Debate Forum 09/24

Debate Center: Perfection in simplicity or rare delicacy?

Illustration: ElliotWard

 By Alex Culpepper


Somewhere deep in the shadowy past of humanity, someone discovered the starchy, wet grains sitting in the corner of a mud hut rendered a mushy drink that left him or her relaxed, tingly and euphoric. This unlikely genius further found he or she could produce this drink at will, and in ever-larger batches. Suddenly, with this new drink, the toil and drudgery of Stone Age life was no longer such a dismal prospect. The long workday now had purpose with beer the reward at shift’s end. The world was about to change in a big way.
Beer soon boiled up all over the world. Wherever starchy, sugary plants could be found and something could ferment them, there was beer. And beer was important stuff. The Sumerians composed poetry about beer. The Egyptians brewed it for gods and dead people alike. The Babylonians revered it so much they killed bartenders if they poured their pints too short. Legends also hint Vikings raided the coasts of England and France not for wealth and slaves, but because the monks in the monasteries had the best beer around. It even influenced our nation’s founders, for when George Washington asked Thomas Jefferson if he would join him in a strapping pint of ale, Jefferson famously replied, “Sure, but do you think we’ll both fit?”

Beer has been brewed for ceremony, sacrifice and festival, but mostly it has been brewed for two purposes: it tastes good and is intoxicating. It comes in many different styles, colors and aromas. Beer has a breadth of variety other drinks wish they had, and the only things as diverse as beer styles are the opinions of beer drinkers. One of the broader debates is over classic beer – such as a finely crafted porter with impeccable balance – versus a wilder, rarer beer – like a high-alcohol persimmon and jalapeno imperial IPA loaded with exotic, challenging flavors. Both sides are simply frothy with enthusiasm.

Enthusiasts for classic styles, such as pilsners and porters, claim these beers are where you find Nirvana. They say it’s all about balance and perfection. Creating a true classic beer requires great skill because a classic style has a formula that must be followed to develop the right depth and balance of flavor, unlike wilder, exotic beers that can absorb miscalculated measures or unusual ingredients. Flag-wavers for the classics also say these beers are part of history with styles perfected long ago to produce a steady, dependable brew.

Rare-beer mavericks have a different attitude. To them, the rare beer is the true “gem in the crown” for genuine beer lovers. That they are rare and experimental is why these limited, ultra small-batch beers are exceptional. For these drinkers, rare beers bring flavors, aromas and experiences no other beers can come close to producing. Instead of looking back to the classics, brewers of rarities seek the future and innovation, pushing the limits of brewing like a skydiver jumping from 100,000 feet rather than a mere 10,000.

Beer debates are as valid as any other, and often they can be as complex, confounding and convoluted. People believe in beer, and they believe hard. Defenders of the classic styles favor the tradition and precision built into a superior brew, while the disciples of wild, rare beers boast the unique elements and exceptionalism. One is the scientist; the other the artist.


Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

 Is a high-alcohol, wildly flavored rare beer better than a perfectly crafted traditional style of beer? 

Debate Left:A noble craft –The search for the great white whale

By Max Spang

 Have you ever heard of the term “whale” when referring to beer? Let me explain … there’s this book called “Moby Dick” – maybe you’ve heard of it? In it, there is this guy named Captain Ahab who is obsessed with taking revenge on a huge white whale that ate his leg. The only problem is that this whale is exceptionally difficult to locate. In the beer world, “white whale” refers to an extremely rare beer. Beers that are slightly less rare may be called “tan whales” or “blue whales” by beer geeks who like to sound fancy. Landing a whale is just as satisfying for beer geeks as it was for Captain Ahab, and there’s less of a chance of being eaten. Fair warning, I’m going to use the word “whale” more times in this article than I would if I were writing about actual whales.There are pretty much two ways to get your hands on a whale. One way is to attend one of the limited-release parties that breweries hold. This usually involves waiting in line for hours and buying the bottles, which are usually expensive and limited to a few per person. The other way is to trade for the bottles.An example of attending a release: Dark Lord Day falls on the last Saturday of April at Three Floyds Brewery in Munster, Ind. It serves as a festival-like celebration of craft beer and Satan-spawning metal music. It’s also when Three Floyds releases bottles of Dark Lord, their Russian Imperial Stout. Beer geeks flock from all around the world to attend Dark Lord Day, purchase bottles of Dark Lord, and – if they are lucky – purchase bottles of barrel-aged Dark Lord. The barrel-aged variations cost a whopping $50 per bottle, and the bottles counts are generally less than 1,000. You even have to win a scratch-off ticket in order to get the chance to buy a bottle. This may seem like an awful amount of time, money and luck just for a bottle of beer as thick as motor oil, and yet Three Floyds has no problems selling out of these beers every year. Also, here’s a bit of clarification for you – regular Dark Lord is hardly a whale. It’s a blue whale at best, while the barrel-aged variations are tannish-white whales. Man, craft beer lingo is stupid.

Beer trading is exactly what it sounds like: trading beer for beer. There are basically two ways to trade for a whale – either you trade a whale for a whale, or you trade a bunch of beers that are worth way more than the whale you are looking for. Either way, you have to give up some serious stuff to get your hands on a rare bottle or two.

So, after all this stuff that I wrote to try to get my word count high enough to submit this article, you might be asking yourself, “Why the hell would anyone want to spend all this time, money and energy into beers that are rare?”

First off, lose the attitude, OK? Secondly, there are a few reasons to get involved in rare beer hunting. The most obvious reason is the fact that these rare beers are rare for a reason – they aren’t what the brewery normally makes. They are often experimental batches where brewers try new and radical ways of brewing, whether that be a weird sour beer, a barrel-aged-imperial-whatever or just something that they tossed together and hoped it would turn out OK. To the brewers, these beers are their babies. They prove that you can do crazy things with beer and still make it taste good. The other facet to rare beers is a psychological one. It’s kind of like owning a limited piece of art. If your favorite band released an album that only had a limited run of 500 copies, then you would feel privileged to own that album. The same feeling applies to beer. When you crack open one of those beers with a group of friends, you are all experiencing something that is truly once-in-a-lifetime.

Happy hunting!

Max Spang is a video producer at Catapult Creative and an active beer snob. He has sampled more than 1,400 unique beers, and he owns so many rare bottles of beer that he bathes in them regularly. He can be reached at


In defense of the classics

By Kevin J. Gray

 Why, despite the hundreds of strange and interesting beers I’ve tried, are my go-to beers usually classic beer styles? What compels me spend my hard-earned beer money on a pilsner, a brown ale or a bock beer rather than reaching for the newest 15 percent ABV Russian Imperial Stout aged in wood unearthed from a Guatemalan archeological site? What is it about the classics that make them so enduring, so compelling?First, what are the classics? Classic styles are pilsners, pale ales, porters, bocks and countless others that have been developed and refined over decades and centuries. These are not the new, flashy “white whales,” but rather, the tried and true of the beer world.  And we reach for the classics for three reasons. These beers are the epitome of balance and they take real art to brew. The classics connect us to a larger historical context – they tie us with the world out of which they evolved.At its core, beer brewing is an exercise in balance. Despite the current rush to experiment with exotic ingredients, most beers aren’t that complicated. Four things comprise most beers: malt, hops, water and yeast. Each style emphasizes a different ingredient, but each style does so without upsetting the overall balance. Belgian ales focus on yeasts to produce intense flavors, but rely on rich malt backbones to round out their profile. Brown ales and porters employ malts to produce robust flavors but need the contrast of the hops and the clean finish of the yeast to avoid tasting like watery coffee. Hops dominate pale ales and crisp pilsners, but without the clean foil of a sweet malt backdrop the hops would be acrid and unpalatable.

Classic styles represent the best of balanced beers. Take the humble brown ale. These unassuming beers are not high in alcohol. While there are hints of chocolate and coffee, they aren’t as robust as their stout and porter kin. Yet, these beers are perfect for a backyard barbeque or a crisp fall day. Why? Because a really good brown ale represents poise and balance. When done right, a brown ale offers the right note of roasted malt accentuated by restrained hops. The yeast is present, but, like a dutiful assistant, knows that its place is not to dominate, but rather, to reflect the emphasis back onto the malts.

Pair a brown ale with a burger or squash soup. Watch how the caramel and nutty flavors in the beer draw out and emphasize the dishes. The balanced flavors of well-made classics draw in the drinker, inviting him or her to contemplate the beer. These beers are multi-dimensional. One flavor dominates the foreground, but others wisp and shift to create a complex and mutable backdrop.

Yet, this balance doesn’t always come easily. Brewing a well-balanced beer exposes the brewer. The cleaner the style, the harder it is to hide flaws. A perfect pilsner, for instance, requires immense sophistication on the part of the brewer. Unlike beers with exotic ingredients that mask off-flavors, there is literally nowhere to hide flaws in a pilsner. Boil the wort too long, and the beer is too dark. Add too many hops or too much malt, and the beer becomes unrestrained, unbalanced. Ferment at the wrong temperature and risk off flavors. But nail the recipe and the process and the beer transcends the sum of its parts.

Finally, the classics honor beer’s long history. These styles were developed over time, through trial and error, often in reaction to the geography or the historical context of a time and place. A well-crafted pilsner transports the drinker to 1840s Bohemia, just as a porter invokes thoughts of Victorian London pubs. To understand the beer is to understand the zeitgeist out of which it evolved.

Next time you are hunting for a new beer, go back to the basics. Pick a pilsner, a brown ale or some other classic style that is all too often overlooked. Take time to really taste the beer, and appreciate the work and the history that went into making it.


Kevin J. Gray is Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geek. A firm believer in all things balance, when Kevin isn’t drinking craft beer, he’s hiking or biking to keep his beer belly in optimal shape. Reach Kevin J. Gray at



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