Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In Praise of Without

At times, and I own that this is likely a case of perception more than anything else, it seems ever more difficult to drop into a pub that sells well made beer and just get a nice pint of pale ale, pilsner, or stout that hasn't been in some way adulerated with stuff that I have very little interest in seeing on a list of beer ingredients. Taking that observation a touch further, it also often appears that a brewery has barely got the training wheels off their brew kit and they are launching out into the weird and wonderful when it comes to herbs, spices, and barrels.

This isn't to say that such concoctions are wrong, or some kind of zythophilic evil inflicted on the great mass of beer drinkers by mad scientists with an overgrown herbarium. Rather, I feel that superb, beautifully put together, simple beers just don't get the appreciation they deserve. As a result, they suffer on sites that advocate the rating of beer because of their perceived plainness.

As anyone with an ounce of brewing knowledge understands, these seemingly simple, even simplistic, beers are exceptionally difficult to make well, and to make consistently well is another story all together. Sorry but I don't want noticeable variations from batch to batch of my favourite beers, I want to know that the brewers are sufficiently skilled to make the same beer time after time.

Think about pilsners as an example. Most great Czech made pale lagers consist of precisely 4 ingredients, malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. The malt is often a single kind, sometimes malted by the brewery itself, the hops are likewise often just a single kind. You cannot get simpler than that, yet it seems that only a select few breweries can scale those heights, and thankfully one of them does so here in Virginia.

So while a brewer may like to think of themselves as 'innovative', 'envelope pushing', or whatever the bullshit self-aggrandising term is this week, I tend to think they are actually brewers in hiding. Hiding behind herbs, hiding behind oak, hiding behind fruit. Sure there might be a good brewer in there somewhere, and they might have a deft hand with the extraneous stuff, but that doesn't replace the ability to put out consistently well made, tasty beer.

Beer is ultimately very simple, 4 basic ingredients with almost infinite possibilities without having get into needless botanical fripperies. Simple isn't bland, simple is where the science and art of the master brewer is found, simple is more than the sum of its parts. Simple beers are beers packed with confidence. The confidence to let the beer stand, or fall, on its own merits.

Taking the simple path is often the path of most enjoyment.


  1. It's kind of a fashionably cynical pose to assume that anyone putting weird shit in beer is an iniquitous shyster trying to disguise their incompetence, and maybe some of them are, but I've had plenty of weird-ingredient beers from people who also make great malt-and-hops beers - try telling Fergus Fitzgerald at Adnams that he wouldn't need to make their Coconut Cove porter if he was any good at brewing proper beer!

    As far as I can tell, getting into brewing in the first place requires a certain irrational inclination towards trying stuff out for the hell of it, and that continues to inform the outlook of a lot of commercial brewers.

    It would be nice if more people took more time to appreciate the simple and the classic as well as the crazy and the new, but again I guess that if we hadn't got some predisposition towards getting excited by new and different stuff then a lot of us would still be drinking commodity lager!

  2. I beg to differ that I assume putting weird shit in shit is 'iniquitous', second paragraph clearly states that.

    I wouldn't dream of telling Adnams not to make a coconut porter when there is plenty of evidence in their range that they are a magnificent brewer of magnificent classic beers. There are few brews in the world I enjoy more than a pint of Southwold Bitter.

    My beef here is mainly with the new breweries that do a batch of something and then start adding shit to it when they haven't even mastered the base beer yet.

    It feels at times that folks are trying to run before they can walk, and that there is a sizable cohort of drinkers for whom constantly having something new and unusual is the only way to keep them in the drinking fraternity. Frankly, that bothers me, because they aren't around because of the beer but for the buzz, and when the buzz goes elsewhere they'll flit away.

  3. Sorry, I might have been mentally conflating your opinion with other people who've said similar things but with a bigger side dish of cynicism.

    I do sort of agree on folks running before they can walk. On the other hand, I've recently started homebrewing and have a lot of good intentions about "mastering the basics first" and building up my understanding with a load of single-malt single-hop beers, but find those intentions constantly under attack from a little imp at the back of my brain shouting "ooh, jaggery! Wild rice! Elderflowers from the garden! Coffee cherries! Marmite! I wonder if you could put marmite in a stout?"

    So perhaps it's less about "envelope pushing" and "bullshit self-aggrandizing" and more just about needing to rein in your natural curiosity. Particularly given that a large dose of natural curiosity is pretty much a prerequisite for bothering to brew at all.

    Re sales, I'm not sure how much is about manic neophiles chasing the newest buzz and how much is just about the fact the odd barrel-aged hibiscus sour in a lineup of APAs and IPAs is probably going to be the one that catches your attention. Kind of like the way that beers with silly names often go fastest, too.

  4. For what it's worth... in the UK, at least, it feels like there's currently a bit of a counterswing away from the "barrel aged imperial with at least three weird ingredients in it" school of craft beer appreciation (and the similar and equally annoying "17 real ales all from inconsistent local garden-shed micros, most of them in iffy condition" approach to traditional ales) and towards people waxing lyrical about classic beers and great interpretations of classic (or modern classic) styles. Although that might be confined to certain corners of the blogosphere or even just be me projecting...


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