Let us climb into the wayback machine and travel to that distant time of 1990. Many of you will have been too young to drink then (half the population was 17 or younger at the time), and probably the rest of you were drinking Hamm's. The Americans who had discovered craft beer resided in that fiery, fundamentalist stage of the just-converted. In their backlash against additive-laden tin can beers, they were Reinheitsgebot-curious, allowing exemptions for wheat, say, but little else. Breweries dabbling with fruit and honey were regarded with suspicion, if they were regarded at all. Other ingredients were dismissed with a sneer as "adjuncts." It was an article of morality.
Ah, how things have changed. I haven't run the numbers, but my guess is that something north of 75% of the brewpubs around town have a beer on tap with some formerly-suspicious contaminant. Last week, I stopped in to Laurelwood and discovered their Bay Laurel Pale. Last night, I moseyed over to Coalition for a pint of maple porter--one of my new fave beers. Ales adulterated with chocolate, coffee, pepper, herbs, and fruit are so common they don't even register as something to consider. The change has become so complete that even corn and rice make their way into beer--the two grains no brewer would ever have considered using twenty years ago.
Historically, of course, adjuncts were ubiquitous. Read through descriptions of some of the crazy English or German styles, and you realize that at one time, a barley-hops-water-yeast beer would have been an austere curiosity. The use of other ingredients seems more natural and obvious when you think about it; while malt and hops offer fair diversity, if a brewer wants to draw out certain notes, why limit himself to just these ingredients?
When brewers first used spices in their beer, they were considered gimmicks. Many times, that was the goal. But brewers have learned how to use a pinch of this and a dash of that the way a chef does, and the results are generally quite good; they add subtle notes that fill out the flavor profile.
Take Laurelwood's Bay Laurel Pale. I asked for a taster first, because I was worried the bay leaves would overwhelm the beer. Rich in essential oils--particularly eucalyptol--bay leaves have a dangerous menthol-like quality. But brewer Chad Kennedy essentially dry-hopped with them, and this quality is more suggestive than acute. I ordered Laurelwood's Space Stout chicken to comfort me during that false autumn we were having last week. The Bay Laurel Pale went brilliantly with it--an autumnal tour de force.
As for Coalition's Loving Cup Maple Porter--you can tell just from the idea that it's a winning combination. The darker amber grades of maple syrup are caramelized in a manner also directly on the continuum of malt flavors. Coalition's porter features that note along with the light aroma and flavor of maple. It's a dry porter--nothing oversweet about it--and the maple adds just depth and flavor. A perfect combination (and it will be a perfect winter beer).
My guess is that we're just seeing the latest stage in an evolution. In cooking, chefs are often reluctant to divulge their secret ingredients. Brewers are a bit more exhibitionist, and include all the salient details of recipe and craft. I could imagine a time, however, when breweries were less forthcoming. If I ask a brewer, "Is that cardamom I'm tasting?", they are happy to let me know. Perhaps in another twenty years (when I'm way, way past the median age), I'll just see a twinkle in her eye and get a shrug instead.
Beer March On Washington
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