The Craft Beer Cycle, Bookended by HMHB and Gilbert & Sullivan

Craft Beer CycleI’ve been to a post-punk postcard fair, in my Joy Division oven gloves
Half Man Half Biscuit, 2005

Throughout college and grad school, it seemed everything was post-something. As a student of archaeology, that meant for me, largely post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-processural and the like; fast-forward 20 years, and Jeff Pickthall muses about whether he might be ‘post-craft’ when it comes to beer. It’s a perspective I’ve been wondering about of late, albeit without a clever title – while the explosion of an amazing array of breweries and styles has largely been a positive thing, there is more than a whiff of Shiny Object Syndrome in the beer world. While previously it seemed every brewery had a double IPA (or something else pushing the ABV and IBU envelopes), the current trend for ‘weird’ beers can be a bit wearying, and I say that as someone who loves them.

First, though, let’s put some boundaries around what ‘weird’ is for the purposes of this discussion. Some of it is reviving (or simply re-discovering) historical and regional styles like Kentucky Common or Gose (now NEW YORK TIMES APPROVED), and that’s great, though I’d love to see more done with the rigor employed by Ron Pattinson’s work with primary sources – there’s clearly a lot of room for variety in those historical styles, often much more than one would assume, and it’s fabulous to see (drink) the results of that kind of work. But there’s also a tendency to ‘modernize’ them – making a 12% barrel-aged Berliner Weisse comes to mind – in ways that aren’t just historically inaccurate, but simply don’t appeal to anyone beyond a particular kind of fanboy/girl who may simply be in it for the bragging rights. It’s perfectly fine to make things that aren’t for everyone, but if it’s something even that narrow audience professes to enjoy simply because they feel they ought to, there’s something missing.

There’s another branch of ‘weird’ that uses unexpected ingredients, and that can work extremely well, but that doesn’t mean that it will. It could be a huge failure. Or, perhaps even worse by some standards, it could just be thoroughly mediocre. And it’s fair to say that a wider acceptance of ‘weird’ also leads to more room for error – maybe that infected beer that cost a lot to make is just a new kind of ‘sour’ (which now seems to cover a very wide stylistic range indeed), and it can be repackaged or rebranded as such. That’s where things start getting sloppy, and over time, people notice.

That’s not to say there aren’t breweries doing weird beers extremely well; I’m very fortunate to live a short walk from Tired Hands Brewing Company, and they have yet to turn out a dud, but their smaller-batch model is perfectly designed for that sort of experimentation by highly-skilled brewers.  And Tired Hands has also made great milds, a fabulous bitter, wonderful IPAs – it’s just that for them, those are the rarities. And because the quality and consistency is there, it works. Mikkeller has a similar, if somewhat more scattershot approach, likely a necessity given their peripatetic brewing model, but I did find it very interesting that their pub in Copenhagen had a great mix of traditional styles, both their own beers and those of their friends and neighbors, as well as the more outlandish beers they tend to sell abroad. Given that ‘weird’ seems to sell, it’s a smart approach – keep a hand in with high-quality basics, but send the ‘extreme’ things to the markets that crave them (though I’d personally love to have some of their beers that I tried in Denmark in the US – do I get any pull as a member of the Mikkeller Running Club? No? That’s OK). There are other breweries I’ll not name that desperately want to be ‘weird’ and to that end, only brew beers with, say, vegan bacon as a key ingredient, but they don’t seem to have mastered the basics.  Those are the breweries that look uncannily like those that didn’t survive The Great Microbrew Bubble in the 1990s.

There are certainly times when I really want to try the Shiny New Thing – but equally, there are times when I wish I could find more great, well-brewed ‘normal’ beers – especially with a lower ABV (hey, I’m only small, and having one child who is under a year old means I’m a long way off from having any alcohol tolerance back). But instead of ‘session IPAs’ – the best I’ve had have been perfectly well-crafted and re-branded pale ales, with the worst tasting rather like hop tea – can we not enjoy a range of other styles? I have been thrilled to discover Conshohocken Brewing Company’s Puddlers Row Bitter; it’s perfectly done, and a great go-to beer.

But in the current environment, I’m sometimes told the ‘normal’ beers aren’t selling; I was pleased to discover my local beer shop had begun to stock some Hobson’s beers, but then crestfallen to hear they were selling them all cheaply because ‘they didn’t move.’ There can be any number of reasons for this, but given that I was actively keeping an eye out for those beers and didn’t know they were there, I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone who hadn’t heard of the brand to discover them. A small brewery that happens to make great beers isn’t memeworthy; after all, many beer snobs don’t want to drink ‘tired’ styles they associate with the Newcastle Brown they thought was pretty fantastic as underage drinkers.  There’s no push within most of the craft beer-centric media (at least in the US) to talk about great ‘ordinary’ beers – novelty is what gets press.

These things are cyclical, but they have a real impact on what’s available, and I suspect there is an audience that simply isn’t catered to: they don’t feel the need to identify as a ‘craft beer person,’ but they’d like to try something new that isn’t too far from their comfort zone. On the other side of that coin, there are more and more craft beer nerds who know the value of a great ‘normal’ beer and wish there were more of them about.

So perhaps it’s not that I’m post-craft, but that I’m at a different phase in my personal craft beer cycle, which seems to run a bit like the image above. There are a few sub-processes and tangential directions left off, ranging from ‘I don’t drink contract-brewed beer’ to ‘I only drink beers for which I need to buy tickets and/or stand in line for hours’ on one side of the circle, with the other turning toward ‘I drink anything that’s free at a tailgate.’ It’s OK to have gone around the cycle a few times. It’s OK to go back and forth on different points on the cycle, or to decide you’re quite happy in one particular phase.

It’s a fabulous thing that I can walk a few blocks to have a great beer whenever the mood strikes me (provided I’m not at work, too tired, that both the big kid – who is something of a brewery tour snob – and the baby are both fed and watered, or that cats aren’t sitting on me). I’m thrilled that I can always find something unexpected and well-made, but sometimes I’d just like (the equivalent of) a pint of Theakston’s Best.

Perhaps the pendulum will soon swing the other way; with the hipsterization of brands like Narragansett as the ‘new PBR,’ we may soon see traditional brewing styles and breweries positioned as edgy retro options (and priced accordingly). Given the (often rather inward-looking) media noise and sales trends, I’m reminded that we’ve been here before – a long time before:

When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

– Gilbert & Sullivan, The Gondoliers, 1889

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