Monday, March 31, 2008

Bad Beer Versus Preference

Unavoidably, craft beer fans are drawn to extremes. We love the monster hoppy beers, the high-gravity beers, the imperial stouts, doppelbocks and barleywines. Our desire is to either saturate or outright overwhelm our taste buds with our typical, American extra-is-good so ten-times-that-must-be-fantastic philosophy. It is our nature.

I point no fingers of blame, as I am just as guilty. I desire, purchase and guzzle the latest dry-hopped triple IPA just as much as anyone else. Indeed, craft brewers themselves have learned to work the crowds with limited-edition this and seasonal-release that, feeding the frenzy and capturing the spotlight and making a premium profit, all at the same time.

But an unfortunate casualty in this arms race of the palate is the journeyman craft brewer, the one who either chooses not to take advantage of this marketing trend or does not have the resources to do so. This is the brewer who turns out the session beers, the massive mid-ranged products that are the backbone of the industry: the pale ales, the ambers, the wheats, the casks, the English pub styles or German biergarten fare.

Too often, craft brewers are judged by their extremes. A highly desirable, limited-edition seasonal product can elevate a brewer to almost mythical status, regardless of the balance of their portfolio. Conversely, brewers that are not currently part of this trend are often overlooked or utterly dismissed by craft beer fans. The comment most often made by critics is simply, “I just don’t think they make good beer.”

At this point, a sharp distinction must be drawn: Does the brewer make truly bad beer, or simply beer that you do not prefer? Is the beer produced of a genuinely poor quality, or are they of styles that you are typically not drawn to, avoid or overtly dislike? This point is a very significant difference in the estimation of a craft brewer. Craft beer fans make this mistake more often than they may realize.

Regrettably, there have been a rare handful of (often short-lived) commercial craft brewers that, largely for reasons unknown, have produced and released truly bad beer. "Bad beer" is defined as beer that has identifiable flaws, whether stylistic, flavor components or with some perceptible fault. Perhaps it is too tannic, or too estery, or flat, or stale, or with any of a variety of chemical elements left as byproducts of fermentation and conditioning. These are all the hallmarks of bad beer — or more accurately, flawed beer — and they are not easily missed once you have identified them.

In contrast, consider a simple American amber ale. If you are a lover of hoppy beers, you may reject this as not bitter enough. If Russian imperial stouts are your taste, you may find the amber bland and unremarkable. Those searching for the high-alcohol burn will hardly notice the amber at all, and dismiss it as yet another forgettable label on the shelf.

Yet there is no flaw to be found in this typical American amber. In your evaluation of beers and brewers, you must always take into consideration your own taste calibration and try to value beers as objectively as you can. You need not take up a love of amber ales if your liking draws you to other styles, any more than you should be forced to read Solzhenitsyn if your interests lie elsewhere. But to rate it as “bad beer” or the brewer as somehow a “bad” brewer (or worse, “unable” to make a good beer) is simply wrongheaded.

Be aware of your own prejudices, preferences and tastes, and judge accordingly.

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