A few months ago I was visiting my cousin out in the Bay Area and we both are interested in craft brewing. He is a well-informed patron of some of the best local craft breweries and can talk at length on the history and styles of beer – lagers and ales. I’m reasonably acquainted with the local craft brewing scene in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and I’m a long-time award winning home brewer. We had lengthy and good natured discussions and a couple serious debates over various pints at various places. Often the topic was regional styles and tastes in beer. If you travel the country you will notice different places have acquired different tastes in beer. We sampled a number of local beers and took a drive up to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa to see what was on tap. Russian River Brewing is a widely recognized Mecca for beer lovers thanks to the hopped up (hyped up?) Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger brews. Pliny the Younger is triple hopped and has a 10.25% alcohol (abv) content and is only available once a year. Pliny the Elder is a double hopped IPA and is always available on tap. The brewery has maybe twenty or more brews on tap of various styles. Much of what we had as we made the rounds was very good. Some of the North Bay breweries are arguably among the best in the country. We’ll come back to Russian River in a minute.
I’m an experienced brewer and little bit of a beer snob — I admit it — and I have a beef with some craft brewers because they excessively use certain hop varieties or simply over-hop their beer. Why bother making a wheat beer or a rye beer or use a toasted chocolate malt if you are going to put too much hop bitterness in the beer? There seems to be a contest to see how hoppy they can make their beer. India Pale Ale (IPA) is a hoppy beer style. Hops serve as a preservative in beer and IPA was a British brew sent to the soldiers in India so it was always heavily hopped to make the long sea voyage. The bitterness scale used in brewing is International Bitterness Units-IBUs and the traditional IBU range for IPA brews is around 60 units. For comparison, Bud Light might have 10 IBUs and Blue Moon might be around 18 IBUs. Some brewers are making what they call ”Imperial” IPAs with bitterness units of 90 or even 110. I’ve had conversations with brewmasters at several craft breweries about the trend to over-hop craft beers. They recognize the issue and agree that many beers are too heavily hopped but they say they must brew what the patons want. The usual patron knows the hop taste and equates that with craft beers and the hoppy beers are selling. I don’have a problem with hops, per se — just the excessive use that seems to be common in many craft beers.
My second complaint is that there is also a tendency to over use certain hop varieties, which give the brew a heavily citrus flavor. The Citra hop is a new variety of hops (2009) that everyone is going crazy over. Centennial, Cascade, Columbus and Amarillo hop varieties are also very citrus-y and if over used can make beer resemble grapefruit juice. I participated in a brew-off contest among five local brew clubs. Four of the five competing beers contained Citra hops. The fifth beer was a traditional stout that was hopped with traditional English hop varieties and at an appropriate level of bitterness. In an open taste test with several hundred patrons voting, the traditional stout won the contest. The Citra hopped beers were mostly okay but were citrus flavored and over powered.
Okay, so…I left my cousin at Russian River Brewing so I have to go back to rescue him. We were having a great time drinking pints and enjoying the place. We decided to share a full flight of the Belgian style brews they had on tap and when it came there were eleven different samples….yikes. Belgians have a knack for doing some unusual things with beer. They are big into flavoring beer with fruit so you will find cherry or peach or raspberry additions to beer. The abbey beers in Belgium were fermented using wild yeast strains in open vats, often up in the attic or somewhere with little or no control over fermentation conditions. Some yeast strains were localized and eventually permeated the fermentation areas and wooden vats and they became the standard yeast for a particular abbey’s beer. These are Lambic beers and many fall into the category of sour beers. I’ve had sour beer before and it is an acquired taste, I guess. We plowed into the eleven samples and each one was more sour than the last. My cousin was in heaven….he loved the stuff. There was maybe one or two that I would be willing to drink a full pint of…maybe. Most were undrinkable. A truly open fermented beer in northern California might have yeast strains that are visiting from the neighbor’s vineyard or possibly blown in from a fish carcass on the beach or the road kill we passed a while back. Instead, thankfully, Russian River uses wine barrels from California wineries (a yeast source) and introduces other isolated strains of yeast from different Belgian brew styles….what once were wild yeasts. They use different wine barrels (Pinot, Chardonnay, etc.) for different brews. That’s all very interesting to me but the end product tastes awful. When I brew beer I work very hard not to have those flavors in my beer because that is what I would consider infected beer and I’d throw out the whole batch. Needless to say, we had some spirited discussions on the merits of sour beer. We agreed to disagree.
My cousin is an artist and a poet when he isn’t in beer mode. He is a good artist – I like his stuff – and has a couple published books of poetry. He writes in a form that he developed called “Boxes”, which are poems of ten lines with each line having ten syllables. There is more to it than that but you get the idea. Each poem has 100 syllables. In his honor I decided to write the following poem, reflecting on our brewery experiences.
The Brewer’s Lament
Your beer conforms to the sour persuasion.
It seems so wrong on the few occasions
that I’ve given it my full attention.
If I brewed a batch that took on that taste
I’d know my effort had all gone to waste.
So what is the deal with regional beer?
There’s Belgian and Baltic and Irish but
Mexican beer has an Austrian root.
So drink what you will, I won’t call it swill.
Don’t over think it – pour it and drink it.
* * *
I know folks will disagree but that is part of the enjoyment of the current enthusiasm with craft brewing.