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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Virtues of Virtuosity

Last night I finally got around to drinking my sample bottle of Ninkasi Maiden the Shade. It's an incredibly accomplished beer (review to come), and were any other brewery's name on the label, it would be getting lots of attention. A friend of mine, though, expressing what I think is a common sentiment, dismissed it as "another Ninkasi hop bomb." And indeed, it is that. It got me thinking, though: what's so great about style virtuosity?

The US is an immigrant country and we love diversity. It thrills us to see an Irish pub nestled between a Mexican and Thai restaurant. We are quick to absorb foreign influences and add them to our bubbling cultural stew. It's a bias we take into beer as well. Breweries that hew to a single influence don't get the geek cred that those with broad style palettes command. A line of British-style beers? Yawn. I mean, don't you have something with a little brett in it?

Of course, we don't hold foreign breweries to this standard. We don't say, regarding a new release from Cantillon--"Really, another lambic? Jeez, when are you guys going to expand a little?" Of Fuller's we don't demand doppelbocks nor do we despise the monks of Orval for making a single beer. In fact, we don't like it when foreign breweries screw around with different styles. We like our foreign influences undiluted, traditional, ancient.

I am agnostic. Some breweries are generalists--they brew a hodgepodge of styles from around the world. Some breweries are specialists, honing in on a single focal point. I have no preference, except that the beer is good. If Ninkasi can continue to put out beers like Maiden the Shade, I say go. There are a lot worse things in life than being the masters of hops.

As always, it's what's in the glass that matters.


  1. Examples of other good niche brewers: Jolly Pumpkin, Heater Allen, Allagash, Ommegang, Cascade (lets ignore their non-sours), Hair of the Dog. I'm sure I could go on. I'm not sure it's variety that you need, in fact it could work the opposite, you might stand out more if you just focus on one specialty instead of trying to do everything. In general you just need to make good product, many lose focus on that.

    Maybe "hops" are a harder niche, maybe cause there are so many people doing it that it doesn't stand out? Or it's easier than other specialties? I'm not sure. Stone used to have this cornered, now they are just in the crowd.

  2. Re: foreign breweries
    In Boulder, Colo., world class beverage emporium, Liquor Mart, I noticed: New Castle Summer Ale.
    ? What ?
    Web search revealed: released to limited markets in July 2009; Golden Promise and Optic malts; Fuggles and Super Styrian Goldings hops.
    I passed on Newkie Brown's Summer Ale and purchased Boulevard's awarding winning American-style pilsner. I prefer a half dozen PNW German/Czech-style pilsner to KC's. But, that's what makes horse races.

  3. Just to be clear - "another Ninkasi hop bomb" is short hand for "it is yet another wonderful hop-infused Ninkasi." Yes, I would dearly love to see what Jamie Floyd could do with a bunch of hops and a 5% beer, but Spring Reign, Maiden the Shade and Total Dom are all wonderful beers and I have yet another Maiden awaiting me in my fridge.

    My comment was a compliment not a put down and was intended as "of course it is great, it is a Ninkasi Hop Bomb..."