Saturday, April 13, 2013

Where oh where has my little beer gone?

Image credit: Real Ale Brewing Company

I've decided what, or rather who I'm going to be for Halloween.

Who is Clara Peller, you ask? She's that crotchety old lady who starred in one of Wendy's most memorable advertising campaigns. The only difference is, my tagline won't be "Where's the beef?," it'll be "Where's the beer?"

I made this decision because I seem to be spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out why my beer doesn't taste like beer. Of course, we all know "beer" isn't a flavor, but rather a celebration of it. At least, that's been the company line for craft brewers since the late 1970s. Yet, we seem to be evolving to a place where specialty ingredients are taking hold of the beers we drink. It's gotten to the point where there are times I wonder if I'm drinking beer or bouillabaisse (well, minus the fish).

Let's get one thing straight. I'm all for moving beyond the beer "starter kit" (i.e. barley, hops, water and yeast) to more exotic ingredients. It's only natural to want to push the boundaries of beer as we know it in an effort to create more unique and flavorful brews. Just do it in moderation. Paraphrasing the BJCP style guidelines, specialty ingredients should be harmonious with the beer's other components while not totally overpowering them.

Take, for example, coffee beers. There are some outstanding examples of how beers like this should be brewed: Real Ale Coffee Porter, Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout and Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti. Each infuses just enough coffee to compliment the roast and dark chocolate flavors contributed by the choice of grain. At the other end of the spectrum are the beers that taste like coffee. Not malt, not hops, just coffee. If I want coffee I know where to go, and it's not to a brewery. While the majority of Americans may live 10 miles from a brewery, virtually everyone lives within 10 seconds of a Starbucks. Go there to get your mug o' Joe to go. Beer shouldn't taste like coffee. Beer should taste like beer.

Or, how about these trending Mexican, Mayan or Mole stouts? Honestly, I've never been more bewildered by a beer style. I say this not because I am put off by the flavor, for the combination of cinnamon, bittersweet cocoa and varying blends of ancho, guajillo or chipotle peppers is bold, slightly aggressive and quite tasty. The problem is, nearly every one of these brews I've tried is so exceptionally light in body it's like drinking spiced water. Is it supposed to drink like a cold version of a hot toddy? Here's an idea, use it as a marinade. That way, you can soak some barley and hops in it and make it into a beer.

Look, there's no harm in raiding the pantry in search of new flavors, but throwing a blanket of spice over a hastily made bed of barley and hops is the first step in making a bad beer. Really, all you have to do is ask yourself one question. Do you want to make beer, or just another beverage? Beer should have balance. Beer should have body. Simply put, beer should be beer.

When to get the "good": Real Ale Coffee Porter and Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout are fall seasonals, while Great Divide Oak Aged Espresso Yeti is a late winter release.

*Originally published on

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