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Monday, July 09, 2007

Beer's Golden Age

Have you ever noticed that art flourishes in cycles? Pick an art form, and you'll see periods and places where it wells up--movies in the late sixties and early seventies, literature during and immediately following the beats, music in Memphis in the 50s, Detroit in the 60s, New York in the 80s, and Seattle in the 90s. It isn't random.

Art, no matter the form, is always a communication. You have someone making it, and someone appreciating it. The two feed off each other. Art flourishes as the context deepens. The more the appreciators "get" what the artist is doing, the more opportunities the artist has to go on riffs and expand the context.

I bring all of this up because over the weekend, as I was working my way through a sample tray of Double Mountain Brewing's beers (they're that new Hood River brewery founded by Full Sail alums), I realized that the beer I was drinking was only possible because of all the beers that preceded it in the Oregon brewing rennaisance--and because at this moment in time, there are enough people out there drinking good beer to appreciate what the brewers are doing.

I'll do a full review on Double Mountain soon (probably between PIB and the OBF), but here's an example of what I mean. One of their current beers is a kolsch--a fairly standard offering in July. It's the kind of beer you might expect to be in that disposably-drinkable category--tasty after a hot day of windsurfing, but nothing to write home about. No. Double Mountain went all out on it--they used an appropriate yeast strain, giving it that distinctive tart/crisp quality that really defines the style. And then, for good measure, they over-hopped it (I think it was at something like 40 IBUs). Germans would run screaming to the hills with this kind of offense, but the brewers know what they're doing. They have selected a hop schedule that draws out the pre-existing qualities of the style, deepening the crispness and drawing out the dryness of the last note. The hops they chose complement the beer, making it simultaneously both more kolsch-y (though I wouldn't enter it at the GABF) and more appropriate for Oregon drinkers.

I have already talked about their IRA (aka "Ira," as in Glass), which is a Belgian-yeast-based IPA, but it makes an equal case. It doesn't taste radically different from a usual IPA, but there's something going on. The Belgian yeast seems to enclose the bitterness in a gentle pocket. The edges are soft and mature. IPA drinkers would notice that it's a little different, but they would recognize and enjoy it. The brewers at Double Mountain didn't have to add that complexity, but they knew that if they did, some people would appreciate the effort.

It's my guess that the average beer drinkers walking in don't actually have the nomenclature to describe what they're tasting or understand why it tastes that way. But still, they get that it's really good beer (it was five o'clock on a Saturday and there wasn't a free table). Fifteen years ago, there would have been no point to offer the little change-ups Double Mountain includes in their recipes. Who would know the difference? In fact, that contextual vacuity was responsible for the state of beer drinking 25 years ago, when most beer drinkers thought that the variety of beer styles could be expressed in the range at the supermarket--light, dry, or in rare cases, "dark."

Things will change. The market will shift, drinkers will go off to new beverages. Whether that happens in five years or fifty, it's a sure bet. (If it happened in Belgium--and it did--it will surely happen everywhere.) So this is the golden age for beer, the pinnacle of the craft. It's cool, but also a little sad.

Enjoy it while it's here (and hope it lasts fifty years!).


  1. This was posted on a thread below; I think it was intended for this post:

    Stan Hieronymus said...

    So are you saying that this range of interesting beer won't persist? That beer itself is a goner?

    Where does interesting wine fit in the equation? Good food?

    5:19 PM

  2. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that interesting beer will go away entirely. But the sublime beer that we have now, which arises from this perfect storm of great brewers and robust market of highly-educated drinkers, will end. Belgium is a good example. A couple decades ago, a number of the classic breweries were in trouble, styles were dying out, and there was very little new happening stylistically. Then a similar microbrewery renaissance happened there in the mid-80s, and now it's like America in terms of new styles and breweries.

    Food, since we have to eat it to survive, is a different category, though you could make the argument based on styles of food. They don't all remain popular indefinitely.

    But wine isn't--consumption patterns drive the market in interesting ways. Of course, it's a little different than beer because you don't have recipes; you have terroir and plants. But still, even in France now, the kids are drinking other things. Some of the small boutique vintners may die off, not to mention obscure grapes and wine styles.

  3. Hey, great blog! We really have Jimmy Carter to thank for beervana. The flowering of craft breweries and brewpubs wouldn't have been possible without the law he signed in 1979.

    The best way to ensure that interesting beers don't die off is to support the breweries. Your blog helps, so keep up the great work.

  4. I'll try to post this to the right thread this time ...

    I would argue that beer, wine and food all fell into the bland dumps at the same time, and while wine and food might have climbed out more quickly, beer was right behind. I think they travel together and maybe the perfect (perfectly bad) storm was at the beginning of the 20th century and is unlikely to occur again.

    At some point brewers could run out of new things to do to beer, and that might be OK with me. But as long as brewers can earn a fair living making us say "Wow, this is good" I expect them to keep making those beers.