Hops are not our biggest problem
Within the craft beer community, much has been debated this past year over several pieces addressing the current industry and market obsession with hops. True to the American consuming nature, we do enjoy big and brash over subtle and nuanced in almost everything from automobiles to food to politics to music and film. Driven by West Coast breweries, we lust after the bold, pungent citrus and resin flavors of high-alpha hops, ramping IBUs up past anything considered reasonable by the previous generation of brewers and consumers — who did exactly the same to their predecessors, dating all the way back to the birth of modern craft beer.
To answer this oft-asked question, no, hops and their fans are not ruining craft beer. As a fundamental ingredient in our favorite beverage, one cannot use “too much” hops any more than one can use too much malt or too much yeast. The worth of the resulting product is judged by the craft beer consumer, with a brewery’s IPA commonly their most profitable and largest volume product. No doubt, the amount and intensity of hops included in beers across the stylistic spectrum has increased with the American appetite for new craft beer, and indeed most all our beers produced today are skewing toward the bitter end of the palate. As one who enjoys a good IPA with regularity, such is simply a trend to be acknowledged and not one to fret about as there remains an abundance of less hoppy beers for the consumer to embrace. Hopefully, the highest quality and most balanced beers will win out against excess over time.
Instead, craft beer watchers should be paying attention to the growing obsession with sour beers. Some of the oldest beer styles known, these “wild ales” originated spontaneously through natural, native yeasts and other microflora present everywhere in our human environment that made their way into fermentation vessels. The same sources that gave rise to sourdough breads, sauerkraut, kimchi and even vinegar and yogurt infected early brews and developed into small regional styles such as Berliner weiss, lambic, saison, oud bruin, gose and the more modern stock ales and even Kentucky common. Until quite recently, the tart and funky flavors of sour ales were limited to a very small and esoteric consumer base that embraced the niche of European imports and the handful of domestic brewers working to replicate or interpret their own.
However, given the expansive growth of the U.S. craft beer market during the past few years the once small captivation with sour beers has caught sail with the increasingly competitive marketplace, and brewers are pushing more and more artisanal wild and deliberately inoculated products out the door — and as something pungently new and novel to most craft beer consumers, their popularity is skyrocketing. By their nature being difficult styles of beer to brew and control, some European breweries specialized exclusively in soured styles with carefully cultivated strains of yeast and environmentally sensitive areas such as the Zenne Valley, not to mention generations of skill in blending and aging batches for proper flavor and consistency. Today, American brewers otherwise producing mainstream popular styles are commercially releasing sour beers as early as one year after the brewery is licensed and open.
So few new brewers handle sour beers well and can produce
the complexity and depth of flavor of their Old World counterparts…
Part of the problem with this trend is that so few new brewers handle sour beers well and can produce the complexity and depth of flavor of their Old World counterparts, and even fewer modern craft beer consumers can critically appreciate the difference. Some brewers attempt to replicate the methods of lambic and geuze producers, creating conditions for spontaneous fermentation with the native regional yeasts surrounding the brewery facilities. This itself assumes that such strains of flora found in American wildlands can produce desirable flavors in the same way as other areas, which is a gamble. Worse yet, more brewers shortcut the natural process of fermentation and deliberately dose their beers with known souring agents such as Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus simply to generate the desired tartness of flavor in their recipes.
Craft beer consumers forget (or never knew) that such flavor elements like Brett were until recently considered serious flaws and were strictly undesirable in the majority of beer styles. Brewers would go to great lengths to eliminate such contaminants from their equipment and even their physical properties, with many fearing even to attempt brewing a sour batch on the same system otherwise relied upon for their revenue. But many modern brewers of sour beers have a much too casual attitude toward the cultivation and production of these infectious agents, trying as they might to meet the demand of a small, rabid specialty of sour ale consumer.
Granted, a few domestic brewers have succeeded very well in producing some fine commercial soured beer styles on a par with European imports, a few even dedicating their entire operations to such ends, but these are the exceptions. However, craft breweries of any appreciable size now have some sort of internal sour-beer development, barrel aging or batch-blending programs with the commercial release of the most successful results. Thus a cycle begins with more breweries establishing and developing their own sour products to compete with other breweries doing the same, with ever more sour beers of varying quality entering the marketplace.
Experimentation is always good, and brewers who explore the world of commercially acceptable sour beers should be lauded for their attempts to grow and sharpen their own skill set. However, the necessary stylistic history and education of the conventional consumer has not kept pace with their ravenous fascination with the new and different and the unending desires of their own palates. The fear is that a critical breakdown will eventually occur as off-flavor components such as those produced in sour beer profiles are no longer seen as technical flaws in any beer and become acceptable constituents in the stylistic guidelines as they evolve away from their roots. For those who find this idea a bit far-fetched, consider how today’s session beers have migrated from their original style profiles with increasing levels of hops to please the consumer, leaving even traditionally malt-forward beers with an uncharacteristic bitter, citrus or pine note.
The solution? Most consumer markets are free and unregulated, as they should naturally be, and discouraging product research and the expansion of brewing techniques should never be entertained. But consumers must take upon themselves the burden of their own taste training and learn to distinguish the better from the lesser brewing attempts that they find. Seek out not only old, classic sour beer styles but old and classic breweries, almost exclusively imports from the regions from which these historical styles once originated. Learn to compare and contrast the depth and richness of a well-brewed Belgian oud bruin and one made domestically by a brewery before their wooden anniversary, and then make buying choices accordingly based on the quality of product.