The Dogma of the Beer Renaissance
There is no doubt that our society faces many challenges. However, in many ways, we live in great times: technology has propelled us forward; medicine is keeping us alive longer; we’ve sequenced the genome; we have information at our fingertips; and we have a vastly greater understanding of the universe and our origins than at any time prior. Life is good and, as long as we survive Global Warming and other pitfalls of progress, life may even get better. The future probably has many pleasures in store and - for me - the cherry on top of anything good is the “Beer Renaissance” currently occurring in the United States.
According to the Brewer’s Association, the total number of breweries operating in the U.S. at the end of 2013 totals over 2,500 – that’s an increase of over 400% since 1990, an increase of over 69% since 2000, and a solid increase of approximately 25% since 2011. That’s also more than double the number of breweries you’ll find operating in Germany or England. Driving across the country a few months ago, I noticed that there are craft breweries and microbreweries starting up everywhere: Vermont leads the way in terms of capita per brewery – with about 24,000 inhabitants for every brewer - but many states are closely behind, including California, which is in the top 20 with over 300 breweries (and topping the list as containing the most breweries of any state).
Of course, it’s not just about quantity: there is also an immeasurable variety of beer and you can taste the explosion of creativity now occurring. Never before have we had so many choices in different varieties of beer, from lagers, to ales, to stouts, and especially IPAs. Indeed, San Diego County, where I live, has been referred to as “the Craft Beer Capital of America” and even pioneered the Double IPA, or “San Diego Pale Ale”. Our city has become a center of beer tourism, with its breweries generating, according to The Voice of San Diego, almost $300 million last year, while the number of annual beer licenses issued in San Diego is following an exponential curve that puts Moore’s Law to shame.
When I backpacked through Europe in the late 90’s, I unfortunately had to concede to the argument that “American beer sucks, looks like urine and probably tastes like it too”, as many there were apt to sententiously opine at the time. Except for a couple of major breweries that seemed to brew pee, there really wasn’t much to choose from back home in America. Well, no longer, my European friend: we now have great beer, and it’s inspired, and it’s wonderful. I would no longer concede to any argument claiming “American beer probably tastes like urine”; I would go as far to say, perhaps contentiously, that the U.S. is actually leading the way in craft brewing. I have no doubts that we are experiencing a “Beer Renaissance”.
“Yet, something is amiss,” I said to myself as I stood in front of my kitchen sink with a beer bottle in my hand and a grimace on my face. This was my first time in this type of situation: never – and I mean “never” – in the past would I have pondered pouring a beer into the sink. I looked at the beer bottle; then at the sink in consternation. I lamented for a moment and, realizing that I couldn’t force myself to do it, I chugged the beer down like it was a dose of bad medicine. It was Ballast Point’s IPL, or India Pale Lager.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I love Ballast Point, and their Yellowtail is one of my favorite beers. Up to that traumatic point in front of my kitchen sink, I’d enjoyed everything the brewery had produced, so - although I was a bit reluctant to try an “India Pale Lager”- I thought that if anyone would do it right, Ballast Point could. I don’t think any brewery can get it right, however. And I realized then that there was a reason for this. Any renaissance has its issues, I’m sure; in this case, the issue is an overuse of hops.
In his book “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing”, arguably the best book on home brewing currently available, Charlie Papazian asks “What is American Beer?” In answer, he explains that, before prohibition, there were thousands of breweries in existence in the U.S. supplying their respective regions (in 1887, according to the Brewers Associations, there were 2,011, not far from our current count). With prohibition, which Papazian calls the “Dark Ages of Beer”, the number dwindled to zero, at least at an officially legal level. When prohibition finally ended, only the large breweries remained, having survived the “Dark Ages” by supplying malt products to the food industry. Still unsure of the nation’s sentiments towards beer, these large breweries endeavored to create beer that would meet mass approval. Thus, micro- and craft breweries had met their end, and, with them, so had variety and choice. With the outset of World War II later, food shortages impeded the production of beer, forcing brewers to use less malt, leaving Americans with a tasteless, light-colored and light-bodied beer - the beer we had been stuck with till the 90s; the beer that the rest of the world had ridiculed; the beer that offered nothing but intoxication. And now, in almost typical American fashion, we seemed to have gone from one extreme to the other, from tasteless, light-colored and light-bodied, to overly flowery, deeply dark, and heavily-bodied. The trend is to imbue our beer with the strongest taste available. Our “Beer Renaissance” has taken us to a “Hops Overdose”.
Ballast Point’s IPL is not the only culprit; the overuse of hops is prevalent in most Californian IPAs. It seems that San Diego County’s development of the Double IPA has led to a complete disregard for subtlety, replacing refinement with overpowering, in-your-face crispness, bitterness, and alcohol content.
The history of the IPA goes back about 100 years when the British invented the style in order to provide tasty beer to British troops occupying India. Because of its preservative qualities, hops were added to the ale in larger than normal quantities to preserve the beer while it made its way by ship to India. This made for a stronger, more bitterly tasting beer with higher alcohol content. If you’ve ever tried an IPA from the country of its origin, then you’ll know that the beer is indeed more robust than is the typical pale ale, yet its hops content pales in comparison to that of the IPAs being produced here. In point of fact, the average IBU – or International Bitterness Units scale, which measures the perceived relative bitterness of a beer from the addition of hops, as defined by the American Society of Brewing Chemists – for an English IPA is approximately 35-60 units, while the IBU for its American Double IPA cousin can measure from 70 to well over 100.
The fact that breweries are zealously lacing lagers – of all possible styles of beer - with hops is evidence of the trend to excessively use this plant. As I walk the grocery and liquor store aisles, I am both mesmerized and discomfited by beer cans and bottles announcing in boisterous font the extreme hops content of their beer: “For hop heads only”; “Over a pound of hops per barrel”; “For hop therapy”. The list goes on and on.
I’m not arguing that hops don’t add a flavorful complexity to beer. In modest doses, it makes beer more interesting and gratifying. I am, however, saying that brewers have tipped overboard. After a certain point, there are simply diminishing returns in the complexity of flavor and we’re left with convulsion-inducing beers. Furthermore, if they continue on this trend, they’ll begin alienating those, like me, who are not hops enthusiasts.
Perhaps some will say that I’m just afraid of a little kick in my beer. Perhaps some will even say that I fail to embrace all the innovations we’ve made to beer during our renaissance because I don’t know anything about beer. Well, in answer I say: “I bet I can drink you under the table”.
I truly commend what’s occurring in the beer industry: it’s full of innovation and intrepid limit pushing. Those are traits that lead to great things. Yet, I believe that we now know where to draw the line. Can we lay off the hops a bit?