It’s too easy to forget to have a little fun with craft beer
“Fried Fried Chicken Chicken,” the latest kooky beer to cross my path, reminded me about how goofy I thought Not Your Dad’s Root Beer had made the craft beer industry. Increasingly when there’s something outlandish coming down the line that feels flagrantly novel there is this sense that the craft beer industry (and its macro imitators) might be trying too hard to be different. Beyond the marketing push and the outrageous names, ingredients and headlines, there’s just a sense that as a craft beer enthusiast I’m being dared to try something. And double-dog dared to have an opinion about it.
I remember having a ghost pepper beer a few years ago and feeling as if I were the victim of a practical joke. At the time I wondered about the point of making a beer that practically was undrinkable?”
The answer is that you don’t necessarily know it is too hot (or too sweet or too gross) until after it’s brewed. Once it is brewed, there’s no point in not fermenting it out and seeing what happens. After all, that’s kind of what enthusiasts love about craft beer. Primarily we want different tastes. Novelty appeals to us. But this is where the beer snob in me always wonders whether that desire for novelty has pushed us to the outer edge of reason.
When is too much never enough?
We do have a sense, though, that some beers are more marketing tools than attempts at being different, better or clever. That’s kind of what I’d like to get into here, because the sense isn’t wrong but neither is it necessarily useful. Zima is back (for instance) and MillerCoors isn’t known for its marketing restraint, but it is known for throwing its weight around to get its products out. Not Your Father’s and Not Your Mother’s brands’ malt beverage hyper-novelty allows them to take up space that could be used for local beers or more diverse brands. It feels like a problem. Probably because there are two different things going on.
First, is the creative urge. If we want things like Choc Lobstah and Walker (the goat-brain-infused Walking Dead beer) or beer with brewer’s beard yeast or any of the other kinds of kooky things we’ve been getting, things like Not Your Parents’ and the Zima revival might be the price we have to pay. It is to our advantage, as craft beer drinkers, to have breweries try weird things and fail spectacularly. That’s where the next great beer comes from, as most homebrewers know. Creativity thrives in an atmosphere of fun, quality thrives in one of repeatability. I love when a brewery has a beer that flops, because it is something of a signal to me that they’re not dead inside, that they’re maintaining their homebrewer spirit. It is, after all, just beer.
Second, though, is market and market share, which is something different entirely. Pabst (Not Your Father’s, et al) and MolsonCoors (Zima, Henry’s Hard Soda) need more drinkers. Specifically, they need more non-beer drinkers than are already out there and the appeal to novelty is just the way to do that. From the retailers perspective, as long as people don’t leave without something alcoholic, they’re all on board.
But it isn’t just Zima, or big beer that’s changing the look of most beer aisles in an attempt to expand their market, it is part of the craft beer culture as well. The simplest example is the rise of sours (whether traditional or not) which has expanded craft beer’s appeal to people who “don’t like beer.” Similarly, many of the local breweries take regular swings for the fences with beers that, on the face of it, don’t seem as if they’re made to appeal to beer drinkers. It isn’t a crime, after all.
Happy campers all around
For my part, I remain in the local beer drinker camp. I try to drink beer that’s been brewed within 100 miles or so from where I’m drinking it. But that’s my thing, not any kind of edict. I have great beer drinking friends who go on quests for rare beers, or who try and rack up the most diverse portfolio possible on UnTappd, or who collect, trade and age sour beers. And of course their are the guys and gals who mainly brew their own beer and have made beers from whatever was in the bottom of the spice cupboard. I even know some strictly-Bud drinkers.
No one I know complains about having too many of our own choices, but it isn’t rare to hear complaints (or, honestly, to level them) about other people having too many choices. We feel (often and rightly) that space that would be better used for diversity among beers we like is wasted on diversity for beers we don’t. It’s a common human flaw.
I don’t expect to stop having a reaction to beers that seem aggressively novel, but hopefully I can start remembering that the will to novelty is what I like most about craft beer and that that means drinking something awful occasionally. Mostly, though, it means I get to try something that perfectly acceptable and very occasionally I get something that’s sublime as a reward for my faith. Not Your Father’s Mountain Dew, though, probably won’t be it.
Drink what you like and be happy.