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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Trends at the OBF: 41% Adulteration

The waxing and waning of trends is fascinating to behold, particularly when you adopt the long view. Take fruit, for instance. Shortly after the inception of craft brewing, fruit beers were huge. The popular ones, however, bore a stronger resemblance to wine coolers* than beer, and this led breweries down a dark path. They ultimately died of shame in 1995. But then, Lazarus-like, they started to appear again a few years ago, often flavoring beers like Cascade's sour ales. Some of the sweet ones came back, too, but with more balance and way less sugar. Fruit had gained a measure of respect. As evidence of this, eleven beers arrive at the OBF bearing the blush of juice.

The use of barley has gone through a similar transformation. When craft-brewing started, all-barley beers were the mark of quality. To brew with any "cereal grains" was to be tainted with impurity, moral more than zymurgical. Wheat was granted an exception, but still regarded with mistrust. Well, at this year's fest we have nineteen beers employing wheat, five using oats, and two each using rye, spelt, corn, and rice. Yes, corn and rice--the hated, tainted, immoral cereal grains! Of course, these ingredients are no longer tainted, and haven't been for a few years. As craft brewing matures, brewers will use anything to improve a beer, including the use of ingredients that were formerly used to ruin beer.

Finally, we have adjuncts, which were once used only in gimmick beers or witbiers. Now--and I think you have to give some credit to Craig Nicholls for this--they're used the way cooks and Belgians do, to add a hint of flavor. A partial list of the additives in this year's OBF beers:
  • cocoa
  • coffee
  • dried tulips
  • ginger
  • grapefruit peel
  • hibiscus
  • hyssop
  • lactose
  • lemongrass
  • orange blossoms
  • pepper
As a reaction to the corporate adulteration of beer in the 1970s, early craft brewers went for an austere, almost reinheitsgebot-like purity. But we're Americans, foes of hidebound tradition--it didn't take. By my count, of the 81 beers in this year's fest, 33 have been "adulterated" in some way. This is a good trend. The breweries are maturer now, and they recognize that additives can help draw out the essential beeryness of beer. That was the mistake early brewers made; they used additives to transmute beer into abominations.

So, in general, viva la exotica. You just can't have enough pomegranate and hyssop spelt beers.
*Back in the olden days, wine and fruit juice were combined to make a beverage called "wine coolers" that were irresistible to 16-year-olds. (And possibly 90-year-old women.) After finding one too many peach-breathed youths lying naked on a park bench, the feds finally taxed them out of existence in 1991.

1 comment:

  1. Nick Christensen10:15 PM, July 21, 2010

    What differentiates the fruit-sanity and grain-sanity from the ongoing hop-sanity in NW brewing?