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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Immigrant Beer

A couple-three nights ago, I was watching an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets on DVD while sipping a glass of Ninkasi Radiant. (Homicide is in my opinion the best television show ever produced for commerical broadcast television. Not surprising; it was based on David Simon's book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and was in many ways a precursor to The Wire, perhaps the best television show, period.) I will get to a review of Ninkasi in due course, but as my tongue splashed around a mouthful of Jamie Floyd's latest tincture of hop, two things struck me. One was how much an intact family the Ninkasi beers are. Leaving aside early flights of fancy (Schwag, Oatis), I can think of no line of beer so closely related. The second thing that struck me was how odd it is that this brand consistency is so rare among American craft beers.

Historically, breweries produced families of beer. Maybe they weren't all variations on a theme, like Cantillion's, for example, but they were certainly contained within a family of styles native to a region. And even when a brewery was inspired by the beers of another country, they usually got translated pretty dramatically to the native style. So thick is the Flemish accent of Scotch de Silly that it will never be confused with the thick ales of Caledonia. The brewers of Paulaner don't think, upon waking one morning: "Hey, why don't we brew an IPA today?"

Yet that's exactly what American brewers do. Even the ones where a brewing tradition is strongly embraced, like BridgePort with their clear English roots, brew random stuff from time to time. And many have such a random collection that it's actually hard to identify what tradition inspires the brewery, if any. Americans can brew to style, now more than ever. But they brew in what you might call the Ellis Island style--a little bit Czech, a dash Bavarian, a touch English.

Ninkasi is an interesting case study. Jamie Floyd brews in what might be called a perfectly typical American style--or better yet, a regional style typical of the Northwest. (There are Belgian beers, sure, but taxonomists refer to Wallonian or West Flanders.) This style has a heritage very much in the English style, but to taste a flight of Ninkasi beers is to steep yourself in a now very well-established native variant. Is this the future? Or will American brewers continue to produce a potpourri of world styles, according to their momentary whim? Will American beer evolve (in a hundred, five hundred) years to a distinct variation, or is the potpourri of styles actually the marker of American beer?

The answer lies in the future. I'll take your bets now.


  1. You should check out the BBC Life on Mars.

  2. Biscuity goodness. Have you seen Cracker? That is my favorite show on BBC

  3. So, where's the Ninkasi review? ;-}

  4. In the here and now a potpourri of styles is the marker of American beer. Not so in the past. The simple fact that so many American’s DON’T trace their roots to one country or another keeps them from feeling they need to brew as that foreign country does. I think home brewing also broke the formula mold. It allowed for freer experimentation that has morphed into microbreweries also experimenting.

    The key for me has never been that many style hybrids are bad. It is that there will always be a quality range regardless of the recipe. The current American interpretation of Belgian styles is an example. The use of different yeast strains I think has led to some pretty crappy beers. Unappealing yeast character just because it is supposed to have, well, yeast character.

    In the long run the crappy beers will fade, the quality beers will rise to the top and we will all be better for it.

  5. I thought the Radiant Summer Ale is way too much like their Spring Reign seasonal... I almost thought it was the same beer in a different bottle.. but just a bit more amped up and flavorful I guess... but I was expecting more. The one beer I love of theirs is the Tricerahops... and the IPA at Multnomah falls.. which I asked in an email if it was the same as the Total Domination IPA.. and I never got an answer back. It'd been so long since I had it, I couldn't tell... but it was great on-tap!

  6. I believe US craft brewing is on the same arc as homebrewers, at least if my own experience is an example. Mr. Murphy calls this out in his comments. First, you brew what is relatively straight forward and easy--English style ale. Then, you get some experience and you try other styles. Finally, you settle on a few styles or variations with which you are successful.

    Unlike home brewing where demand generation, distributor relations and sales numbers are irrelevant, craft brewers are experimenting wildly in an attempt to differentiate themselves and to boost bottom lines.

    As craft brewing evolves, larger breweries will not be quite so experimental as the demands of production, distribution and marketing place constraints on having too many products to sell. However, I think that smaller, local or even regional brewers, on their way to becoming larger, will experiment and create unique offerings.

    Through consolidation and the devastating effects of Prohibition, we ended up with an American style that was predominantly pale lager. The craft brewing phenomenon has changed that scene to one of significant variation, but hasn't settled into an identifiable American style. I do believe we will have something that approximates an American style with a range of interpretations. If we're lucky, we'll get local and regional experimentation along the way, constantly influencing that American style.

  7. On homebrewing/immigrant beer.

    I don't know that I buy a causal link here. More importantly, I don't think Mark's description of the evolution is accurate. If you look at how beers evolved in New England and the Upper Midwest, it varied from the Northwest.

    In Wisconsin, for example, a lot of the early breweries did lagers. This is because the immigrants to the Upper Midwest were mostly German. They also did other beers, but to say that the predominant starting place was the English-style ale isn't accurate. And in New England, their immigrant group--Britons--has led them to stick with more characteristically English beers. Nothing like Ninkasi there.

    But it's true that my point wasn't exactly an earth-shattering insight.

  8. A lot of words, but little insight, Jeff. ;-} But, I know what you're saying.....

    Everything in life continues to evolve....and regional styles are created. Evolution is a natural process.... maybe with the exception of some of my readers... :-O I haven't learned the language of Australopithecus yet!

    @ Mark

    I think Homebrewers (real hardcore) evolve into new and more challenging styles and/or create something new. Quitters settle for the common and easily to produce. They tend to expand their horizons at every turn and live to try something new or different or experimental. ;-}

    ...and when they hit the end of that road... they just write about brewing. Of course, some people would rather just sing the blues without paying they're dues, but we generally call that, bullshitting.

  9. Henceforth I will leave the insight to you, Doc Wort, for your posts are always laden with heretofore unseen wisdom. And pics of scantily-clad women. You can't find that just anywhere on the internets!

  10. intact family = diacetyl in every beer

  11. I wouldn't be so quick to discount Oatis, which I believe is still available in bottles (or at least was not that long ago; I believe it was released this past winter).

    I would be especially disheartened if Ninkasi never again produced by far the best vanilla-infused beer of any kind that I've tried, and it certainly helps that it was based on the Oatis.


  12. Also worth noting… both the Radiant and the Oatis are on tap right now at Bailey's, for those who like flights of fancy (can we put the Sasquatch in that category?). :)


  13. Ah, yes, Jeff.... Dr Wort is rather transparent.

    We do try to appease a diverse crowd, so if you don't like "scantily-clad women," we'll think twice next time and add a hunky guy holding a Cherry Weizen and wearing a banana hammock for ya.... :-O

    The Doctor has even been running a few useless Polls, that you admire and cherish so much.... We want to learn from your well organized insightful ways.... ;-}

    BTW.... The doctor DID understood your post.

  14. Anon said:

    "intact family = diacetyl in every beer"

    Yeah, everything I've tried from them lately has been a butter bomb, especially the last few times I've tried to order a pint of Tricerahops. I had high hopes for the radiant, but the butter in the aroma and slightly oily, slick mouthfeel made it practically undrinkable.

    If it was one bar I'd chalk it up to a bad keg or dirty lines, but when the Moon and Six, Horse Brass, and the Tanker all have infected kegs it's a sign of something worse.

    It's sadly typical arc:

    1: new brewery becomes the hot new thing.

    2: brewery expands too quickly and rushes beer out the door to meet demand.

    3: Beer quality goes to shit.

  15. Jeff? Do you think diacetyl is a positive component of NW beers?

    Still waiting for the reviews...

  16. Poor DW, suffering the pain of unrequited provocations.

  17. waiting for the reviews...

  18. Oatis? Where? I love Oatis. Oatis was my favorite stout this last winter. You apparently like seeing that relational aspect in your beers, and I get it. I do to to an extant. I just prefer my beers family tree to have more branched then Ninkasi's line. They may know how to hap a beer well, and the flavors tend to balance nicely, but kissing cousins isn't my thing

    By the by, had Radient today and was dissapointed. I wasnted a tradition "Summer Ale", and instead got yet another pale ale-ish beer from them.

  19. @ Jeff

    Love a reason to bicker.... ;-}

  20. I'm here to comment on the most important part of the post:

    Oh my goodness, Homicide was awesome. I watched it as a kid (yeah, shut up, I still get carded constantly) and it taught this still budding writer a lot about character and plot arcs and how to tell a story with emotion and bla bla yakety artsy crap.

    Plus it had one of the hottest casts ever assembled. Rowr.

    I also second the recommendation for BBC's Life on Mars. Not the American version, that was like Budweiser to Ninkasi (and I spent this weekend drinking Budweiser in California, I know from what I'm talking).