
- Denver ranks first in the nation in per capita beer production.
- Denver is second in the nation in number of total breweries in a city.
- Denver is third in the nation in volume of brewpubs and craft breweries.
- In all, there are roughly 100 breweries statewide, the majority of which are found in Denver.
- In 2007, Colorado was named the nation’s top beer-producing state, surpassing California.
These days I’m even an SMS beer reviewer, which is to say that I actually get paid to produce reviews and trivia items. Which is nice. (It also means that, in theory, I should be able to deduct my beer expenses on my taxes, although I haven’t tried that one yet.)
ABInBev isn’t in danger of going out of business, but what I see around me tells me that I’m not the only guy who’s crazy about craft beer. A lot of us love beer that’s handcrafted, unique, original and innovative. There’s simply not much the big industrial brewers can do to match the passion and quality of smaller-batch beers from around the country. Even when they roll out a faux-micro brand, like Blue Moon, Shock Top or Land Shark, the results usually taste like exactly what you’d expect from a big-ass macrobrewer trying to cash in on something it doesn’t really understand.
Despite the explosion of microbrewed wonderfulness sweeping the country, there’s a disturbing trend that needs talking about: a runaway obsession with hops. American brewers have always been partial to India Pales, English Pales, American Pales, Extra Pales – sometimes-light and sometimes-bold, always driven by the hops. And that’s great. Some of my friends love hoppy beers and what I see when I go to Argonaut or Liquor Mart or to the little store in my neighborhood, the surprisingly well-stocked Highlands Wine & Liquor, or to just about any brewpub or bar in Colorado indicates that hop-heads are a solid majority. Sometimes I walk into a pub and see that the place has as many three pale styles on the menu (and a taste of their Amber often reveals that it’s actually an American Pale in disguise). This isn’t the ideal situation for me personally, since I’m really not a hop-head. Most of my favorites lie decidedly to the malty side (during warm weather I usually prefer Weizens of one stripe or another and my current specialty beer explorations are taking on every Sour and Saison I can lay my hands on). Still, this isn’t a big issue – I can find something I like most of the time (most, not all), and if I can’t I can always go someplace else where they cater more to my preferences.
Lately, though, we’re seeing a couple of problems. First, too many brewmasters with no imagination. So many new offerings come off like little more than an exercise in “let’s see how many more hops we can stuff in a bottle.” The result: less character, less originality, less everything except blinding hop bitterness.
The second issue, and the worse one by far, is that now they’re starting to mess with other styles. At various times in the past two or three years I’ve ordered brews that are, by definition, maltier balance styles, only to have the first taste hit me like a firehose pumping raw hop-water. I’m talking about Irish Reds, Browns, Porters, Scotch Ales, Winter Warmers, Ambers and a wide variety of winter seasonals. (I’d also include Barley Wines in here, with a caveat. The style definitions allow for hoppy variants, although in practice they have traditionally been very malty and sweet. So if you’re heading over to the other end of the spectrum, please, a heads-up on the menu would be appreciated.)
What’s worse is when I specifically ask the bartender or waiter or the clerk at the liquor store and am told no, this isn’t hoppy when it is. In a pub this is no big deal – the taster hasn’t cost me any money. But you can’t get a sample in a store. If anybody wants the rest of this six of Deschutes Jubelale let me know. Otherwise I’m pouring it down the sink.
To be clear, again, this is not a rant against hops. Here’s my review, from last year, of a popular hoppy beer made by a brewer that specializes in hops:
BEER: Stone Brewing Co. Arrogant Bastard Ale, CA. HUGE hops, strong citrus notes. Rich, assertive hoppy boot to the face. Like hops? A+. Otherwise stay clear.
Those who know me have also heard me rave about Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA, which I have gone so far as to rank as one of America’s absolute best beers. My review of it gave it an A+ (or an A++ – I can’t remember for certain). I frequently provide my readers with takes on a variety of Pales and I try to be honest and thoughtful, even though those aren’t in my wheelhouse.
It’s simply a question of truth in advertising. When I order a Nut Brown or a holiday seasonal, I expect that the brewmaster knows at least as much about what goes into the recipe as I do. Preferably lots more. If I order a Porter and get a Pale, I’m upset. If you, as a hop fanatic, order a Double IPA and get a stout, you have every right to be annoyed, too.
My plea to America’s brewmasters is simple. First, emphasize subtlety, elegance and quality. More hops isn’t creativity and it isn’t craftsmanship, it’s evidence that you have run out of both. Take your cues from the likes of Dogfish Head and Russian River, who manage daily to distinguish between more and better.
Second, if you want to brew a Pale, do so. If you want to whip up a special batch of something neat and different for the holidays, go for it. But don’t bait and switch me. Call it what it is. If it’s an extra hoppy IPA, cool. And if you’re being innovative and what you’re doing doesn’t actually fit in any of the established categories, by gods make up a new category name and slap it on the bottle or tap handle. Just so long as I know what I’m getting before I gag and spew it out my nose.
Finally, I’m going to call out a recent (and egregious) offender by name. While on vacation in North Carolina over the holidays I picked up a pack of Oatmeal Porter from Highland Brewing Company in Asheville. I was never overly impressed by Highland when I lived in NC, but that’s been five years and things change. Also, they seem to be doing well, which means a lot of others like their products. An Oatmeal Porter sounded good. So I gave them a shot.
This item will be included in my SMS beer review for February: [UPDATED: this item has been softened a bit after reflecting on comment #1 below.]
BEER: Highland Brewing Oatmeal Porter. Another brewmaster who thinks more hops is the answer to everything. Not really a Porter – an IPA in disguise. Avoid.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here’s hoping everybody finds something they love to drink. NFL playoff season is afoot, basketball is under way and we’re into the meat of the Premiership, FA Cup and Champion’s League chases. I’d hate to face all those sports thirsty….