American Beer Overkill?

Questioning whether we've gone over the top and around the bend

Step with me, if you dare, into the Craft Beer Time Machine. Turn that dial back, back, baaack … all the way back to the year 2006. Ancient times!

Imagine: Bush is still president and Busch is still American. Garrett Oliver’s “The Brewmaster’s Table” has only been out for a few months, and you snicker when someone says “beer sommelier.” Ten taps in a bar seem like more than enough, and a double IPA might mean two of them in a big glass. And a black IPA? Don’t be an ass.

OK, now we’re back in 2011. Take a fresh look around. High-dollar, five-course beer dinners are commonplace with the odd one fetching as much as $350 a person. A group of people are calling themselves “Cicerones.” Most big American cities have at least one taphouse with 50 to 100 fonts. At last check, the world’s strongest “beer” is 60 percent alcohol and fetches more than $45 a bottle. On the surface, anyway, it looks like beer is getting ever stronger, ever rarer, ever costlier, ever more special.

Maybe you don’t see it. I guess there’s a chance that you’re among the geekiest of the geeks, and that you personally will never get tired of triple-imperial-barrel-aged whatsits or pairing kvass with caviar and Kandinsky, or whatever. If that’s the case, I’m jealous.

Everyone else: Isn’t it all getting a bit precious? A bit pretentious? A bit much?

Or, to put it another way: Has the cool craft beer Fonz finally jumped the proverbial shark? Aren’t we forgetting about the Richie Cunninghams of the world, who just want a flavorful glass of something drinkable — or, preferably, several glasses — in a friendly place at a fair price?

That’s what I’ve been trying to find out. I’m still trying, although a six-week trip across the United States last summer went a long way toward reacquainting me with American beer. My choice of the year 2006 above wasn’t arbitrary: That’s when my wife and I left for Belgium, land of proper glassware and cuisine a la biére, where I wrote and blogged about beer for a living and authored a book on drinking one’s way through Brussels. I’d been back to visit the States a few times, but my perspective was somehow stuck in time. I drank my fill in Europe while pining for Cascade hops and what I remembered as a simpler, more casual beer culture.

While planning where to go ahead of our trip, one of the places that most awed and intrigued me was ChurchKey in Washington, D.C., along with its downstairs restaurant, Birch & Barley. I could have spent hours reading the draft list: a real kölsch from Köln and a real alt from Düsseldorf; freshly hopped kegs of IPA and freshly tapped casks of strong cherry stout; Scotch ales from Belgium and Belgian-style ales from Scotland. That sort of thing. Then, there was the food: special menus for farmstead cheese and charcuterie, including pig’s head terrine and duck liver mousse. Five-course pairing menus any night of the week, in which fresh corn tortellini and Dungeness crab might be assigned to a Stillwater Stateside Saison.

I studied the menus and realized how conflicted I had become. I was like Faust, with two souls lodged in my breast. One longed to chuck it all for lunch in some dive with Sierra Nevada and hot wings. The other wanted to wear a dinner jacket, wash down fried arrancini balls with Uerige DoppelSticke from a snifter, and throw fistfuls of cash at Avery Mephistopheles’ Stout. Needless to say, I went for the latter option.

The mind behind ChurchKey and Birch & Barley is beer director Greg Engert, lank and professorial with a deep knowledge of his subject. (I swear he used the phrase “molecular weight of the beer,” and it didn’t sound forced.) Better still: He has that rare gift of presenting it in an accessible and interesting way, even for those who wouldn’t know a märzen from a martini. This explains why Food & Wine took the unusual step of naming Engert as one of seven Sommeliers of the Year. I suspect that academia lost a good teacher when Engert abandoned his study of English literature for that of malt beverages. Lucky for us.

Engert sat to chat for a while. He was understandably prickly about my concerns that craft beer is getting too uppity, but he was a good sport. In fact, he said, his goal is just the opposite. “I’m on a mission to not make this pretentious,” Engert said. “I’m trying to use words that people understand. I’m trying to use all the price points.”

For example, if you’re a Bud drinker, “I can give you a beer of about the same price and it will be craft, handmade.” And what’s ChurchKey’s suggestion for the Bud man? A Gaffel Kölsch for $5.50 a glass. That might seem steep for a Bud, but Engert is right: It’s not steep for downtown D.C., especially for one of the most popular watering holes in town. “We are not just a haven for beer geeks,” Engert said. “We are a haven for anyone who likes beer.”

Maybe. Since I’m a geek, I couldn’t say. Later, my wife and I went for the five-course menu downstairs — strictly in the interest of science, of course. Not all of the beer pairings worked, frankly, but they avoided stepping on each other’s toes. However, that tortellini and Stateside Saison absolutely sang.

The guy who makes that saison is Brian Strumke, based in Baltimore. His Stillwater Artisanal Ales are generally found in 750mL bottles that sell for about $12 in a shop. Not everyday beers, then, but ones to carry to a dinner party. I have no problem with that. My worry is that, in shop after shop, bottles like these are crowding out more affordable options for those of us who want great beer anytime, not just for special occasions.

With mutual friends, I met Strumke in Baltimore at The Brewer’s Art. We lounged on sofas and sipped strong Belgian-style ales beneath a really impressive chandelier. With my tact eroded by alcohol, I whined about the price of his beer and he offered a sensible response. Damned if I could remember what it was. So I contacted him again and just asked.

“First off, I don’t see my beer as being overly expensive,” Strumke said. Yet making beer in small batches means there are no bulk deals for materials, and, “with that said, I have set out to make uncompromising beers with the best ingredients I can obtain. Price is not a deterrent as the goal is extreme quality.”

Basically, Strumke is making a small amount of beer for a group of people who can’t get enough of the stuff. “Craft brewing is, like it or not, part of the epicurean and artisan movement,” he said. “In my case, I make beer for the connoisseur, those who understand what I am trying to do and appreciate my efforts.”

I like Brian’s beer and respect his view. He takes real pride in his product, and after that, sales are the only metric that matters.

Yet his argument worries me a bit. Epicures and connoisseurs tend to have larger beer budgets than typical drinkers. I don’t like a line of thinking that leaves ordinary drinkers with lesser beers. We know from experience that great beer doesn’t have to cost much. There are a lot of price points out there, and room for all of them. But I want to see more of them on the lower end. Somehow, I doubt I’m alone.

I’ll be honest: My knee-jerk reaction is to hate the idea of “beer sommeliers.” Their very existence suggests that beer is putting on airs. Let’s not overcomplicate things. It’s only beer, after all.

Yet most of us have had servers who think there are only three beer styles (yellow, black and Blue Moon), who tell us that Duvel is pretty much like Budwesier, and who could not find Portland, Ore., on a map. Let’s go easy on them and remember that most people still drink from the bottle.

The Cicerone program exists, basically, because somebody thought some standards would be useful. The idea is to ensure a high level of knowledge among the folks serving our beer. Because it’s nice when a server knows what a beer tastes like. It’s nice when the draft lines are clean. And these sorts of things go from nice to necessary in an age when beer lists are growing ever longer, ever more eclectic.

American beer sage Ray Daniels, president of the Craft Beer Institute, runs the program, which has approved more than 3,500 people as Certified Beer Servers. Meanwhile, there are, as this magazine goes to press, 182 Certified Cicerones among us, including three Master Cicerones. Note that the word is trademarked, so in theory, you can’t say you’re a Cicerone unless you’ve passed the exams.

When I told Daniels that I thought American beer was getting too fussy, he explained that the Cicerone’s goal is actually the opposite: to make things easier for us drinkers.

“Well, I think that beer should be simple for those who consume it,” Daniels said in an e-mail. “But that’s from one side of the counter. From the back side, the truth is that delivering good beer to consumers is not as easy as people think. It takes work to select, manage and deliver beer so that it tastes as good as it should.”

It strikes me now that Cicerones are not just a symptom of an increasingly elaborate craft beer market; they are, more to the point, a reaction to it. Beer has gotten more complicated, whether we like it or not. Yet many servers are behind the learning curve — and we could really use their help.

“By the way,” Daniels said, “I also think that Cicerones should be guides and not gods. For the most part, they work invisibly to make sure the beer is tasting great and then train the staff to help customers pick a beer with no more fuss than picking an entrée.”

Stubbornly, I allow an image of a mustachioed Cicerone in coattails, one-upping me with beer trivia and name-dropping famous brewers, to dissipate like so much smoke.

As my culture shock and hangover wear off, I’m forced to concede a few points.

One man’s pretentious, highfalutin, trendy taphouse is another man’s local. One gal’s pricey boutique bottle is another gal’s go-to beer. It’s all in the eye of the beerholder, as the cliché goes, and we all have moments when we want to splurge. Meanwhile, there is obviously a market for the upscale, not to mention the rare, the alcoholic, the extreme.

But the market is the market, and I’m a critic by nature. Somebody has to step away from the endless subjectivism of “to each his own.” Somewhere, we must draw a line and say, “Enough of that bullshit. We ought to have more of this.”

On our journey, we enjoyed a few shining examples, each as memorable as that five-course dinner in D.C.

There was the Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, Ore., and imperial pints of bright cask bitter gleaming in the lamplight. Paperbacks, foosball and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Heaven.

There was southern Missouri’s Little Yeoman, a brew shed among cow pastures, where we sat on lawn chairs under picnic tents and drank from stoneware cups. There was the casual Thai Me Up in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with its old movie posters and house-made IPAs designed for the fiery food. There was the Idaho fish house serving stout from the next town over. There was the local pale ale or surprise seasonal in the basement dive, the airport or the ballpark.

Such places are still a bit too scarce for my taste, those moments too few. We ought to demand more.

Meanwhile, as I write this, I get word that a new brewpub is opening in Rolla, Mo., straight up Highway 63 from Little Yeoman. It’s called the Public House, and it has a focus that shouldn’t be so unusual: session beers.

“People will always push the envelope, and I applaud that,” said co-owner Josh Goodridge. “But if everyone is pushing the envelope, after a while I think it loses a little of its luster and people realize they just want to drink a few beers with their friends. …That’s what a session is all about, and it is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

 

SAVING GRACES: The American crafts that impressed our skeptical author.

“At 4.4% ABV, 21st Amendment Bitter American is full of hoppy quality yet made to be drunk in quantity. Character and drinkability sharing fun in the San Francisco sun.”

“The Kansas City brewery has been getting national attention for its interesting and usually excellent Smokestack Series, but the dry and hoppy Boulevard Pale Ale is a desert island beer for me.”

“Any beer made with salt, chamomile, lemon peel and lavender flowers ought to be undrinkable. But Oregon’s Cascade Spring Gose is tart, refreshing and magnificent. It’s also sessionable, believe it or not, at 4.5% ABV.”

“A big, black balance of mocha sweetness and roasty bitterness that goes down dangerously easy. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter is a modern American classic from Cleveland.”

—Joe Stange

Click here for more from Draft Magazine.

Joe Stange is a freelance journalist living in Costa Rica. He co-authored “Around Brussels in 80 Beers” and blogs at ThirstyPilgrim.com.

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