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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Century Mark: Breakside's Unsettling Milestone

The folks at Guinness no longer record alcohol-related feats (an irony, given that the man who founded  them, Hugh Beaver--real name--was a brewer), but I wonder if Breakside might not qualify for "Most Industrious Brewery."  In the course of one calendar year, the busy little brewery managed to produce one hundred different kinds of beer.  That's not a hundred batches--a hundred beers.  (The mad scientists continued to prepare Breakside's regular line all the while.)  Sometime this weekend, I believe, the centurion will be identified and released.

Source: The Rian Group
It's a harmless enough milestone.  Many of those beers were like the spray of distant stars in the forest sky--too many to count or consider, and always secondary to the familiar figures of Orion and the Bears.  I sampled a few of them, but I was drawn back to the brewery throughout the warm months for the pilsner and Dortmund lager that glowed so brightly all summer long.  Broad experimentation didn't come at the expense of my faves.

But I am for other reasons unsettled by this development.

Let's rewind the tape.  Back in the dark days before craft brewing, there was effectively one style of beer available in the US.  Beer drinkers therefore distinguished themselves by selecting one brand and sticking with it for years--or a lifetime.  As there were Ford and GM men, there were Bud and High Life men.  Craft brewing came as a corrective to this sorry state, offering--joy!--some variety.  Breweries in the 1980s and 1990s had a flagship, a regular line, and perhaps a seasonal or three.  Any brewery that made ten different beers in a year would be considered flighty and unfocused.  Half that was more like it.

Breweries in the aughts discovered the delights (and lucre) of specialty beers, and enjoyed buzz and press when they managed to attract beer geek attention with an Abyss, Dark Lord, Heady Topper or Hopslam.  Which of course begat more specialty beers.  And then flagships and regular lines began to sag.  I was gobstruck this year to see the Widmer Brothers replace Drifter with Alchemy--pale for pale--just four years after Drifter's release.  Drifter was one of the best-selling new beers nationally in 2009 (and that includes the big breweries), but it wasn't enough to keep the attention of novelty-seeking beer fans.  I was so struck by it that I met with Rob Widmer to discuss the changes in the brewing biz.  "Young drinkers now are so promiscuous,” he told me.  "Whatever it is and however good it is, no matter what product it is, once they’ve had it, the shelf life is incredibly limited.  All their lives it’s been ‘that was great: what’s new, what’s next?’”

As good as Float (the Dortmund) was--easily on the short list of my faves of the year--the best beer I had at Breakside in 2013 was a tmavé, a Czech-style dark lager.  It actually began life as an Irish stout, but through some happy accident or another ended up getting lagered.  It was a dead ringer for some of the tmavés I had in the Czech Republic last year.  (When I visited Budvar, brewer Adam Broz agreed that his tmavé had a malt bill that looked a great deal like an Irish stout.)  Of course, that beer was one of those little, distant stars, already long extinct by the time you see it.  There wasn't much of that lager left, and the brewers had no intention of making it again.  Pity the drinker who fell in love with one of the more obscure of the 100.

This is the dilemma for the modern beer drinker.  Choice is again the problem--though now we have too much of it.  We have neither the stomach space nor time to be sampling from the dozens of beers made by dozens of breweries ever year.  And to that limited stomach space, we now have to decide to commit old reliables or role the dice on a new frolic that may be a gem or a dud.  (Praise be to breweries that offer linear pricing and half pints.)  God forbid you should fall in love with a beer--in the current churn, who knows how long before it gets dumped for something new.

I realize we have much more serious problems to consider with things like global warming, congressional gridlock, and twerking scandals.  Still, this seems like at the least a minor issue to consider.  And what are blogs for except considering minor issues?

Your thoughts?  Is the beer bounty unalloyed good or does it throw a long, dark shadow across your beer drinking sessions?

Update: Weirdly related headline of the day: Boulder Beer ends distribution of Planet Porter, the oldest craft brew in Colorado (the U.S.?)


  1. It's good. It's like a good restaurant. It doesn't offer a virtually unchanging menu over time. It is constantly varying the offerings and trying to top itself. Same thing in craft brewing. The one possible objection I see is, breweries won't try as hard on the technical side when making so many styles (individually and collectively as it spills over). With so many new tastes coming so fast, there isn't the same time and inclination to perfect one style. However, on balance that is outweighed by the plusses, IMO. And we do still have numerous long-lived beers which have reached a high level of stable quality. It's all good, basically.


  2. "Promiscuous" is an excellent term to describe Millennial drinkers. They are interested in the newest thing, in much the same way that some or perhaps many of us were interested in the newest vinyl album 30 or 40 years ago. Craft beer is the new elixir of the young crowd.

    Breakside and others have tapped into this trend by brewing up a virtual storm of different styles and varieties within those styles. The first time I visited Breakside, which goes back several years, I could see what they were doing. They were intent on brewing experimental beers in a variety of styles. I would say their thinking predated the trend we now see. It might be fair to argue that Breakside helped instigate that trend...I don't know.

    It runs against the grain to criticize this trend. But I believe it is causing serious brand confusion in the industry. Beers come and go at a relentless and dizzying pace. Too many become roadkill before their time. Andy Crouch has written about this reality in Beeradvocate. He wonders if we will wake up in a few years and wonder where we are, where we came from. So do I.

  3. For me, this is inevitably going to come down to a matter of personal preference. At the same time, you have to give Breakside credit for getting a lot of these beers really, really right across an incredible range of styles. I stopped by this summer and sampled over 15 beers (with a large group of friends) and they were all uniformly very good to excellent in execution.

    That in an of itself is an impressive accomplishment, I think.

  4. re: Boulder Beer ends [bottled] distribution of Planet Porter
    Amazing. Given that Boulder Beer credits their founders to have saved / resurrected / revived the Porter beer style and the recipe has sustained for ~34 years.

  5. The churn reminds me of the description of Manilov in the second chapter of Gogol's "Dead Souls":

  6. The phrase I've heard (and prefer) to describe the variety of beer drinkers who constantly seek out the latest and greatest is "portfolio drinker."

    I suppose you could take the term and point to Untappd, which purposely or not has put a premium on the idea of trying as many different brews as possible. You're even rewarded with badges!

  7. There's a twerking scandal!?

  8. If one brewery wants to do this (and do it well) more power to them. Why can't you be happy with the two beers you like and let others be happy with what they like?

  9. Personally, I am not a fan of gimicky beers with bizarre ingredients. So I don't drink them. But kudos to Breakside for having fun. I think their "regular" beers are outstanding and among the best in Portland.

  10. Steven, I refuse to rest until all humans are only happy with the things that make me happy. That's the definition of a blogger.

  11. Jeff, I believe that is the motto of Cats.