In ten years of writing about beer, I have to admit the reaction to the article "Against Hoppy Beer" in Slate yesterday by author Adrienne So is one of the oddest over reactions to something written about beer that I think I have ever seen. As others have done to make each of their own cases for a proper reading of So's article, here is my list of key points made in the short fourteen paragraph piece:
"In addition to their bittering properties, hops impart strong piney, spicy, or fruity flavors and aromas."
"...hops command the vast majority of the industry’s passion."
" America’s independent breweries make beers to suit every palate, not just the ones that revel in bitterness."
"Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a beautiful beer with an aggressive edge, and it’s the beer that put me, and so many others, on the path to craft beer enthusiasm."
"Maximizing hops is a good way for craft brewers to distinguish their creations from mass-market brands."
"...unfortunately hops are a quick way for beginning brewers to disguise flaws in their beer..."
"Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer."
Based on those observation, So concludes that other elements of beer like yeasts and malts deserve to be raised in terms of the greater discussion. A reasonable and not very challenging suggestion. Stan then Jeff then Jay and Craig responded on their blogs as well as Facebook inviting a further collection of comments. Good ripe chit chat of the sort social media generates. Yet, the responsive discussion is not particularly satisfactory as there is something of the Calvinist's hegemony over the underlying principles. Perhaps the article's author intended that. If so and even if not, the overall results are not very gratifying.
Why? Because there is that doctrinal aspect to it all. Someone has offended the unwritten law. Stan, as always, is measured. He simply does not accept that craft beer people have become so "addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them anymore." Jeff focuses on a headline to the article, notes that most craft beers sold are not overly bitter and reviews the relativity of the effects of hops. Jay calls the article provocative and bait. He suggests the author 'blames Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for starting it all." Craig in turn finds:
Someone is, yet again, telling me why I should, or why I should not drink one beer over another—be it hop-bombs of craft versus krafty, or whatever. I have grown tired of this tactic.
What to make of this? It's like a panic has broken out. Over what? A very innocuous proposal to the effect that an imbalance has been identified and, therefore, a rebalancing is required. You would think from the strength of reaction that we were dealing with something along the lines of Swift's 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal..." in which it was offered that society would be better off were the poor children of Ireland sold off as meat for the rich. Swift's use of harsh black humour conveys the deep sarcasm at the true plight the poor face and, as a result, the moral point was made.
Here, what do we have? Someone pointing out the obvious, that strong hoppy beer is the standard bearer for US craft beer and, as a result, has become in part a liability to the understanding of the sector's actual diversity. The point is the opposite side of the coin of last week's mini-crisis founded upon this story about US craft beer nerds seeking to teach Germany a thing or two about beer by introducing beers "in flavorful styles that are popular among craft brewers in the United States but rare in Germany, such as hoppy ales and zesty lagers." Reaction against the initiative included "...American beer can be great—with all of its piney, bitterness and potency..." and "German drinkers sure are lucky those guys showed up." Last week being critical of imperialism of US hoppy hegemony, this week not so much.
OK, here's the thing. I don't really care. The article could have benefitted from a well placed "also" as the second word of the third sentence of the last paragraph. Its absence unnecessarily sets up a seeming rejection of hoppy beer that I don't think the author intended but which Craig gets caught upon. I mainly posted this because Jeff wrote on Facebook "Damn you, Alan, and your provocative ways" and Jay asked me to consider that "I know you keep saying you're pleased someone asked the question, but are you honestly pleased by the incendiary manner in which it was posed." Not pleased so much as puzzled. See, it's that idea that this article is so incendiary or otherwise off the mark and deserving of such strong response that I just don't get. By this I mean, amongst the flow of all the writings and communications about beer, we are innundated with horribly researched, badly written and private interest ridden beer writing on a regular basis. We see folk holding themselves out as journalists, historians, consultants and personally players in the beer trade all at the same time, all for multi-faceted revenue sources. We see manipulation of taxation and government policy by self serving trade organizations. All met too often with something between quiet discomfort and tacit approval.
Compared to that, here we have in this short article a suggestion that the marketing of craft beer might focus on diversity and shift away from the attention grabbing hop bomb. Just a point of view. One not as clearly made as it might have been but one that we should have made more often. What is all the fuss?