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.