Saturday, March 27, 2010

Brewers' Dirty Little Secret

I just returned from the cask-conditioned ale tasting at Cigar City Brewery, sponsored by Whole Foods as a charitable event designed to save some portion of the world from some sort of deprivation.  The event was well-conceived, well-run, and well-attended. Beers served from the cask included::

Cigar City Brewing Cubano Espresso Maduro Brown Ale
Dunedin Brewery Red Dog Ale
Saint Somewhere (Something)
He'Brew Bittersweet Lenny's RIPA on Rye
Wintercoat Double Hop

There were others on cask, plus a bunch of beers in more conventional keg presentations, all of them tasty, some outstanding.  More on that later.

For newbies, cask conditioned ales are beers that are sealed in kegs after fermentation.  Ideally, oak casks are used, but steel kegs are far more common and easier to pull off.  Residual yeast carbonates the beer, and the result is a much finer carbonation - tiny bubbles that feel very different on the palate than the bigger bubbles produced by forced CO2 carbonation, which is how most kegged or bottled beers are carbonated today.  Cask ales are served directly from the cask with no additional carbonation added, and the beer is drained into your glass via gravity or, in the classical presentation, a mechanical pump.  (Think buxom beer lassies heaving on these great beer engines to pour you the finest possible beer straight from the cellar.  It's a happy tradition indeed.)

Anyway, the result of cask conditioning is a lower-carbonation beer, traditionally served at "cellar" temperature - 50F or so.  Flavors develop beautifully and the beers routinely have a smooth-as-silk finish to them.  To entrenched American (read:  Bud Light) tastes, the beer is warm and flat.  To beer sophisticates, the beer is liquid gold.

But I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

All of the beers at the cask festival were huge examples of their various sorts:  big Double and Imperial IPA's and Stouts and Old Ales, IPA's with hop bitterness over 100 IBU's (newbies:  that's a lot of hops) and alcohol levels of 8 and 10 percent by volume.  (Compare Bud Light at 4.2%, Guinness Stout at 4.0% and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at 5.25% ABV.)  Drink three pints of this stuff and hand your car keys over to someone more responsible.  (I have a very accommodating bride, who tolerates more than her share of beer-related nonsense.  God bless her.)

So, what's the dirty little secret?  It's this:  big, alcoholic, hoppy, chewy beers with all that fruity flavor are easy to make.  Just put lots of grain - some of it more heavily roasted than usual -  in the mash tun and lots of hops in the boiler and let 'er rip.  Add yeast - maybe some funky Belgian or exotic old English ale yeast- to the mix and ferment at a temperature that is a little higher than it should be, and you create a monster beer that would-be beer snobs swoon over.  They wax eloquent on the subtle or not-so-subtle flavors of chocolate and whiskey and toffee and smoke and coffee and plum and raisin and kumquat.  They note the biblical levels of hop bitterness that - truth be known - utterly swamp the malt flavor that is the root of all good beer.

The brewing process that produces these beers is completely out of control because all of the fruity flavors embedded in the brew are uncontrolled and uncontrollable byproducts of a fermentation process gone wild.  Really huge beers in this tradition are usually presented as one-of-a-kind brews.  That's because the brewer cannot possibly recreate this same out-of-control fermentation in a subsequent brew. 

Folks, all the fruity flavors, the bananas and green apples and cherries and chocolate are brewing defects.  They are the result of a fermentation process that spawns random chemicals - acetaldehydes and diacetyls and the like - that don't belong in well-crafted beers. It is beyond me how these defects came to be viewed as virtues, when at best they are barely controlled failures of the brewer's art. 

In the final analysis, these enormous beers lack the subtlety and nuance of truly great beers.  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale leaps immediately to mind:  balanced, consistent, reliable and drinkable. Drink SNPA and you taste pure clean malted barley and the essence of Cascades hops.  No French toast or cranberry overtones, no bitterness or astringency that puckers the mouth and makes it shrink from the next sip.  No junk in the trunk. Sierra Nevada's seasonal beers are usually - but not always - similarly well conceived.  Celebration Ale, for instance, varies little from year to year.  These beers are great examples of the brewer's art.

Let's look for a minute at the ultimate junk beer: Budweiser.  As we all know, drinking Bud is like making love in a canoe:  it's fucking close to water.  But Bud is a remarkable example of the brewer's craft - and maybe his art, as well.  The beer has no fruity funkiness or oddball yeastiness or mountainous levels of hops to mask an out-of-control fermentation. For all its lack of good beer flavor, it is amazingly clean, crisp and refreshing - in other words, exactly what it pretends to be.  If Budweiser screws up a batch of beer, you know it instantly (assuming, of course, that you actually drink the stuff).  Bud is infinitely more difficult to brew - as a technical undertaking - than your local Double Secret Hops IPA.  That doesn't make it better, just more difficult to produce day after day.

So what do I want in a good beer?  Drinkability, for starters.  Give me a well-balanced beer that has proportionate levels of hops and malt for the style, with an alcohol level I can live with and still drive home after a couple of pints.  Give me a well-crafted pale ale or even a proper lager that I can enjoy without a constant barrage of sensory pyrotechnics.  If you are going to make me an IPA or an Old Ale, show me you can make it the same way time after time - that the flavors in your beer are the result of design and craft rather than a chemical crap-shoot.  Show me the pure malt and hop flavors that are the essence of good beer, no matter what the specific style.

Don't get me wrong - I love well-made big beers, the Dogfish Head 90's and 120's of the world.  But "good beer" is not synonymous with the crushing levels of hops and alcohol and funky flavors, haphazardly applied, that are so commonly mistaken for "great" beer.  Subtlety and balance, that's the ticket.



  1. Ok so you have not developed a taste for funky beers. Got ya. That doesn't mean they're defects. A weed isn't a weed if you planted it there. Today's brewers are pushing the boundaries of what beer is and can be. Sierra is a classic, but it is obvious that you are just too old to appreciate the craft beer movement that is going on. If all bud has is drinkability than stick to your belovedly drinkable bud and save the Cigar City and St Somewhere to the rest of us, grandpa.

  2. Ouch!

    Having brewed beers from grain for the past 20 years - doddering around with my walker from mash tun to boiler to fermenter - I suppose I have been part of the craft beer movement that you talk about. I might in my grandfatherly way appreciate the movement as much as you do.

    Many of 200 or so beers I've made have been out on the edge of tradition - I do a lot of high-gravity IPA's and have brewed things like chocolate porters and crossovers like India Dark Ales that have characteristics of both a porter and an IPA. Many of these styles properly call for some levels of "weeds" - DMS and diacetyls and that sort of stuff - which are just by-products of a chemical fermentation that has wandered off in the wrong direction. My problem is when the weeds take over an otherwise nicely tended garden. Having made an out-of-control beer or two in my time, I appreciate how difficult it is to get it right.

    Technically, the term "beer" covers a lot of ground, from Bud Light to Samichlaus to sake to "malt beverages" like Zima and Citron (see discussion by someone of your own generation here; ) But at some point, brews get so far from barley malt, hops and yeast that they cease to be good beer and wander off to become something else.

    Catch me at Willard's sometime, where there is plenty of good beer joined only occasionally by some Cherry Wheat crap; I'll buy you a beer.