I have currently been writing professionally about beer for two and a half years. Next week will be the beginning of my third year with Sun Media. I’ve discovered that if you write about beer all the time, you run into a few small problems that nag at you.
The first is that you end up with fatigue. It’s not exactly palate fatigue. It’s not like hops have a cumulative effect and the alpha-acids aggregate in your cerebrospinal fluid. At least, not as far as I’m aware. It’s more like novelty fatigue. There are truly great and interesting things happening in Ontario as far as the development of new flavours go. Lackey’s doing good things. McOustra’s doing good things. Volo, Nickel Brook, Bellwoods, Indie Alehouse, Beaus… The envelope push is a constant in the craft beer scene at the moment. That’s a good thing, but familiarity with that breeds contempt for it.
At its purest, this kind of brewing is about innovation and it’s incredibly personal. This, when you strip away the marketability of the thing, is about a man and a conceptual vision of a product. The first batch might not make it. The third batch might not make it. It’s about honing a beer to make it adhere to a vision. This is part of what gives craft beer its wonderful appeal. The finished beer is the result of hours and hours of thought and inspiration and effort.
But it’s still, what, like, 60 litres of pilot batch? That’s like… 110 pints when you count spillage. If it’s 4oz glasses, it’s still not that many of them and probably less than the number you’d come up with because of more spillage in service. I have a national audience at Sun Media. I can’t write about a beer which, if it is any good and people come back for another sample, will get tried by maybe 80 people. By the time I write about it, it’s gone and it may never come back.
Because it’s not utile, I am thence forced to look at something that should be intellectually thrilling because it’s out there in bleeding edge, Chuck Yeager Stick Of Beeman’s territory with some amount of detachment.
It’s the detachment that’s fatiguing. I feel like I should be just tickled as all hell that I get invited to try this wild, wacky stuff, but instead it’s like “Uh… What can I write about this?” I can’t write about everything: Microsoft Word has a file size limit. I don’t want to offend people by not writing about them, especially if their only sin is being middle of the road. The end result is that I sit here in a deep blue funk, drinking too much coffee, afraid to go to events that I would probably enjoy.
Potentially the worst part of this is that when you’re talking about the entirety of craft and import sales in Ontario, and this is the bread and butter of every single one of us writing about beer, these market segments make up 20% of the beer market in Canada. There are just a huge number of people who are not drinking this stuff, and whose interest in reading about it is therefore pretty minimal.
This is why, for the month of February, St.John’s Wort will be hovering gently in the DISCOUNT BEER Category of The Beer Store.
You may consider it something of a busman’s holiday. The great thing about discount beers is that, as far as I’m aware, no one has ever bothered to cover them. These are brands which do not necessarily merit a PR representative. Let me tell you how I know: I have written to all of the producers (or will in the coming days) in order to request the standard two bottles of beer for review (In case one breaks in transit or there are off flavours or it’s any good and I’d kind of like a second one). There are 60 beers in the discount section. It is not worth the time of the producers of these beers to open a case and pick out two beers. They seem hell-bent on sending the minimum size of packaged beers.
They care enough to get some free publicity, but not so much that honest evaluation of the product will lead to tears in some delicate soul’s mash-tun. They know that it’s the discount section. Believe me. They know.
A friend of mine, Andrew Walsh (who judging by the photographic evidence in TAPS magazine is no stranger to the aftereffects of cheap beer) once claimed that his favorite beer was Brava. “What do you want for 30 bucks,” I am paraphrasing him as saying. In some sense, he’s right. These are utility beers, not really designed for maximum flavour. They aren’t hip. They aren’t trendy. The only way they’re getting near a barrel is if Donkey Kong throws one at the display. They are more or less likely to be consumed in great volume by people who think that a 24 is worth $29.95 and who are primarily concerned with the mood altering effect.
I’m not one of those people. I haven’t bought a 24 since student life in New Brunswick. I’m a prospective beer judge. I’m Cicerone Certified Beer Server and with any luck a Certified Cicerone by the end of the month. I went to brewing school (for a while). I’ve designed (in collaboration) some pretty well regarded stuff and I read voraciously on the subject of beer. I’m decided to take this seriously.
Evaluations will be completed on all 60 beers listed in The Beer Store’s discount category. The samples will consist of 4-6 ounces. The notes will be honest, but will reflect the fact that these are not products intended to stand up to significant overthinking. Marks will not be deducted for the fact that the brewery has sent me 48 times the amount of beer I require and therefore forced me to find creative ways to get rid of it.
Look: Lager makes up something like 90% of the total beer market. Discount lager probably makes up something like 30% of that, which makes it larger than the entirety of craft beer. Intellectual honesty therefore demands that someone actually look at the Gorgon. If nothing else, by the end of the month, we will be able to crown a champion and we may have ushered in the era of the discount category beer snob. Even a trailer park beauty pageant has a winner.
I have the feeling that by March, I’m really going to be looking forward to a barrel aged something or other with six kinds of hops and 78 well chosen IBUs and a grain bill the size of Venezuela.