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In praise of simply made beers

Here is a wonderful paragraph posted this weekend by Ron Pattinson at Shut up about Barclay Perkins:

Honest beer is what I want. Beer that can look me straight in the eye and not flinch. Beer with heart. Beer that’s like an old friend. Beer you can sit and drink by the pint in a pub with your mates.


Pattinson writes about an epiphany he experienced while beer touring in Franconia: “The beers that I liked the best were the simplest.”

Makes perfect sense to me. The connection between the simple lives Trappist monks lead and simplicity of their beer recipes was apparent when I did the research for Brew Like a Monk.

Their beers – noted for their complexity – are Exhibit A that “Less is more.”

Simple is good. Simple is often the best choice. But, for the record, it isn’t the only choice.

European brewers are sometimes appalled when they look at the grain (and hop) bills of new wave American beers or – yikes! – efforts to duplicate continental classics. I’ve had interesting discussions about this with both commercial and home brewers (here’s one with Jamil Zainasheff) about this and even those who favor simple sometimes find something with more moving parts turns out better.

I’m don’t contend that complicated automatically results in complex, but I disagree with Pattinson when he writes: “A lot of microbrewed beer now seems frivolous to me. Like pretentious nouvelle cuisine. Too complicated for its own good.” And his conclusion: “Take a look at the beer in your glass. What is it? Honest, or a wee bit pretentious?”

Complicated is not a synonym for pretentious any more than simple is, well, simple.

13 Responses to In praise of simply made beers

  1. Josquin August 19, 2007 at 11:10 am #

    I have been very excited about Ron’s description of some of these Franconian beers, too–in fact, partly inspired by his blog, I’ve just tried my hand at my own 100% vienna malt beer. That said, I think it’s unwise to impose a dichotomy at the expense of complicated malt bills. I know that in food, sometimes if the combination of ingredients reaches a certain point of complexity, something new and perhaps even simple (in one sense) emerges. Curry comes to mind.

  2. SteveH August 19, 2007 at 12:41 pm #

    “Take a look at the beer in your glass. What is it? Honest, or a wee bit pretentious?”

    Sierra Nevada Summerfest in my glass right now — pretty far from pretentious, and just that (type of) beer I think Ron is writing of. Yum.

  3. Lew Bryson August 19, 2007 at 5:43 pm #

    Stan, don’t go all black and white on me here. I was just looking at Ron’s post again (basking in it, really), and he doesn’t say that “complex” equals pretentious, just that it can be.

    Remind you of any conversations we may have had earlier in the year?

  4. SteveH August 20, 2007 at 6:48 am #

    Some thoughts on pretentiousness came to over the weekend; can a beer, in and of its inert self, be pretentious? Or is it the drinker – even the brewer/marketer that’s truly guilty of the ostentacious air?

    Seems to me that Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout was coasting along as a nice, alternative beer choice — basking in a history only a few knew or understood — until the bombastic beer geeks decided it was the best style in the world (okay, I was in on the launch of the era too) and every beer needed to be bench-marked against it.

  5. Stan Hieronymus August 20, 2007 at 9:47 am #

    I suspect Ron was referring first to brewers/marketers when it comes to pretentious. But drinkers – particularly fans of certain beers and styles – certainly add to the impact.

    I don’t think it is fair to blame the beer in the glass.

  6. Stonch August 21, 2007 at 4:11 am #

    People saying that the traditional brewing cultures of Europe are hidebound or show a lack of innovative flair may also have been Ron’s target.

    Recently it was contended by someone rather important in the beer world that German brewing is in the doldrums because they haven’t invented any “new” beer styles recently. The suggestion seemed to be that by adopting off the wall recipes and breaking with tradition, brewers would be able to reverse the downward market trend.

    Yes, there’s been a marked decline in the German brewing industry. Copying the more extreme amongst US craft brewers is probably not the solution, though. There might be a market for the kind of beers that would produce, but it’s going to be very small.

    The US experience does nothing to disprove that – the craft beer segment is still a small fraction of the whole, and seems to be mainly comprised of a few solid, fairly sessionable beers from the more experienced breweries such as Sierra Nevada and Boston. What does that tell us?

  7. Josquin August 21, 2007 at 5:19 am #

    I like Stonch’s final question “What does that tell us?”–but only if it isn’t a rhetorical question (i.e. I do not believe that the only answer is “It tells us that most craft breweries are overly experimental at their own detriment.”)

    The marginal foothold of craft brewing be blamed even more on the corporate beer hegemony and its many advantages: the monopolization of shelf space, dominance in advertising, and the authority (remember “King of Beers”?) to miseducate consumers about what “beer” can even mean. I even have a little problem with some of these side products–particularly the “flavored” beers–that propagate the concept of the alternative-beer-other within the U.S. market.

    Of course, there is a certain whininess to this stance–can’t craft beer step up and hold its own? Boston Beer Company has a series of television advertisements that are educational in nature and define beer in craft brewing terms. But the problem in the U.S., I think, is still largely conceptual. To U.S. consumers, those pricier six-packs still seem to represent alternatives–luxury alternatives–rather than things themselves.

    If craft brewers began to adopt a new aesthetic of beer design, would this change the U.S. beer consumer climate? It wouldn’t hurt, but then the craft brewing market would be liable to remain “alternative” in people’s minds unless it could find ways to reassert itself culturally.

  8. Stan Hieronymus August 21, 2007 at 6:32 am #

    Stonch – Since I am far from Germany and pay much more attention to what is going on here it would be even dumber for me to suggest “helpful” changes for German brewers than the example you provide.

    But in the States we started at a far different place. We had to return to making beer and drinking beer with more flavor. That’s been going on in Franconia forever.

    Here’s the opinion part that is dangerous because it comes from thousands of miles away: The problem is not Franconian brewers. It is the big brewers who have reacted to declining beer sales by removing flavor from beer (Spaten lowering the IBU of its basic Hell from 25 to 20).

    It sure doesn’t look like they have much respect for traditional beer. Or are they just giving consumers what they want?

    Hey, it’s 7:30 in the morning here and my head already hurts. We seem to have wandered into a far wider topic. I’d rather think about the next “honest beer” I sit down in front of than how it is going to survive.

  9. SteveH August 21, 2007 at 7:00 am #

    “I’d rather think about the next “honest beer” I sit down in front of than how it is going to survive.”

    Well, last year’s Spaten Oktoberfest was pretty honest to my palate, I only hope it survived change to another year.

  10. Loren August 21, 2007 at 9:10 am #

    Pfth! Ron’s just spouting off about these subtle beers because he can’t get a hold of the really awesome Imperial this-and-that offerings from US…that’s all.

    Has he shut up about Barclay Perkins yet? Just wondering…

    Seriously though…I think there’s a better word out there than “simple” in this case.

  11. Stonch August 21, 2007 at 9:30 am #

    My question was semi-rhetorical, let us say.

    What I think is that the solid and sessionable beers from the craft brewers are going to be the ones that supplant the detestable macrobrews. The super-duper-imperial stuff is only ever going to command a small part of the market – who wants to drink lots of that stuff?

  12. Stan Hieronymus August 21, 2007 at 10:04 am #

    I really like Boak’s comment to Ron’s post.

    We have the good fortune in the U.S. to have access – sometimes it takes a little work – to both sessionable beers and more intensely flavored ones (8 ounces might be enough).


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