This past fall, gruits – that ancient, hopless beer style flavoured with herbs that seems to be all the rage right now – got me thinking about the elusive line that divides fads, trends, and gimmicks from creative innovations and emerging styles. How do beer geeks decide where they categorize any given beer? Are gimmicky beers harming the reputation of craft beer?
I like to think of myself as a beer evangelist (also brilliant, witty, gorgeous and humble…). It is therefore my self-appointed duty to bring people into the fold. I love finding the craft beer that makes a former macro lager drinker’s eyes light up, and introducing a non-beer-drinker to a style they can’t believe is actually beer because it tastes so good.
I worry, probably too much, about how people perceive craft beer. Craft beer gets kudos for qualities like authenticity, innovation and community-mindedness.
Besides “bad” beer, what are the things that turn people off from craft beer? Or fail to entice consumers over to the craft side? Do jokey beers make people think craft beer is a joke? Does being surrounded by so many beer styles confuse folks into avoiding everything craft? Like duck confit nachos, are people rolling their eyes at the “elevated” beer styles?
I am not suggesting that we’re one gimmicky beer away from total annihilation here. Nor am I saying that there’s no place for innovation or creativity — quite the opposite in fact. I’m tickled pink that brewers are bringing the gose back. The rise of session ales? Now there’s a trend that is bringing consumers into the craft beer fold.
No, what keeps me up at night is the worry that too much hype about the crazy new beer those wacky craft brewers made from prairie oysters/beard yeast/wasp bellies/in space/under the sea is taking the focus away from the care that goes into making every single craft beer.
It’s good to get some perspective from others when your worries are swirling. I didn’t convene a panel of experts, who all came to consensus, but I did casually interrogate beer geeks and industry folks about gimmicky beers and their effect on the industry. The unscientific data I gathered is summed up below.
The words “hype,” “fad” and “trend” were bandied about. As was my absolute favourite, “hipster fuckery.” What’s hipster fuckery, you ask? According to its utterer, it is the completely unnecessary addition of whimsical ingredients and brewing techniques, especially piled on top of each other. You’re left with a beer that is fighting itself.
Hipster fuckery is a great way to alienate potential craft beer fans.
So how about we all just agree to be innovative as hell, but stop well short of hipster fuckery? Excellent! But, umm, where is that line exactly? Perhaps a look at how the not-panel perceives some headline-grabbing beers can guide us:
Pumpkin ales: Nobody likes them. The consensus is that they’re not a seasonal, no, sirree, they’re a gimmick. One brewery representative said they’d brew one over her dead body.
Raw Ale: Some see it as gimmicky. The guys at Category 12 argue that they put a lot of time and care into its development, ensuring that it’s true to the original style, but with a modern local twist. And it’s shelf-stable!
Zero IBU: Everyone agrees this is a gimmick. Potentially a great conversation starter about bitterness measurement, but a gimmick nonetheless.
Northeast IPA: Some think it’s a new style that is going to stick around (I think it is going to replace the NW IPA in popularity, it’s just so darned accessible!). Others think fad or trend. Either way, not gimmicky.
Fresh hopping: Some thought it was a gimmick, others a seasonal/legitimate beer style. Hype? Check! But that can be waved off because of the tiny time frame in which they can be brewed, marketed and sold. When you fresh hop a non-hop-forward style, though, you’re in gimmick-land. If the hops aren’t showcased, using fresh ones is masturbatory.
Kettle sours: There’s no deceptive element if they are clearly labelled, and priced, as kettle sours. Probably a fad, but not a gimmick.
And the gruits that started me thinking: Nobody likes these either. Why is anyone trying to get these on store shelves? That question put them into the gimmick category.
There you have it. Lines clearly drawn. Okay, not at all. But what the discussions did crystallize for me is that hype is the antithesis of authenticity. It’s okay to be novel, but you’ve got to have substance backing it up. It’s okay to grab headlines, but do it for good reason. Envelopes are meant to be pushed, but you’ve got to keep your integrity while doing so.
Craft beer is awesome. You know it. I know it. Let’s make sure the rest of those louts know it too. Then I’ll be able to sleep at night.