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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

A couple of weeks back, Widmer's annual "W"-series release hit the supermarket shelves. The beer is a slightly refurbished version of an old Gasthaus fave, KGB imperial stout. This one is at once bigger (a hefty 9.3%) and smoother, employing dark wheat malt. Amid this unexpected tsunami of new beers, I hadn't had a chance to try it, but my friends had. These are a couple of guys who enjoy good beer but aren't afflicted with terminal beer geek disease. In an unprecedented move, they started raving about it on the email. (Politics and current events are the usual topics.) They never talk about beer.

As a contrasting view, I checked in with BeerAdvocate to see if it was unanimous acclamation, and was a little surprised to find a tepid B coming from the 24 reviews. And some of the reviews are just scathing:
"What a joke. It looks like an Imperial Stout that was severely watered down, probably a one part stout, two parts water ratio."


"Moiuthfeel is very thin, to thin, it is about as thick as a lager really, a bit of carb, but leaves a very dryness afterwards. Overall, I really hope this is just a dumb'd down for the masses version of from what I heard was a great beer."
I had a pour of this at the Collaborator release a week ago, but I didn't take notes and it was the third in a line. A review will come later. But my impression is that Widmer was aiming for something specific and very different from, say, Abyss. Reading through the negative comments, one has the sense that people weren't tasting KGB for what it was, but rather measuring it against a beer in their minds Widmer had no intention of brewing.

It happened again with Ninkasi Renewale, which I tried last night. It's an Irish red ale, made mostly to style. A bit strong (5.2%) and quite a bit hoppier (40 IBUs), but still in possession of the hallmarks of the style--a rainwater softness and gentle heather-like malt sweetness. This is one of the most sessionable styles, and it should really please the palate. Ninkasi's does, and I admired it quite a bit. (I'd give it a B+, knocked down for just 5 BUs too many hops--forgivable for a Ninkasi product.) Only five reviews on BeerAdvocate, but they average out to a B-. The unimpressed reviewers remarked:
"A beer to bring to a dinner party as it won't offend or put off many beer drinkers or overpower the food served."


"Ok on the palate ,i suppose quite thin and watery near the end. Very very average beer."
Again, these reviews seem not to be judging the beer for itself, but compared to some bizarre standard--like a double IPA. It's hard to imagine any beer below 50 IBUs and 6.5% alcohol getting any kind of nod from these drinkers.

As many of you have noted, I've been on a bit of a small-beer kick lately. A related phenomenon, and one which didn't become clear to me until I started thinking about these beers, is that this extreme-beer phenomenon seems to be in danger of swamping craft brewing and setting the standard for what "good" beer is. If you look at the "best" beers in BeerAdvocate's ratings, almost none are below 6% (in the top 20, only Weihenstephan Hef crashes the party--there are only three in the top 40). Seven of the top ten bests have 10% or more alcohol.

I know most of the people who read this blog--those of you who are afflicted with terminal beer geek disease--will probably agree that size matters little to accomplishment. And there are a lot of regular drinkers out there who are also able to appreciate lots of different kinds of beer. (When I look at the beer selection in the grocery store, I notice that mostly the beers people actually buy are closer to 5% ABV.) But there's this middle stratum of Xtreme beer fans who have very fixed ideas about what a beer should be. And somehow they freak me out.

On the other hand, it could be because today's my birthday. The older I get, the more my get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids nature emerges. Lucky you.


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  2. I'm on your side Jeff. I've been on small beer kick since last year. I think everything I brewed was between 4-6% last year.

  3. I'm pretty bummed about the KGB. What was my favorite Widmer beer has turned into an eh beer. When I first heard of it coming out, I was pretted stoked that this would be in six packs. Buying many to add to the cellar and trying over the coming months. At the lower seven point something percent, what's the use. Even if it was the higher gravity KGB and released in four packs like Deadlift, I'd be happy.

    It seems odd that Widmer had such a solid product, that had a fan base, and they changed it for bottles. I don't understand the motive behind it.

    Happy Birthday Jeff!

  4. This really just further iterates that members tend to rate beers per preference within style and not really according to BJCP guidelines. It's a community...not an official organization and this discussion comes up time and time again on the forums.

    I agree with your points. Really, beer drinking comes down to personal preference when all is said and done. I think a lot of the beers on the top 100 on are horrendous but that's just my own preference and experience.

    All this said I was highly disappointed with KGB as well. I don't think the mouthfeel was true to style. In my opinion, Widmer is great at brewing scientific beer but I generally want something a bit more artisanal...especially considering the many options we have in PDX. Truthfully, Brrrbon didn't excite me either.

    I'll still go to the Guesthaus every once in a while but I don't go to be overwhelmed by amazing brews.

  5. I think it is all a part of the same trend - which is not particularly healthy for craft beer - toward bigger and bigger and bigger beers. These wow 'em at the beer festivals but aren't all that great for spending three hours at the pub chatting with old friends.

  6. Matt - The bottled beer is 9.3%, or am I missing something in your post?

  7. Happy B-day, Jeff.

    I think what astounded me most about W '11 (I have yet to taste it) was seeing it on the floor at WinCo for something like $6.50 a six-pack. A gutsy move on their part, I think. KGB here combines price, distribution, strength, and "style adventurousness" in a way that no other six-pack beer I can think of does.

    I think this combo may do more to bring in people new to craft beer than a lot of other, sillier-sounding/-looking beers. (I'm thinking here of the MacTarnahan's/Pyramid and BridgePort beers, which can favor colors and branding that's almost off-puttingly loud.)

    I also recently tried Ninkasi's Renewale, at a hot spring, with rain falling lightly above me—admittedly, a setting that perhaps biased me in its favor. But I agree that its not something most beeradvocate nuts are used to drinking/reviewing on a regular basis. For me, Renewale hit all the right notes, including a tea-like hoppiness and a dryness that is rarely seen around these parts.

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  9. @Joe:

    From my understanding, prior draft only batches of KGB were 9.3% and the bottled version this year is in the mid 7%. But my source source seems to be wrong. Upon further Google searching, I am seeing still a 9.3% across the board. bad.

  10. I can't speak to the Widmer KGB, or Ninkasi Renewable for that matter, but I am intrigued by the idea that the recent rise of big beers may be altering expectations. This has been a topic of conversation between myself and various friends a number of times.

    If you get in the habit of adding heaps of salt on your food, you eventually set a new standard for your palette. I think the same thing may be happening in beer. That said, I'm fond of drinking small beers and yelling at cars speeding down my street like a 90 year old man.

    Happy Birthday Jeff!

  11. Yes, yes, yes. Glad you're on the same small-beer kick that I am and hope you keep writing about this issue.

    I tried both a year-old Abyss and Brrrbon over the holidays and realized that I'm just done with these kinds of beer. Could hardly choke them down. No need to find out about a 9.3% KGB.

    On the other hand, a 5.2% offering from Ninkasi is a great change of pace. Can't wait to pick one up.

  12. I also want to add, on pure unadulterated speculation, that the "extreme beer" segment was relatively unserved just a few years ago, and what we're seeing now is that brewers have discovered this segment of the demand.

    Since it was relatively unserved, the growth in this segment has probably been much faster than growth in the established craft beer segments, making it attractive to brewers.

    This will hopefully lead to some oversupply and eventual shake-out (i.e. boxes of something called "pear braggot" sitting on store shelves a year after release.)

  13. I think you all are right about the big beer kick but like everything I find myself going back in circles. Even though I might relish the Abyss 2010 on nitro tap...I am just as satisfied with a Mirror Pond or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Good beer is good beer.

  14. According to the bottle W'11 KGB is 9.3% ABV. I for one was happy with the bottled version, especially after getting a 12-pack at Safeway for $11.99!

  15. Happy B-Day Jeff!

    I have no real comment on this post, but reading your post and Bill's post on the changes at Bridgeport, you can see a pattern. See my recent post on Pseudo Craft Beers and we can all start waving Red Flags against the brewing industries direction.

  16. Happy birthday, Jeff.

    I have no problem with breweries producing beer they can sell all of at a good margin.

    I just want somebody to make me a 5% saison that costs (a lot) less than $22 SPE.

    Seriously, it's easier to serve a niche when the consumers in that category will overpay. That's where we are right now with "*xtr*m*" beers.

  17. Jeff, first Happy BDay!

    I may have an uneducatwd palate, & I've yet to have W11 in the bottle, but I found the Gausthaus draft to be every bit the great KGB of old.

    I've also had Renew on draft @ 23Hoytb and found it tasty, although not the xtreme hop head brews I've come to expect from Ninkasi - which you point out is by design.

    Re: low abv brews, I lived in SLC for a ski season and quaffed many a 3.2 brew from Wasatch and Hoppers that tasted fab! Only difference was leaving full instead of tipsy.

    Re BeerAdvocate, we've proven many times thru blind tasting brackets by style that BA ratings mean little to the tastebuds of the masses.

  18. Great blog, Jeff, and great points. FYI, carries the same affliction -- inflated ratings on big beers. And I'm partly at fault, I'll admit, as I tend to rate "bigger" beers higher. I do try to rate according to style, but it's hard to get as passionate about a kolsch or an amber ale, for example. Regardless, it is an unfortunate phenomenon. The other problem is that there's a tendency for people to knock down breweries that get too big (i.e., some people with no respect/knowledge of history complain about Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada), or ones that succumb to brewing mostly moderate styles, i.e., Widmer. That said, I'll admit, when I first tried KGB I was a bit skeptical. But after I tried it, focusing on the beer and not the brand, I was pleasantly surprised, and I applaud the brewery for making such a fine beer. I think some people are just hung up on the name. I think it would be interesting to see those people do a blind tasting of the beer.

  19. OK, I'll jump in. I, too, was happy to see KGB in bottles particualrly since most brewers pull their winter beers from the shelves as winter starts. I got a 6 pack of KGB at Winco for $6.48 (at 9.3% that's a cheap date). Popped one open - loved it. Bought more.

    I will admit RIS isn't my thing generally. Most are too overblown: too bitter, too roasty, too alcoholic, too everything. KGB, even on draft at the Gasthaus has always been less extreme and far more balanced than other US beers in the style. The bottled KGB has more elegance and finesse and less brawny power, which suits me fine. At $6.50-7.25 at Winco, I'll be buying more.

    And those session beers? I'll just brew those myself.

  20. My opinion of KGB is very simple. Good beer at a great price. I have bought 12 so far.

  21. I'm with you Jeff, if I want to drink two or three pints before driving somewhere I'd like to keep the alcohol below 6.5%. Try finding more than one or two draft options that fit that criteria in craft beer. Sometimes it's hard!

    I'll drink the big beers and love them, but I prefer to do that at home.