Debate Center: Perfection in simplicity or rare delicacy?
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 AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Debate Forum Question of the Week:
Debate Left:A noble craft –The search for the great white whale
By Max Spang
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.
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 MaxSpang@DaytonCityPaper.com.
In defense of the classics
By Kevin J. Gray
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 KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.