I love beer. Beer is delicious. Beer is refreshing, interesting and sometimes complex and serious. But beer is not wine.
I’m not saying wine is better than beer, merely that they are distinctly different.
I say this only because in the last couple years I’ve seen an increasing “wine-ification” of beer, from beer pairing dinners to beer aroma wheels to alcohol content in beers being routinely pushed to and beyond the ABV of wines.
I don’t like this movement. It’s silly and it ignores the fundamental difference between beer and wine: beer is brewed, wine isn’t.
Beer, from a “terroir” standpoint, is a blank slate. Everything about a beer is a reflection of the brewing process and the brewer whereas wine, even at its most manipulated, still has some lingering natural aspect to it.
(The one exception in the beer world are the wild fermented beers where, after brewing, the wort is left open to the elements and allowed to spontaneously ferment using indigenous yeasts. These beers are uncommon.)
If you squish some grapes and put them in a bucket, you’ll get wine. If you put some barley in a bucket, you won’t get beer. Even if you then pour water over the barley, you still won’t get beer. If you pour boiling water over the barley you might get a hint of beer. Maybe.
In short, when you drink a beer you don’t taste a literal place like you do with wine. You do taste a figurative place though. You taste the history and traditions of a brewery. You taste the inspired madness or refined tastefulness of the brewmaster. You taste a night you enjoyed in Munich drinking Hacker-Pschorr and playing poker with German students and laughing good-naturedly at how they pronounced Ace like “ass.”
But you don’t taste the granite towers of the Minho river region or the boulder-strewn moonscape of Chateauneuf-du-Pape or the rolling foggy bottom of the Carneros River Valley.
(I’m already dubious enough about “perfect” wine pairings that trying to convince me that anything other than decent broad-stroke beer and food pairings exist will be a difficult endeavor.)
None of that is a bad thing, however. Beer is merely a different beverage from a different tradition.
I recently had Orange County-based The Bruery’s Black Tuesday beer. This is an annual small-production special release. The 2010 release that I had clocked in at over 18% abv, making it a massive beer requiring special yeasts to reach that level. I don’t know how much the beer costs, but I’m told it is rather expensive. Was the beer interesting? Absolutely. Was it also thick, syrupy and (to my tastes) disgusting? Yes.
Sure it might’ve been a very complex beer; NyQuil’s a very complex cough syrup, but it still makes me gag when I drink it.
While I appreciate these interesting (and profoundly American) exercises in bigger-is-better-ness, I consider such beers in the same family of culinary freakshows as three pound hamburgers and million Scoville Unit hot sauces: a pointless pissing contest for the sake of putting notches in a hypothetical headboard.
I don’t think beer’s really meant to get much stronger than 8% alcohol (and for most styles, I think 5-6% is ideal) as beer is a beverage meant to be drunk cool or cold, meant to be refreshing and was originally meant–in the days before reliable sources of drinking water–to be a safe source of hydration.
And that’s want I want my beer to be: a cold, refreshing beverage to drink by the pool and to share with friends over burgers and pizza. That’s not to say I don’t want my beers to be interesting and complex–I do. I just also want them to be something I can drink by the pint without passing out in a gutter.
What’s encouraging is there are several emerging microbrewers here in Los Angeles that are bringing California beers back into “session beer” territory. Session beers are lower alcohol (typically under 5%) beers that are meant to be drunk throughout an evening’s drinking “session,” intoxicating slowly so as to maximize social lubrication. But the beers are far from simple, with good malty richness and complexity. Eagle Rock Brewery in particular is building its brand largely on this style of beer, with even its IPA topping out at a modest 7% alcohol.
So embrace beer for what it is: the most delicious and democratic of alcoholic beverages. It doesn’t need to pretend to be anything fancier and attempts so far to dress it up in evening wear and opera glasses have done nothing but ring false.