Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Country Heard From or, In Wine There Is Truth

I don't usually re-post other writer's work verbatim, but today I'm going to buck tradition.

Carlo DeVito's recent post about craft beer's rather self-indulgent "pyrotechnics"—as he calls them—struck a chord with me. What he writes isn’t particularly revolutionary, and as far as beer folk go, it’s a rather beaten horse conversation. The “experiments” (again using his word) have been justified time and time again as a “what is made is what the market demands" and "experimentation makes for good beer". 

That might (or might not) be the case, but what makes Carlo’s point so interesting is that he doesn’t normally write about beer. Rather, he’s an accomplished publishing executive, and editor with an affinity for wine. In fact he owns the Hudson-Chatham Winery, in Columbia County, New York. But don’t get him wrong, Carlo likes beer—he sites Scotch Ale as a particular favorite. He enjoys the occasional glass of fermented grain, rather than his usual one of fermented grapes, every once in a while. But that’s about as far as it goes for him. However, at the same time, he can look at the craft beer industry through wine-industry colored glasses, and having published a good number of boozy books over his career, he comes with a unique perspective.

Now, beer folk may simply choose to write Mr. DeVito off as a novice, or a slightly ill-informed, under schooled beery dilettante—a moniker he chooses to call himself. But, perhaps, rather than showing him to the door with a polite wave, craft beer might do itself a favor by reading his post, and considering his opinion—and then maybe read it again.

Here you go:

What's Next For Local Beer? Pyrotechnics Versus Quality. 
Notes From a Beer Amateur

By Carlo DeVito

Scotch ale is a great beer. Malty and almost semi-sweet. Done right, it is one of my favorite beers. And tasting one recently brought me to a very weird question.

I am not a beer authority. I have been lucky enough in life to get hang out with some of the better ones. I published Michael Jackson years ago when I was at Running Press. And I was lucky enough to work with Tim Webb, Ben McFarland Stephen Beaumont, and Joshua M. Bernstein among many, as well as local beer authorities like Josh Christie, Chad Polenz, Julia Burke, and others.

That doesn't make me an makes me a dilettante.

Now, there are two things I want to say here. First, I have been a HUGE fan of the craft beer explosion. I have had immense fun watching what's been going on.

Secondly, I love seeing the inventive new products coming from the craft beer explosion. I love the experimentation and I love the collaboration. I think it is all very cool!

Thirdly, I am friends and acquaintances with a number of brewers, and I love talking to them about beer, and have even worked on a few collaboration beers myself.

That said, I am left wondering where we are with the craft beer revolution. Right now I see the evolution of a paradigm - the Pyrotechnics Versus Quality Beer.

Already there has begun a backlash of the over hopping of craft beer. The double and triple IPAs, the Black IPAs. It seems these days if it' not over hopped, it's not considered good. And I applauded the original trend. But of course, nothing in America succeeds like excess. I, like others, think the trend has gone too far. Brett too seemed to be the rage for sometime, though I seem to suddenly be hearing less and less about that.

I guess you can say that about almost every category. From Pumpkin stout, to chocolate stout, to gingerbread stout, etc.

But here's what I am wondering. I have skin in the local craft beverage business. And I am a fan. But here's what I ask as a drinker, and then some... Where does it all end? When do we just brew good beer instead of crazy beer? Is it all pyrotechnics, or is settling to be a quality maker not enough?

My favorite brewery, though I love trying beers from Mikkler and all the others, are places like Samuel Smith, Brooklyn Brewery, and a handful of others.

If all you do as a small brewery is concentrate on wild new experiments, then at what point do you flare out?

Asking someone to be the next Samuel Smith, by the way, is like asking someone to be the next Mouton Rothchild. In wine terms, Samuel Smith's is a First Grown brewery.

But where does the madness end? Or doesn't it?

I come to this question because I recently went somewhere, I tasted a lovely Scotch Ale. I love Scotch Ale. This was luscious and malty and just perfect. And I was relieved. Because the last two or three Scotch Ales I've tried were completely over hopped, and ruined in my humble opinion. There so many classic styles, is it not enough to make three or four or five well?

I am not trying to be a curmudgeon. I am a beer fan. And I love the experiments and trying new things. But the industry cannot sustain this level of experimentation forever. I saw the shakeout in the 1990s, and expect, in the craft business, that one will happen sooner than I like, and I will lament the loss of our fellow brethren. I might be a loser I am a business owner. I know these margins are thin. I am rooting for these guys. But when the shake out happens, who will be left standing?

There are smarter minds than mine on this question. As I said, I am a dilettante. But the landscape is rising up around me. In the Hudson Valley alone there are near 15-20 breweries. And around the state, there are multitudes more. I love it. I think the malling of North America has been a disgusting farce. And there is a certain glee I experience when I see the ghost malls springing up over the landscape (I admit a kind of self-righteous, sadistic Cormwellian sneer at these), and I love that the craft beverage business because it returns uniqueness to the individual regions. I love tasting new things and I love tasting things that are peculiar to a region. I like that local thing. I like that uniqueness. It is what makes traveling fun!

I know I am asking a big question. I know there is no answer. I know I am not equipped nor own the bonafides to give a proper answer. That's for the big guys to take on.

But from my lowly spot on the beer totem pole (actually I am not even on it), as a local purveyor, I wonder if it will affect the region and the other craft beverage producers? I am sure someone can even turn the question around on me, and ask them same of the wineries or the distilleries or the cideries.

But the question remains, at one point doesn't quality win out over pyrotechnics? Does making good beer beat experimentation at one point? Maybe I'm wrong and this was a waste of space, but I thought I'd at least ask the question. How does local beer sustain itself for the long haul?

To me, it all rests on a simple glass of Scotch Ale.


  1. In my view, it begs the question to suggest pyrotechnics are trumping quality. Quality means different things to different people. A simple glass of Scotch ale, which incidentally may bear only a tangential relation to the Scotch ales brewed in the 19th century (when Scottish brewing expanded and industrialized), may please some but not others. Highly hopped beers appeal to many, including me, and have historical warrant, were this needed, since few beers today use more hops than the typical stout or pale ale of the 1800's. Even American hops were known in Britain then and were used in some brewing.

    Ginger in stout was a minor 1800's specialty. Burton in the late 1800's made a kind of black pale ale. Very little is new and the return of what at one time was a highly various and locally-based tradition is only to be applauded, IMO. I also believe this will reinforce interest in wineries and cideries, not take away from it. Each producer can decide how far to experiment or stick with a line which has developed a following. Business strategies can differ. Indeed while Sam Smith, mentioned in the article, has done well by being relatively conservative, other English regional brewers are taking more interest in the range of styles developed (or rather rediscovered) in America in the last generation.

    Finally, I'd argue black IPA, pumpkin stout, white IPA, wild ales, are here to stay. They may not be flavor of the month right now but they are firmly a part of the modern brewing picture, and that's a good thing.


    IIRC, Michael Jackson once said, who knows what the market is for a stout? He said this at the dawn of the craft brewing revival, so today one might substitute for stout, pumpkin porter, white IPA, cherry wheat, I don't know. Who would have guessed that a highly citric-tasting pale ale, something many would say tasted more like a mixture of standard English pale ale and grapefruit juice, would become the star of the international craft brewing movement?


  2. I think you might be missing Carlo's point. I think his point is that the flashy pyrotechnic beers are great, but in many cases those beers are aimed at the fetishists. That's fine, except that there's another market that is often overlooked—consumers who want more subtle beer, like Scotch Ales.

  3. The craft beer scene as it stands today reminds me a little of the Northern California wine industry in the 1980's. There was then an explosion of wineries in Napa and Sonoma and a flood of red wine hitting the market. Wineries were seeking ways to differentiate their products from their competitors. Many seized on the idea of "bigness," and cabernet grapes. "Bigness" was translated to mean "tannic" and within a short time "Big Cabs" became a thing. The wines needed to be cellared for years in order for the flavors to develop and for the tannins to mellow, but instead, tannin levels became a sort of scorecard for both wineries and drinkers. Men (my observations suggest gender was a factor) happily drank harsh wine in order to brag about their ability to handle Big Cabs. And the wineries kept trying to out-do each other in this tannic arms race.

    Substitute "bitterness" for "tannic" and "beer" for "Cab" and the current craft beer scene starts to look familiar. There's an IPA war going on, one that's being fought on the bitterness battlefield as the breweries compete for IBU supremacy. And once again I hear men competing amongst themselves, this time it's over the amount of bitterness they can handle. When I go into a supermarket (where most beer is purchased, I expect) the craft beers on offer seem to be mostly IPA. Stouts often run a close second, with flavored beer coming in third, and even some of these are starting to boast about greater hoppiness on their labels. Meanwhile, where is the good, drinkable, beer and ale? When will we see a wider variety of styles on the shelf? When will the IBU arms race end?

    One thing (among many) in the IBU wars that is different from the tannic wars in the red wine industry in the 80's is that today "branding" has become an industry in itself. Although it was recognized decades ago, at least, it is often the brand that's being sold, not the actual product. This even applies at the individual level: Jessica Simpson, Kim Kardashian, Sean Combs, are all "brands" whose names are tied to product lines, for example. In craft brewing there's also a battle for brand recognition, for growing the brand. Assuming that growing the brand results in increasing market share, the brewery becomes more profitable. The end-state of this appears to be either growing into a national player, like Boston Beer, or be acquired by one of the giants. So you fight in the IBU wars.

    When I took the intensive brewing classes at UC Davis years ago, the profs explained that it's all just "malted beverage" and you can make (and they proved it with samples they'd produced) something that looked like the darkest stout but tasted like the lightest lager....and vice versa and everything in between. Just about any combo is possible, and it seems that right now the craft scene is absorbed in a sort of self-indulgent exploration of exotica and hyping it to beat the band. At some point limits will be reached and a shakeout will occur. Some will fold and some hipsters will figure out that if they add a still and a few more bits to their brewhouse and do the licensing, they can get into the "small batch bourbon" market. Oh, wait, that's already happening.

    In the meantime, does anyone know where I can get a true English mild ale?

    1. Check out Wandering Star's Mild at Heart.

      In fact, the Allen Street Pub in Albany is gong to have it on at their Spring cask Tap the weekend of March 27-29th!