Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
January 22, 2018 - Changing Styles
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances…”
And so it can be said of beer. If you ponder the history of beer styles, many have seen their exits and entrances. From the stuff served in ancient Mesopotamia, to the “liquid bread” quaffed by Belgian monks, to the “hop bombs” perpetuated on the west coast, brewers of beer have experimented with a wide variety of ingredients to create a drink that meets the demands of the marketplace. Some beers have weathered the ages – heather ale (an indigenous flower used to flavor and preserve beer before the time of hops) was first brewed by the Picts in AD 43, and still survives in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. It has been revived nationally in recent years. Other beers, however, have made a hasty retreat…anyone recall drinking “Bud Select”? It was positioned as a low calorie beer by Anheuser Busch. Between 2009 and 2014, its sales dropped by more than 60%, the largest decline of any beer brand sold in the U.S.
The craft beer movement continues to expand and outpace the mass beer market, as is evidenced above. Simultaneously, more and more people are finding that they don’t just like to drink beer, they like to drink flavourful beer. Craft brewers have responded with a continual and accelerated exploration of styles and recipe development. Now we don’t just have pale ales and lagers, we have milkshake IPAs, barrel-aged stouts, and fruited sours. There is more competition on the shelf at the liquor store and on tap in your local bar, and that shortens a beer’s life cycle. Peoples’ tastes have become whimsical, and if a beer falls flat of expectations, well, there’s always the next one. In North America, the lifecycle of beer has become so foreshortened that it’s measured in seasons rather than years.
Let’s face it, the IPA craze is still out there, and it’s what a lot of folks might associate with the term “craft beer”. There is now a generation of beer drinkers who continue to chase the biggest, boldest hop flavours they can find. But 2016 saw the rise of a new style of IPA. Best known as “New England-style” IPA, it is distinguished by a hazy appearance, diminishing hop bitterness, and a juicy, full-hop flavour and aroma. Beer flavour and intensity is becoming more nuanced. There’s also a growing demand for lower alcohol beers. A Nielsen survey presented at the 2017 Beer Summit reported 45% of craft beer drinkers wanted a “sessionable” beer (ABV < 5%). In fact, 13 of the 25 fastest growing beer brands in the US market checked in at less than 5% ABV. This growing popularity of “sessionable beer” is indicative of North Americans’ ever-changing palettes and drinking culture. They want a flavourful beer that is low enough in alcohol to allow the consumption of several glasses over an evening with friends without any ill side effects. Here, here to that!
As that beer glass moves toward your lips, there are a myriad of factors intermingling to form your opinion of it - time of day, age, where you live, where you’re travelling, social status, drinking habits. What the beer looks and feels like – foam, colour, temperature, serving glass – can also play a role in how you perceive it. And of course, what goes into the beer also has an influence. Have you heard the news about Salt Box’s impending “Crustacean Elation”, a beer that includes boiled lobster in the brewing process? It will be released just in time for the February 2nd Nova Scotia Lobster Festival. I’ve received a lot of feedback on that one (and I’m mighty thankful for it). Some people think “yuck”, others say “hmmm”. But hey, one of the main principles of pairing beer with food is to find harmonies in the flavours. Good combinations of beer and food share common flavours or aroma elements. Think of a roasty stout with rich chocolate truffles, or…a buttery lobster washed down with a light coloured, well-carbonated beer that tastes of the sea. Sounds yummy to me!
Here’s the thing: tastes change. And all beers have a life cycle that needs to be refreshed and relevant to thrive. Good craft brewers are using the history of brewing and beer styles to guide them, without holding them down. As one brewer puts it, it’s “beer tradition liberated”. When I taste a new beer, I treat it like a new friend. I take some time to size him up, try to be gracious and tolerant of his faults, and pick out his best attributes without dwelling on his short-comings. And of course I remember the quote from August Busch III about a beer’s drinkability: “you stop drinking because you know it’s time to stop, but you don’t really want to.”