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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Four Stages of Beer Evolution

There's an interesting discussion happening on the Trappist ales thread about American brewing evolution. Last night, Sally and I took a late-evening walk (mainly to beat the heat) and we got into this topic. I had a wee bit of a conceptual breakthrough I'd like to share. Let's start by setting up the question. In comments, Joe asks:
Let me pose a question: Would you like Deschutes to shelve Abyss for a year in order to properly pursue a barrel aged Belgian, or would you want to buy an Abyss alongside the best Belgium has to offer?
Let's back up a bit, because Abyss didn't emerge out of ... well, and abyss. It was the two-decade culmination of brewing evolution in Bend. To me, this is what that evolution looked like:

Stage One - Learning to Brew
Americans really didn't know what they were doing in the 80s. The breweries that got started weren't trying to compete with Fuller's and Guinness, they were trying to make decent beers. Almost exclusively, early breweries worked on English-style ales, because they were easiest and cheapest to brew. As beer drinkers, the standard we held breweries to in that era were "is this foul or not?" (Keep in mind that most of the brewers working in the micro industry then had never brewed professionally.) Among those beers that were not foul (certainly more than half, but something less than 100%), we began to find our palates and learn about styles. For the most part, breweries on the West Coast don't begin at stage one anymore--the apprenticeships that exist within established breweries produce brewers of skill and accomplishment.

Stage Two - Consistency
The second stage of brewing is being able to produce a line of consistent beers that meet the consumer's expectations and standards. These are beers brewed in recognizeable styles, or those that emerge out of consumer demand (Pyramid Apricot Ale, for example). There's nothing flashy about these beers, but they are respectable, enjoyable, and marketable. A good example is MacTarnahan's. Except for a few beers Brett Porter brewed in the late 90s, nothing coming out of this brewery set the world on fire. Redhook and Pyramid are other examples, as well as a host of brewpubs (the McMenamins are a case in point).

Stage Three - Mastery
Some of the breweries aren't satisfied with hitting solid Bs on their report cards. They strive to make beers that are in the argument for the style's best. Deschutes and Pelican are great examples. Deschutes' landmark beers are very traditional ales, but they're made at a level that elevates them above the less characterful lines of Redhook, for example. You don't necessarily shake your head in amazement when you tipple a Black Butte, but you do often smack your lips admiringly--it's just hard to find a tastier porter on the market. According to the Brewers Guild, there are roughly 90 breweries in Oregon, and just eyeballing it from memory, I'd say 20 have achieved mastery. The West Coast, due to the robust market here, has drinkers who support exceptional breweries and so we are over-represented in the country's slate of masterful breweries.

Stage Four - Evolution
The breweries that achieve mastery may begin to fiddle. They take what they've learned and alter an ingredient or change a method. They improvise and see what happens. Some of the experiments work, some don't, but the breweries learn from them and ultimately they may make a beer that is sublime and wholly original. Generally this evolution arises from the root style of the brewery. That's why Deschutes, although they're screwing around with Belgian styles now (with notably far less success than they've achieved elsewhere), have produced a few of these original beers. Deschutes has made probably 20 high-gravity special ales (Jubel 2000, Double Bale Quail, etc.) before they hit on a winner like Abyss. It is not a radical departure from a traditional imperial stout, but it's headed that way. What will emerge as the Abyss's grandchildren a decade from now? The success of Abyss is suggestive that evolution is under way at Deschutes. In some of the brewpubs around town, and in breweries across the country, styles are fraying at the ends as Americans innovate and dazzle. The fish are starting to leave the sea, but we don't know what the primates will look like in 50 years.

(One caveat here: I'd say evolution must follow mastery. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes, but breweries that don't understand what makes a masterful beer may make interesting experiments, but they're unlikely to hit upon the kind of genius that sparks an evolution in style. It's like the abstract artist who can't draw a dog. Sometimes swirls on a canvas aren't art. Sometimes a bunch of weird ingredients, a bourbon barrel, and an obscure strain of yeast just produce a weird, barrel-aged beer.)

So back to Joe's question. I would not like Deschutes to quit brewing Abyss (fat chance of that) to brew a standard Belgian. But I think this is a false choice. The beers in Deschutes regular line-up were, for the most part, available before Deschutes started brewing them. You could get a great pale, porter, stout, and bitter from England. Sure, they weren't made with NW hops, but that's hardly a variation worth mentioning. In order to achieve mastery, breweries have to stick with the extant styles. Hitting the mark on a maibock isn't easy. Mastering a maibock is even harder. The "Northwest style" beer isn't a new invention--it's a pretty faithful rendering of the English style.

However, I might like Deschutes to scrap Green Lakes, which I find uninspiring, so that they could fiddle with, say, a dubbel. If, in a decade or so, they had mastered brewing that dubbel, perhaps they would take what they know from that and combine it from what they know about brewing Bachelor Bitter and the Abyss, and wow me with something totally original.

The reason I'm so excited to see the Belgian styles come to America is because it opens up a whole new frontier of possibilities. If a brewery can brew both an exceptional English-style ale and an exceptional Belgian-style ale, it seems like a baby step to something we will be forced to call and indigenous American-style ale.


  1. "I might like Deschutes to scrap Green Lakes, which I find uninspiring, so that they could fiddle with, say, a dubbel"

    Here I think is where we get into the uncomfortable discussion of brewing as business and not art, which was the road I was traveling down the whole time.

    The very fact that Green Lakes is popular to a wide (i.e. less sophisticated audience) is exactly why it's brewed. It's a revenue stream that is capitalizing on peoples desire to drink a good, widely available, environmentally conscious beer. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Green Lakes, and others like it, subsidizes the production of Abyss.

    Unfortunately we are living in a time of high input costs which value sure things over fliers. We are a far more educated consumer with less tolerance for misses and more options than ever. This cost/benefit analysis will drive brewers to tweak what they do well to the detriment of diving into the unknown.

    I'll close with this thought: Is it any wonder Bridgeport followed up Stumptown Tart with Hop Czar?

  2. Nice post Jeff!

    I agree with your evolution process, but I don't see (and sounds like you don't either)the Abyss as an evolutionary STEP. It's still honing in on the mastery of the classics with a tweak here and there. I don't see the Abyss breaking any NEW ground of evolution for the NW or US market, although it is a well done RIS.

    If we look at the big picture for Deschutes, they're a polished brewing company, that experiments within a SAFE Classic beer realm. Some experiments are successful and others seem haphazard and reckless.

    I would say they've mastered and polished what they make in volume, but not quite wonderful innovative Beer Masters....yet.

    Evolution comes in different forms and flavors. Evolution for us in the NW may be just embracing Belgian beers and all the possible twists and turns they can provide. Others breweries and areas are THERE and are already going beyond to new beer evolutions. I see Dog fish doing Red and White Brew, where Pinot Grapes and malt are commbined. Russian River is using all Brett in beers and/or wine barrels for fermentation, creating beers that walk the line of a new evolution. Our local Hair of the Dog Brewing is doing some nice small batch cutting edge type beers, that include Belgian yeasts, blending beers, multi-wood barrel conditioning, fruit and more.

    I Belgian's should/will be our next step... I'll play Nostradamus on this one. ;-}

  3. I think we're looking at different perspectives. Beer biz, types of beer drinkers and beer as art. Different perspectives are the spice of life and don't always agree. That's part of the fun. If we all had the same perspective, life would be pretty boring. Beer is business; Beer is consumers; Beer can be art; Beer can be yellow fizzy stuff too....

    "I'll close with this thought: Is it any wonder Bridgeport followed up Stumptown Tart with Hop Czar?"

    Perspective? To me, this is a great point of stick to what you know. Stumptown Tart was a total embarrassment of beer! Starting with the rouse of being a "Belgian Style" was the first fault. The fact that it was tasted horrible was the second. The concept of trying to market CRAP as quality was the third strike.

    Locals really WANTED this beer to be good... Once again looking for something new.

    Hop Czar is maintenance beer. Lets cover our ass with something that will cover the wreckage... It's familiar and safe. Those Gambrinus Boys know how to run a biz and cover their ass... Nice business decision.

    In regard to costs, flagship and sustainable brews... Yep, every brewery needs them. Some breweries are just happy to make "SIMPLE DRINKABLE" beers and if successful, rake in the cash.

    I think it's more about brewers and owners intentions within the beer world. There's room for everybody, just depends on how you want to be viewed or fit into the brewing community and be seen by your brewing peers. Bud brewers are probably satisfied working for a major brewing corp and getting a steady paycheck, while the guys at Dogfish are trying to change the landscape of brewing in an artful manner. One mans floor is another mans ceiling. You can find everything in between too.

    The same can be applied the public and business direction. It's not a right or wrong discussion.

    If Deschutes wants to appeal to gateway and moderate staged beer drinkers... Go for it! No sweat off my ass... If they want to jump all over the board with seasonals, more power to them. The question of "Would you ask them to remove the Abyss for something experimental to them?" I wouldn't ask them to do anything, it's there choice and not up to me. If they make a beer I like, I'll buy it and drink it. If not, I'll buy want I like from somewhere else. It won't make or break anybody.

    I'm more into beers I find interesting, not really into running local breweries banners up a flag pole for the sake of community pride. I'm about the beer...just my perspective.

    Advanced beer drinkers are in the minority, even in the NW. I think some of our blogs not only post current events in the local beer world, but post our hopes and dreams for the local beer evolution.

    Some may simply see the death of Stumptown Tart as lack of interest by the consumer, where as there are plenty who saw it as a miserable failure of a hopeful beer... There may not be a right or wrong here... Just perspective... ;-}

  4. "Some may simply see the death of Stumptown Tart as lack of interest by the consumer, where as there are plenty who saw it as a miserable failure of a hopeful beer... There may not be a right or wrong here... Just perspective... ;-}"

    There is not be a right or wrong answer here, but either way it will make a brewing company think twice before a roll out.

    I really don't disagree with anything you say. What it really does is reinforce my love of our region. Now the big question:

    What to drink tonight?

  5. I would add another stage for commercial breweries and brewpubs:
    good business practices, or (at least) a good business plan with some long-range strategies.

    The 50% attrition rate of the late 90s in the craft brewing industry had a lot to do with "house of cards" business sense, or worse yet...Yuppie investors/owners that would short-change the brewing operations to try to suck-out a 25% yearly dividend. I saw many a good brewery or brewpub fold this way, despite having great beer and what would seem (from all outside appearances) a loyal and busy following.

  6. This is a great discussion. I suppose I should chime in on what might be missing as well. one area is the part of evolution where capacity is the constraining factor and keeping up with growth becomes all consuming.
    Yes we want to be popular and, yes we want to produce beers people will like enough to buy (after all this is a commercial enterprise). However a broad audience should not be automatically construed as being less sophisticated.

    Frequently, contemporary discussions want to analyze everything in the present. Once upon a time, oh about 20 year ago, Black Butte Porter was cutting edge and a brewery leading with a dark beer was quite the contrarian. Around that same time beers like Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Bachelor Bitter wire considered quite hoppy beers and Jubelale was extreme. And, in fact, one reason the Northwest has such a great reputation for great (and hoppy) beers is because of beers like these, not necessarily the uber IPAs we have today.
    While we worked diligently on the niche we established for ourselves, other breweries opened with a passion for discovering and exploring their own niches. Truly the most beautiful thing about this industry is the infinite variety, with more coming all the time.

    It seems like we qualify everything in the craft beer movement by the extremity of the beers produced and how far the envelope gets pushed. Subtlety, balance and the brewers art have taken on entirely new definitions.
    We love beer, all beer. We love being in an industry that celebrates individuality, discovery and creativity as this one does. The trick is how to do both grow and be on the cutting edge. How to produce high quality, sophisticated beers with broad appeal and continue to explore the outer boundaries of beer. You see, we still want to grow, and we want to explore new styles and stay on that cutting edge, whatever that is.
    Maybe that is the final phase of evolution, Doing It All.
    Gary (at Deschutes if you couldn't tell)

  7. Joe, I don't doubt that earnings reports affect business strategies. However, I'd actually argue that those companies who focus on quality and "mastery" are rewarded most in the marketplace. This wasn't always the case, but at least in Oregon now, companies like MacTarnahan's couldn't cut it with mediocre products; meanwhile, Deschutes has been growing like a weed. It's even more the case among brewpubs. Although I am not delighted by Green Lakes, it's doing great on the rating sites.

    Dr Wort, I think Gary hit a point I would make--there has been nothing safe about Deschutes' business plan. I think you may mistake what's courageous and what's safe. As I understand it, BridgePort's Big Beer series is small enough that they can rely on selling everything, no matter how outside the mainstream it is. The strategy isn't to make a mint on the 1% those beers represent--though what the strategy is isn't clear.

  8. Gary, thanks for stopping by. One of the reasons I used Deschutes was for the reasons you mention--I've always been impressed by your temerity in making beer decisions first and trusting that it will result in good business down the line. You didn't mention Obsidian, but that was a big chance, too. A porter and a stout, and other breweries were making lemon lagers.

    Cheers to you, and I hope you continue to both push the envelope of innovation while at the same time producing subtle wonders like Bachelor Bitter.

  9. Jeff

    In regard to:

    >>Dr Wort, I think Gary hit a point I would make--there has been nothing safe about Deschutes' business plan. I think you may mistake what's courageous and what's safe. As I understand it, BridgePort's Big Beer series is small enough that they can rely on selling everything, no matter how outside the mainstream it is. The strategy isn't to make a mint on the 1% those beers represent--though what the strategy is isn't clear.>>

    I understand the gain and loss factors. I think Gary made some great points that we're just skimming by and not discussing. There's only so deep into certain subjects, I want to delve. I think I'm too long winded enough at times... ;-}

    When it comes to seasonal beers done in small batches.... It's a gain/gain, even if the world isn't pleased with the product. In order to try it, people have to buy the product and when it sells out the profit is made.

    I think Deschutes has done a great job of walking the line of experimentation and production. Safe most of the time, but they do some calculated experiments. Smart business!

    Courageous is when you don't produce a standard selling product and want to throw caution into the wind with a lot of experimental beers.

    Russian River has taken some giant risks in that regard. They have a catalog of standards, some are well know, but a lot are not. They haven't had a big distribution either. That said, Vinnie has thrown a lot of caution into the wind by brewing a huge catalog of EXPERIMENTAL Belgian beers. Plus, he just purchased over a million dollars worth of brewing equipment and storage tanks and barrels. Roll them dice, dude!!

    I guess a good question would be... What do we think of Russian Rivers business sense vs. applauding their jump into the fringe?

    Now that is a great discussion!

    My answer may be surprising to some.

    As a consumer, I would say, "take it to the outer limits" brew experimental masterpieces and change the AMerican Belgian beer landscape!

    As a business owner, I would say "What?! Are you nuts? Play it safe! Get a good base and grow slowly within your means..."

    It's all perspective and which face I want to put on... ;-}

    Being a devils advocate in regard brewing experimental beers is usually more fun than arguing over who has the bigger profit margin and who's got the best hop contracts. Although, I guess that can be fun too...

    We could be worse off! We could be writing articles about how Shasta Brewing Co, has finally got approval by the feds to put "Try Legal Weed" on their bottle caps. The brewery is in Weed, CA.

    Snore! Sorry John! All in fun! ;-}

  10. Gary, thanks for offering your opinion and perspective, it is very enlightening. We live in a wonderful time for beer.

    I get the sense that we're all really close to the same page but lack the proper forum to get there in a timely manner. I don't think I have anything more constructive to add. Although I may be fooling myself that I offered up anything constructive in the first place!

    Cheers and thanks for the diversion!

  11. Maybe we need a couple of beers and a good pub to continue the discussion!

  12. Maybe we need a couple of beers and a good pub to continue the discussion!

    You know of any?

    Dr Wort, on Russian River, it's well to note that they entered brewing a decade later than Deschutes (and the other breweries I mentioned in the post), which means they jumped in when the beer market hitting adolescence. Those facts of history do tend to have a big influence on the way a brewery evolves.

    I don't know that a Double Mountain could have existed in 1996, but the market was poised for it a decade later. Their freedom to brew offbeat beer depended on a robust and educated population of drinkers.

  13. Dr. Wort,

    I have the greatest respect for Russian River, Vinnie and his exceptional Belgian style beers. But I wonder how you can classify seasonal beers done in small batches as gain / gain, but experimental Belgian style beers, also done in small batches as somehow being more courageous? Aren't these essentially two facets of the same case?

  14. Jeff -

    I fully understand the chronological history of West Coast Brewing and it's evolution...I almost hate to admit I've been around since the beginning. But thanks for pointing this out to others... ;-}

    Anon -

    I really don't feel like going into the difference between brewing a small batch seasonal brew at a brewery that has five solid good selling standards in multiple markets vs. a brewery that just spent millions on a new brewery and storage, but only has a small local market and maybe 1-2 solid selling beers.

    Plus, most breweries will hold up one or so fermentation tanks for a seasonal, compared to the extensive time and space taking with Barrel fermented Belgian specialties.

    Maybe Gary can add more detail or in site to the difference in risks?

    Maybe, I did explain it... :-O

    Gary - I've been trying to get ol' Jeff out for a beer for about a year now. I think he's afraid I have horns or something... ;-}

    A quiet corner in a pub for some interesting beer chat sound good to me. Concordia, Horse Brass, Green Dragon??? Jeff??? I promise not to steal your soul.. :-}>

  15. Dr. Wort,

    I do truly understand the difference in time and space requirements, and hence cost, required for a simple seasonal versus a barrel fermented Belgian specialty beer. I suspect Russian River and others are pricing such beers accordingly. My point was that what you said about seasonal beers being gain / gain because 'In order to try it people have to buy the product and when it sells out the profit is made' applies equally to barrel fermented Belgian specialty beers.

    I'm pretty sure Vinnie at Russian River did not start brewing a huge catalog of experimental belgian beers all at once. He built up that catalog over time, and was able to do so because the initial experiments were a success with his customers, and because the _demand_ was there. Ditto for the recent brewery and storage upgrade; these were the result of demand -- not only for Blind Pig and Pliny the Elder but also the Belgian specialties -- outstripping capacity.

    I don't mean to imply that Russian River hasn't taken risks, either in choosing to experiment with Belgian specialties in the first place, or in expanding. Expanding is _always_ a big risk. I just think you may be overblowing those risks a bit, relative to the risks any brewery takes trying anything new. And I don't think you are correct that Russian River has only a small local market; I know for a fact that their beers are widely available in California and in demand elsewhere; lack of capacity is what was holding them back.

    As for further discussion, why not over glasses of Supplication this coming Tuesday at Belmont Station? Mmmm... Supplication.

  16. Anon -

    I'm not sure we have any disagreements in this discussion.

    Originally, I picked Russian River as taking a higher risk based on the amount of Belgian specialites. It was a simple comparison, I didn't plan on going into any indepth breakdown of dollar and sense vs. risk and degree of risk.

    SO, at this point, it's just easy to say.... YEP, you are right.

    I'd love to talk...mmmmm... beer with some Supplication, but I work nights.

    I'll take a raincheck....

  17. Dr. Wort,

    I'll agree to agree. ;-)


    Thanks for starting this very lively discourse, and for your always excellent blog in general. It is truly one of the great wonders of the beer-blogging world!

  18. Have not heard from ya Jeff about meeting for a beer.... Wouldn't want your readers to think you're afraid of running with the devil....would ya?


  19. excellent discussion, gents, and a really good post...and yes, quite a bit more fascinatin' than Legal Weed bnottle caps! ;-) I shall write of them no more...

  20. In fact, Jeff, this is getting a bit scary with this post and the belgian tastings and all. Do you have a lotta spare time right now?I'm feeling a bit like the old Doonesbury cartoon where BD the football player asks his college roomie (yes, THAT old) what his biology paper is about..."The title is 'Defining the ecotope and epidemiological significance of sylvatic Trypanosoma cruzi in the Paraguayan Chaco.'...What's yours?"
    "Uhhhh, 'Our Friend the Beaver'..."
    Still, a blog for every purpose, right...and I do have more zombies than you.
    But this is great stuff.

  21. That's funny John!

    Hey Jeff! Maybe you should think about renaming your Blog to "..Our Friend, Portland Beer.."



  22. Speaking of Deschutes and pushing the envelope, I assume you guys saw this recent press release:

    After much anticipation, Deschutes Brewery is proud to introduce its wildest brew yet The Dissident. Arguing for more time in the cellar, this Reserve Series beer is anything but conventional. Fermented for more than 18 months in isolation from the rest of the beers, The Dissident is a distinctive Oud Bruin, Flanders-style brown ale, with a fruity aroma and flavor, and the first wild yeast beer made by the award-winning Deschutes Brewery...

  23. How did compare to Alan Sprints Flanders Red?

    Alan wants to age that even longer than it's current profile. I thought it was pretty tasty now.

    Look forward to trying Deschutes Oud Bruin! Will their be a limited release? Bottled??

  24. Oooops! Just read your article John!

    Sounds interesting, but a 11% Oud Bruin sounds rather extensive.

    According to the Beer Style guidelines, not that anybody needs to stay within the guidelines(I love beers that go off the charts!), here's some basic characteristics for an Oud Bruin.

    Brett = earthy? Barnyard, horse blanket or Mousey seem to be the norm for Brett. ;-}