Craft Beer Arms Race

August 30, 2015

Craft Beer Arms Race

In 1487 the Reinheitsgebot was enacted in Germany, better known to you and me as the German Beer Purity Law it decreed that beer could only be brewed with three ingredients: water, hops and barley; yeasts purpose, and necessity, in the brewing process was not to be uncovered for another 300 years. 

The worldwide boom of Craft Beer has helped to take this simple beverage far above and beyond these fundamental ingredients, and what used to be known as “experimental” or “specialty” beers are now becoming the norm. Nowadays nothing seems to be off limit in the beer-drinking world as brewers continue to come up with crazier brews each year; but what does it do for beer and the industry?

Firstly, let's get a taste of what’s out there now. By typing “weird craft beer” or “crazy brews” into your search engine you’ll be greeted with numerous identically titled top ten lists. It’s no longer just the hoppiest and bitterest beverages that make these lists, here's a shortlist of some of our “favourite” ingredients that we’ve found people brewing with to give you a taste of what we mean when we say crazy and weird: pizza, marshmallows, doughnuts, bacon and maple syrup, boiled lobster and rocky mountain oysters (commonly known as bulls testicles, like from a real bull!)

But it isn’t just crazy flavours that people are making now, other brewers are finding “different” methods of making their beers stand out from the crowd, for example: beer aged in barrels constructed from old cigar boxes, beer aged with the music of the Wu-Tang Clan pumping through it, the strongest beer in the world (with a 67.5% ABV) and beer made with the oldest known yeast strain in the world, discovered encased in amber it is estimated to be over 45 million years old!

We can already hear real beer advocates screaming at this, and we sort of have to agree with them; the variety of flavours and aromas that can be eked out of beers fundamental ingredients can leave one asking: why the need for change? We can already taste chocolate, coffee, vanilla, citrus fruits and a huge variety of other flavours in our beers so why do we need more? There are even brewers that are using the above ingredients to flavour their beers, which can really make you ask: why?

Answers vary but most of those in favour of, and excited by, these wild varieties will tell you that Craft Beer is about innovation and creativity; pushing the boundaries of beer and breaking the mould. Which sounds all well and good, but when you can buy a beer that tastes like part of a roast dinner and less like an accompaniment to it then you start to question what may be running through these brewers heads. Not all of these beers are successful and many of them are not beers that you would drink on a regular basis (some you’d only drink once for the novelty) so, again, why?!

Publicity is the main point. If you make the craziest beer, you are sure to get your name on a few “top ten lists” and have it thrown around in conversation, you’re probably also going to sell more beer because of it; not only of your crazy brew but also of your other beers too, hopefully buying yourself a larger customer base. Another reason is that it could just be seen as fun; something for brewmasters to experiment with and challenge themselves with.

Either way, brewing such beer is a hard task. Brewing good beer takes a lot of time, effort, knowledge and patience so putting such unknown ingredients into beer is taking a huge risk on the flavour profile of the final product. This is why many of these flavours only come in small batches, many times as a one-off. This is also the reason why, from this multitude of these crazy brews, there are only a few that are actually worth drinking and accepted as reputable beers. This is when you can really ask, is brewing these beers worth it? Is there a demand for them?

From a flavour perspective, we would like to say that only a very limited number of these brews would actually be worth drinking on a regular basis, and even fewer would be enjoyed. However, from a sales perspective, with a growing crowd of new, young and enthusiastic craft beer advocates, a larger quantity of drinkers are now more willing to stretch their palates and push the flavour boundary; and these people are buying these beers, with some seeking out the hoppiest, fruitiest or craziest beers that the growing market can offer them. So although we personally do not really condone such exploitation of the beautiful beverage there is profit and publicity to be made from it. Just to reinforce the demand point: the bull testicle beer mentioned earlier was, firstly, only proposed as an April fools joke, but it gained such a following and there were so many requests for it that the brewery went ahead and made it!

So what is this doing for beer itself? It is certainly pulling it further into the spotlight around the world, some may not be happy with the way in which it is doing it but there is little they can do to stop it. A brewery will not brew only crazy beer, so such brews do fuel the production of more “normal” beers and, as a result, will have a positive impact on the beer-drinking world. The production of these brews can also be seen to be dividing the beer drinking world, a line which will also fall down an age line; as older beer advocates who have been drinking “normal” beer for a longer time will be more likely to resist and not partake in such dramatic changes. Equally, the younger crowd growing up in an ever-changing world where extremes are becoming relatively normal will welcome such distinctness and variety. Which category do we fall into?

We believe that good beer should be the focus. These wild brews are all well and good but the most important factor of beer is the flavour and putting such ingredients into beer risks ruining the beer for the reason you make it. Don’t get us wrong some of these brews are good, very good, but a lot of them are just not.

Personally, we focus on making easy drinking, tasty beers not one-offs to promote our name -what can we say, we’re old-fashioned in that respect- but that doesn’t stop us from respecting the brewers who go to the lengths to brew these beers; or from trying the odd odd beer ourselves. Don’t get us wrong, you're not going to catch us with a bottle of pizza brew in our hands anytime soon, but, as said, some of them are good. As for what they do for the beer world, publicity can only be good for beer itself, and we’re not not going to raise a glass to that!