Craft beer has always prided itself in offering one thing that the big macro lager producers fail to: Flavor. But in that past several years or so, the craft scene seems to have taken that offering and grown it exponentially. Beers are being brewed with obscene hop levels, bombastic malt backing, and at times, seemingly absurd levels of alcohol…and the craft culture seems to be dripping for more.
Those new to craft beer may not notice this phenomenon to the extent of those whose journey began perhaps five to ten, even twenty. The fact that session beers and lower alcohol beers get much lower ratings on beer rating sites seems to indicate that the public regards session and low alcohol beers as inferior in quality, which is nonsense. A beer that does not fit one’s preferences does not equate to a beer that does not fit quality standards; but this is a post for another day.
This quest and crave for bigger, bolder, sweeter, bitterer, etc., is not isolated to the craft beer scene. In fact, a very interesting article in the May 26th edition of the Wall Street Journal highlights the trend in food (all realms, but primarily shelf bought as opposed to fine cuisine).
Some food companies are hitting their labs to try to torque up flavorings to appeal to the country’s expanding palates, and, of course, boost sales of snacks, drinks and even main courses. Arugula and ancho-chile sauce now appear at restaurants like Chili’s where there was once only iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise. PepsiCo Inc.’s Frito-Lay brand recently introduced Doritos chip flavors labeled First-, Second- and Third-Degree Burn. Gum-maker Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. is using new technologies like textured crystals it calls Micro-Bursts to deliver a more intense flavor as well as new sweeteners to make flavors last longer. At home, seasoning company McCormick & Co. Inc. says Americans now keep an average of 40 different spices, a figure that has grown roughly twice as fast in the past two decades as it did in the previous 30 years.
Reading through the article, one can easily replace the technical food terms with beer terms creating parallels and drawing similar conclusions. For instance, I have often wondered if sessionable and more “mild” beers are REALLY less complex than bigger more “flavorful” beers, or if, as one consumes more and more “big” beers, they desensitize their palate. The author of the recent WSJ article wonders the same:
As people crave intensity in flavor, some traditionalists are wondering if diners will become desensitized to natural flavors. Regular mangoes may taste bland when eaten next to mango-flavored gum or a mango energy drink, they say.
With that quote in mind, consider drinking a Stone Pale ale immediately after drinking a Stone Leviathan ale. How do you supposed the Stone Pale Ale would taste? Weak? Watery? It just might, while in reality, Stone’s Pale Ale is great beer in and of itself.
We in the craft beer community often consider ourselves a cryptic people, having happened upon beer enlightenment. And why shouldn’t we? The vast majority of our friends and family have yet to climb out of the macro well. But we are not a stingy variety, as we find ourselves evangelizing at every opportunity. But, how different are we than the overall bucket of consumers. It does appear we are esoteric in the sense that we are mirroring the food world at least.
My point is not to deride monster beers, the brewers that create them, or the craft beer fellows who drink them; after all, Mike has brewed a 42% ABV homebrew and I created 17.4% flavorful homebrew recently, and we both have big beers in our cellars. The point is that craft beer, as a consumer product, is not absolutely detached from the trends of consumerism as a whole, even while there may be stark differences.
Just as those in a different industry caution against “taste bud overload,” so to speak, so do I. Don’t stop drinking your big beer, just don’t neglect your household pale ales and porters. After all, picking up on some abstract flavor such as pine nuts, plums, or plantain is a lot easier to do in a big beer than in a session beer. That being said, if you want to refine your palate, pick up a handcrafted beer with a moderate ABV.