We’ve discussed these points before: craft beer consumers are more knowledgeable now than they’ve ever been; craft beer consumers are developing a greater understanding of what constitutes a “good” beer; the palates of craft beer consumers are more finely tuned – so much so that once-common off-flavors will no longer float by unnoticed.
For the most part, I agree with these claims, and as I mentioned in my last chapter, I truly feel American craft beer consumers are more aware of the common off-flavors that have long found shelter within the ale-heavy craft beer industry. But even at the height of this consumer consciousness – as beer geeks and novices alike become more critical and knowledgeable by the day – I still find myself a bit confused by the constant claims that those breweries offering beers with off-flavors will somehow fall to the wayside.
As brash as this statement may seem: it simply won’t happen. And as finely-tuned as the American palate has become, I’ll state with zero hesitation that breweries who sell beer with off-flavors will continue to succeed in the craft beer marketplace.
Bullshit? Well, let’s discuss the most common off-flavor in both imported and Made-In-America craft beer: oxidation. As the majority of beer fans know by now, oxidation is a cardboard-like flavor that’s created when any amount of oxygen makes contact with beer (there’s obviously more to it, but that’s the quick gist). As we’ve discussed before, oxygen is a cruel sonofabitch with zero remorse, and anything from 1 to 50 parts per billion (ppb) can ruin a cold-stored IPA in roughly three months. And when you exceed 50 ppb (reaching into the hundreds, if not thousands), you find beers that will truly start to show stale, oxidation-related flavors within a matter of hours.
This is much less a can vs. bottle vs. keg conversation than it is an understanding that all beer oxidizes, and if a brewery doesn’t take the precautions to understand the dissolved oxygen levels of their packaged beer, there’s a very good likelihood that the beer they’re shipping and storing throughout the craft-heavy coolers of the world are littered with oxidized beers playing the role of a once-fresh, delicious malt beverage.
To further the situation, many liquor stores seem to think it’s A-OK to store these – what were once – incredible beers in warm-storage areas within their markets, further exacerbating the rate of oxidation, and turning a $12 double IPA into a potential drain-pour. Then, as an added bonus, factor in a the likelihood of beer geeks cellaring their beers for months upon years (some with little regard to style and hop loads), and you have a perishable product – that’s often best consumed fresh – potentially hitting the tongues of said beer geeks well past their best-by time frame.
Additionally (and this is what truly blows my mind), breweries are routinely aging IPAs and/or Imperial IPAs in oak barrels and selling them at a fairly high price point — and people are very, very stoked about this. Imperial Stouts in oak? Sure. English style, lightly-hopped Barleywines in oak? Sure, why not? There’s oxidation in both, but it comes across in a mellowing, somewhat welcoming way. But come on now, highly-hopped IPAs in oak?
I’m not challenging the taste buds of the breweries who produce these styles of beer, or the consumers who buy these beers, but truth be told, this is literally the complete opposite reason why a brewery would use – what can often be – very expensive, pelletized-for-freshness hops. It’s a scheme consisting of slow oxidation to a point where what’s left of the hops is an awkward bitterness beneath a syrup of thick cardboardy, heavy-caramel flavor with nothing of an IPA to show for it.
Yet, as far as one can tell, craft beer fans are not only content with oxidation in their beers, they’re actually seeking them out and spending top dollar for what some would consider a ruined beer. And seeing as though oxidation still sits high atop the totem pole of craft beer off-flavors (somewhere alongside the far-more-ridiculed diacetyl, skunkiness, and acetaldehyde), it’s easy to see how and why breweries will be able sell aged beers (and why geeks will continue to store them) without any backlash – and knowing full-well that the idea of coolness often lends a safety net to a known off-flavor. And if the question then becomes one of oxidation’s benefits within a 16% Imperial Red IPA aged in whiskey barrels over that of a “basic” 7% West Coast IPA, then perhaps we’ll find ourselves digging a bit deeper into the cavernous badlands of Beer Theory.