One of the things I don’t see people taking into account frequently when they talk about beer is time.
I don’t mean that you should drink a hoppy beer when it is fresh (you absolutely should) or that a 2008 Thomas Hardy is probably still too young to drink (it is apparently still tasting sort of young) or even that you should probably take a while to linger over a beer (you get more sensory information that way, plus this stuff is getting expensive).
If you’re a craft beer nerd, you’re constantly re-ordering your mental model of what beer is whether you know it or not. Breweries like to refer to the creation of new beers and new styles as innovation. The innovation is not really theirs to claim. The number of ingredients that exist is constantly expanding. Different strains of hops and different kiln treatments of barley and the inclusion of other ingredients like fruits and spices and (yes) pumpkin create a larger number of permutative possibilities. You can think of a brewer like a mathematical function that develops probability.
I mean, don’t walk up to a brewer and tell him he’s an abstract system into which you put ingredients and beer comes out. Most brewers put beer into their systems and hate doing math much beyond brewhouse calculations. Accountants become brewers so they don’t have to do math.
My point is that if you think of beer as a kind of mathematical function in which a brewer’s individual taste acts on a kind factorial permutation, you would not be terribly far off of understanding what innovation looks like. Oh, sure, people would look at you funny when you try to explain that at parties, but deep down in your soul, you’d know you were right.
My point is that ingredients increase over time. Before 1855, we didn’t have Fuggles; Only Goldings. In 1855, English beer got twice as exciting. Before 1971, we didn’t have Cascade. Actually, if you take Wikipedia at face value, no one used Cascade commercially until 1976. The number of distinct hop varieties that have sprung into being in the last thirty years certainly outstrips all hop developments in world history up to that point.
More ingredients means more complexity and that is a function that increases over time.
The shorthand that we have developed for this is the concept of beer styles. Michael Jackson wandered around cataloguing things like some entomologist with a butterfly net, pinning down the different beers that he encountered into different boxes, displaying their colorful labels for the world to see. It’s a useful mode of thought and he did a lot of useful work, probably while having a really nice time.
To borrow from Bill Cosby, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”
Sometimes, the function of an entomologist is to discover a butterfly encased in amber. You will sometimes run into beers that were designed at a specific point in time for a specific purpose. There were only so many ingredients available at that time, so the beer is markedly of that time.
On Friday night I drank about a third of a bottle of Foothills Seeing Double IPA. Foothills is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The family vacation caravan was passing through Asheville, North Carolina and offered to bring be beer if I’d provide a list. I hopped on Ratebeer and came up with the kind of kid at Christmas list you come up with in that situation.
Foothills Seeing Double IPA is a 9.4% Double IPA that clocks in at 126 IBU’s. Foothills is a well-respected brewery that makes some pretty highly thought of stuff. It wasn’t that it was a bad beer, exactly. It was overly hoppy, sure, but I remembered drinking big hoppy beers around the time when I got into beer around 2006 and liking them just fine. Avery’s Maharajah made an early impression. I remember having Moylan’s Hopsickle at Volo. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like Seeing Double.
Then it dawned on me: I’m old!
I researched Foothills Seeing Double the next day and found out that it was designed in 2005. It’s like a time capsule from a period when people were seeing how many IBUs they could jam directly into your sinus cavity. The criteria in 2005 was “does this beer make your tonsils recoil in horror? does your jaw tingle like Peter Parker’s senses at a villain convention?” 126 IBUs is full quarter above the human taste threshold. It means that no matter how long they keep making that beer at Foothills, it’s going to be 2005 at Foothills. I don’t mean them any ill will. It happens other places too.
I left an unfinished pint of New Belgium’s Fat Tire at the Belgian Beer Lounge at Edmonton Airport. There was nothing wrong with the beer. There was nothing wrong with the taps. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the service. Actually, the ability to order a Rochefort 10 before your flight is sort of delightful. Well done, Edmonton!
Fat Tire was first brewed commercially in 1991, but I feel like the thought process that went into it stretches back before that. Apparently the brewer first thought about it in 1989. The Edmonton Airport was the first time I’d tried it, so it was new to me. To say that it was something of a chore is an understatement. This was a beer from before Stone Temple Pilots roamed the earth. It is an Amber Ale, so it was probably never going to curl my toes and make my hair stand up; however, when you consider that it carried New Belgium and is responsible for much of the success over there, it’s just underwhelming to experience. “Is that it?” was my thinking.
The number of ingredients and the amount of thought about them has expanded exponentially since 1991. It must really be the sign of a great beer to survive as an exemplar; as the sort of evolutionary offshoot that worked. As time goes by new styles are probably inevitable, but feel free to wait on them. The strong will survive as exemplars. The weak will display their age. In ten years you’ll be drinking a 4.1% session IPA with flavours of mango and passionfruit and making pop cultural jokes about One Direction and Skrillex.
Speaking of age, one sure sign of it is when you realize you don’t have to drink the entire beer.