Beer Theory is a monthly series that exists where geekdom relents. It’s the cross between prose, poetry, philosophy, and spilling a beer on your keyboard. Look for it the last Friday of every month.
I was recently talking with a friend of mine who happens to be the beer curator for one of the most unassuming-yet-staggering tap lineups along the Denver-Boulder silk road, and as we geeked over the addition of sour-beer-this and oak-aged-that, we once again – as had happened so many times before – fell back on the conversation that our true excitement comes from drinking a pint of Cannonball Creek’s Featherweight Pale and Firestone’s Pivo Pils. Not that either of us feel wild or sour or barrel-aged beers are passé or boring or unimportant in any way; it was, and has always been, a conversation of a beer baseness: the standard at which the cleanest, most drinkable beers lay a solid foundation, and from which, rampant experimentation then extends.
Again, we each love experimental beers as much as the geekiest of the geeks, and we’ve both spent far too much time trading, buying, and serendipitously acquiring bottles and cans of said treasures over the years. What we came to realize, however, was that our deepest beer desires led us less towards imperial/funkified/adjunct-driven/one-off creations, and more towards the most straightforward beers that craft breweries could offer us – at which point said friend stated that he’d gladly trade all of his highly-sought after cellared beers in exchange for a comparable amount of the freshest batches of Featherweight and Pivo.
At that point, it was less the topic than the comment that struck me. I’d shared this same conversation with many a friend and colleague within and outside the industry, but he was the first to make me pause and reflect on the fact that a huge beer fan such as himself would take beers so rare and so coveted by so many and trade them for two of the most accessible beers in Colorado. And I couldn’t help but agree.
Now I’m very aware that this topic has, in one way or another, been touched on before. Session IPAs made waves this year (begin debate on session IPAs…NOW), and every beer writer under the sun has made a point to bid a heartfelt farewell to “extreme” beers, while just as quickly taking the time to bash “session” beers as the next fad. I get it: bashing fads fills columns. Hell, I had my own take on session beers a few months back; so yeah, debate’s fun, and decrying the last or next fad is easy..call it..journalism – ‘cause you’re never wrong.
To top it off, an article I read the other day asked if sour beers where the next IPA.
Sours; IPAs; pales; barrel-aged, oxidized malt bombs; hibiscus-infused saisons: they’re all popular right now. And the simplest thought that one or another will have its time in the sun is as silly as thinking craft beer is about to implode. Note: they won’t; and it’s just getting started.
Here in Colorado we’re spoiled. But the same can’t be said for every state in the US, or every country in the world, and as craft beer spreads its conspicuously welcoming tentacles, and as beer tourism flourishes, the simplest IPA to some will become the Holy Grail to others – and in our ever-interconnected world, the virgin craft beer consumers will never stop emerging from the wood work. Some will start with Fat Tire; others will have their lives changed by Stone IPA; while others yet may take their first sip of Saison Vieille and never go back to Miller Genuine Draft.
And it’s both that craft beer introduction, and the eventual education, that brings us back to craft beer baseness. Typically people drink craft beer for the uniqueness of its taste, aroma, and appearance – and from there it’s often the added complexity and scarcity that drives further desires. Two of the nation’s most famous brewery owners, Sam Calagione and Adam Avery, site their forefathers at Sierra Nevada, and their ubiquitous Pale, as the beer that changed their lives; the beer that inspired each of them to open their now two-decade-old breweries. And often enough, when the newest, coolest brewers on the block are interviewed, they too site the Sams, Adams, or Ken Grossmans of the world as thee brewers that convinced them to pursue their personal careers in the craft beer industry.
Where we stand now – at a time when the Colorado craft market isn’t only inundated with new breweries on a monthly basis, but also new breweries entering coveted shelf spots on a weekly basis – is a period where we can basically get any beer we want, whenever we want it, to a point where people are incessantly asking what’s the next big thing? Will Goses overtake brett farmhouse ales?! Will Galaxy dry-hopped brett saisons usurp Imperial IPAs?? And, fuck, what about Mikkeller’s fourty different barrel-aged Dortmunders? Absurd, maybe, but in all honestly, I’ll stand by the fact that the old next big things, the approachable pales and pilsners of the American craft beer segment, are and always will be the one great basis by which all craft beer should be judged.