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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Evaluating Exotic Beers

Blood-orange saison, toasted-coconut brown, apricot-chile wheat. Beers brewed with strange and unexpected ingredients are far from novel, but they are no longer outliers. Those three beers all entered my consciousness last week (and two entered my belly); every week brings new examples. As an inveterate trend-watcher, I think 2011 will be the Year of the Strange Concoction. So long as we don't starting devoting style categories to every new mixture (American farmhouse ales brewed with citrus versus American farmhouse ales, no citrus), consider me very much a fan of the trend.

It does, however, raise questions about how we evaluate them.

Sally and I popped into Burnside Brewing on Friday night for a pint of the new apricot-chile wheat, and ripe was the issue. The intention behind the beer seemed pretty obvious: the sweet apricots were married to the Scotch bonnet peppers in the manner of Caribbean cuisine. The wheat base provided a soft backdrop, like a bed of rice under a fiery jerk chicken. Indeed, the beer evoked these notes precisely: the apricots, fragrant but gentle, offered just a hint of sweetness that drew out a sweet-spicy vegetable note from the peppers. Compared to some chile beers, the fire was at a lazy, slow burn. The wheat, scone sweet, softly swaddled the more assertive flavors. Right. But was it good?

Sally and I chatted about this for awhile. Take the peppers, which in a beer like this are a substitute for hops. In a light wheat ale, we'd have a baseline for bitterness--low to medium, not so much that it overwhelms the wheat character or makes the beer oppressive. But chiles? How much is too much? For Sally, Burnside went over the line. The pepper hit her so hard she had to really focus to find the apricots. I thought they were perfect. I thought, in fact, that everything was in great balance, and I could easily drink that beer all summer long. (In fact, on a drizzly charcoal day in Portland, it was a ray of sunshine.)

In grammar, they always say you can break the rules if you know them. Throwing in a little colloquial syntax can spice up an otherwise flat--but grammatically-correct--piece. "Style" is the grammar of brewing. As long as breweries stick to the rules, evaluation is a snap. But once a brewery wanders into the deep weeds way beyond style, it's not clear where the definition of "good" lies. In both literature and brewing, rule-ignoring virtuosity can produce a combination of exhilaration and uncertainty.

I guess we're going to have to take in on a case-by-case basis. The only criterion I bring is whether the ingredients harmonize with the nature of the underlying beer or conceal it. Back in the early 90s, when craft breweries were clamoring after new drinkers, they often released sugary-sweet fruit ales that bore a stronger resemblance to Fanta than beer. If I'm drinking a beer, I want a beer. But the use of fruit to draw out citric esters, say--that's very interesting. Kona is rolling out a new brown ale made with coconut. Brown ales, brewed for moreishness, have an innate malt sweetness that works very well with coconut. I had a couple pints last week and could have kept going. It was a beer gently accented by a complimentary adjunct. Had Kona tried to make a liquid Mounds bar, I would have reacted differently.

We better get used to it, though. I envision a future where a sizable percentage of American beers are brewed with something other than malt and hops.


  1. I think chile beers are a particular challenge because of the incredible range of sensitivity people have to spiciness. Take, for example, Upright's Fatali Four. I remember last year that Ezra and others considered it to have a considerable burn. I tried it and enjoyed the flavor, but found it only mildly hot. This year, the buzz was that it was even hotter, so I was truly disappointed that when I tried it I could detect only the slightest hint of heat in the finish. It was a nice beer, but I wasn't going to drop $13-15 for a bottle when I could barely distinguish it from the standard Four. Similarly, I used to buy Roots Habanero Stout by the growler, but other people couldn't finish an 8oz glass.

    So, I think that this particular addition may forever be contentious about what amount is harmonious and what is overwhelming.

  2. how to evaluate exotic beers has been something that I have been kicking around in my head for a while. If posting a rating on BeerAdvocate or Rate Beer, do you base it on style or your enjoyment? (I am not the biggest fan of BA or RB, but others treat them like scripture.)

    I find the problem also exists when people aren't a big fan of a style, but they rate it anyways- but they rate on enjoyment. I do not particularly like Scottish Ales, but I feel I have the ability to distinguish a good from bad (to style) Scottish, instead of just giving it a F because I didn't like it.

  3. Jason was nice enough to take me into the brewery side of burnside to try some of that wheat straight from the tank after the peppers had only been in there for 3 days. At that time I thought the apricot was very prominent, and the peppers where only just beginning to show themselves in the beer. I think he said the peppers needed another 10 days or so before he'd be satisfied with it. At the time, it was pretty hard to pick out the peppers, but it was easy to imagine them working well with the apricot once they really imparted themselves in the beer. I'll have to stop by tonight to see how much of a difference 10 days makes.

  4. Life being what it is, I haven't been to Burnside to try Sweet Heat yet, but I'm stoked, since it seems to be a reincarnation of Roots Calypso, which was a uniquely wonderful beer.

    Actually, I'm surprised you didn't mention Calypso, so I'll quote you to yourself (from a 2008 OBF post):

    Roots Calypso. This beer is inspired by the cuisine of the caribbean, and it is a perfect evocation. It smells dangerously peppery, but the heat is subdued, and marries beautifully with the sweetness of the apricot.

    Similar to your impression of Sweet Heat.