As I travel both literally and virtually around the US beer scene, I am constantly reminded by those that purport to ‘know’ that we are currently enjoying a ‘golden age’ of brewing. I suppose, that if one were to look at the relatively recent past, AND restrict ones view to the USA, AND one were to simply look at numbers then one could see a grain of truth in the statement, but closer inspection of even that narrow view suggests that the ‘golden age’ is being exaggerated a great deal.
Prohibition certainly worked its own ‘number’ on brewing in the USA, with an approximately 50% reduction in breweries from 5 years before prohibition in 1915, to the time prohibition had been repealed in the early 1930’s. But when we look at the number of breweries now present in the US (approx. 1600 in late 2009) we see that the 1915 populace has just about been re-established – hardly a ‘golden age’, more of a ‘return to where you once were before prohibition’.
Of course, putting aside the pure statistics there other ways of attempting to qualify this ‘golden age’. Some cite the ‘innovative’ brewing that is taking place in the US right now and one of the poster children for that particular campaign is the American Style Black Ale, AKA the oxymoronic ‘Black IPA’. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that this ‘style’ is an example of American brewing being at the cutting edge and forging into new and previously unknown and exciting territory – it’s just a shame that these people don’t know that in one way, shape or form, highly hopped ales combined with dark malts have been produced for decades prior to the recent ‘explosion’. No matter where or how these brews were previously concocted, whether in the UK, US or elsewhere, or what they were previously labeled, whether stout, porter or something else, ALL of these combos have been brewed before at some point in time. As Andy Crouch says, just because it suddenly popped up in the PNW of the US and used American grown hop varieties doesn’t suddenly mean a new style has been invented.
Given that no beer in 2011 and beyond is likely to be “innovative”, let’s look at a couple of things that American brewers actually do really well; pushing envelopes and reviving styles.
For me, the classic example of both of these attributes is encapsulated in the American (in particular, West Coast) Double IPA. Now, there is a pretty strong argument to say that like ASBA’s, American DIPA’s are hardly anything new at all. The late 19th century IPA’s that were brewed in England were certainly much higher in ABV and more aggressive in terms of their hop profiles than modern English versions of the style, and in that respect American brewers could (and perhaps should) be credited with reviving a genre of beer that had long disappeared in England. However, before heaping unlimited praise upon these brave new brewers we should consider what the American mindset has inadvertently created. Contemporary American breweries have not only taken those higher ABV and higher hopped IPA’s and brought them back to the craft beer scene, but in typical American fashion they also cranked it, yanked it and ripped the knob off! To be fair, there are a number of these types of beer that I actually enjoy, so why you ask wouldn’t this qualify as part of a definition of a ‘golden age’ for me? The problem is that amongst they very best, carefully crafted examples of this revived style, we are ALSO inundated with a much larger number of crass, ‘in bad taste’ (in both senses of the phrase) beers, that instead of nodding respectfully to tradition, only serve to illustrate that they fail to know the difference between healthy irreverence and being an obnoxiously loud adolescent. There is a vast array of crappy, (literally) distasteful beers in the DIPA category as well as all other styles too. The growth of beer interest in the US has seen the production of a large amount of mediocre beer, that in the name of ‘craft’ has been anointed as good or great, when in fact it is sitting firmly at the other end of the quality spectrum. ‘Craft’ does not define ‘good’. Many modern geeks have lost the ability to discern what’s good and bad, and have come to the conclusion that if it’s not BMC then it must be worthy. The fact that these poor examples are in such abundance brings me to my final point.
In a nutshell, quantity does NOT equal quality, nor should an abundance of availability suggest a culture of understanding and appreciation. American bars with literally hundreds of taps do not, by definition, mean that all is well. Beer stores bursting at the seems with colossal choice do not, by definition, mean that we are living in a beer utopia. Much more important is the culture and depth of understanding surrounding the beer that is available. In so many cases there seems to be an inverse relationship between quantity (especially availability) and that cultural connection. Smaller, well thought out offerings that reflect DISCERNMENT will always trump the conspicuous flaunting of a myriad of ‘beer wealth’, whether it be in terms of pure TASTE, in terms of the tyranny of choice, or in terms of the more practical issues surrounding the cleanliness of tap-lines and the (lack of) turnover of beer.
Of course, if we start to apply words and phrases like ‘discernment’, ‘taste’ and ‘conspicuous flaunting’, no strata of American popular culture is likely emerge in a favorable light.