Views on imported beers (The Session #122)

This month’s The Session on the topic of “Views on imported beers” is hosted at I think about beer by Christopher Barnes. It is apropos that this month’s instantiation of The Session falls on National Beer Day in the US, April 7th, when we, i.e., beer nerds, celebrate the Cullen-Harrison Act going into effect and effectively ending Prohibition. It is also, and more accurately, known as National Session Beer Day since it was 3.2% ABV beer that was approved for sale. Nor was it the entirety of the country as some states failed to pass there own legalization laws prior to the 7th.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

Barnes has a fairly close connection to imported beers as his post explains:

“I love imported beer, specifically Belgian and German beer. They’re what I drink. My cellar is made up of Belgian beers, my fridge is full of them, and there a few stashed around in a closet or two as well. Imported beer is my life. I drink them. I write about them. I travel to experience them. In fact, my career involves working with Imported Beer. I manage several prominent import portfolios for a Oregon craft focused wholesaler. And while I have a vested interest in the success of Imported Beer, it doesn’t lessen my passion for the traditional beers of Europe. As craft beer sales have surged across America, sales of imported beers have suffered. I’m going to ask a couple of questions.

For American and Canadians: What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?

For Non North Americans: How are American beers (imported into YOUR country) viewed? What is their place in your market?”

I am clearly a North American, and sadly have not been out of the country in a couple of years so could not tackle the second question anyway. I will begin by first answering the related question: “What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in my beer drinking?”

#1: What place do imported beers have in my drinking?

For point of reference, I spent three tours in the Army in Europe: twice in Germany and once in Belgium and I have been back once to Germany for my son’s wedding. Just not lately. To say the least, I drank a fair bit of European beers and drank them fresh and (mostly) local during those tours.

Over the last couple of years, I studied for and qualified as an MBAA Beer Steward, a Cicerone Beer Server, and a BJCP Certified judge. Preparing for all of these involved drinking imported beers from the major brewing centers of Europe and a few of the smaller ones to boot.

I also quite enjoy lots of Belgian beers, German Lagers, Czech Pilsners [have not had those local, sadly], some Samuel Smith’s beers, and many, many others. No doubt I would love many additional beers and styles if I were exposed to them.

But. Freshness is a major issue. [I have a gestating post on the freshness problem in craft beer, including local craft beer, so this problem is not an imports-only issue, although many of the issues are different.]

Living in a thriving local and state beer scene, no, even a hip and happening local and state beer scene, means the imports see a little less love than they might in an area without a glut of choice for fresh, tasty and local beer. Sure, you can choose imported—European or otherwise—beer but it will not be fresh. If that seems too strong a claim, then purchasing imported beer will always be a crap shoot seeing as you have no idea how it was handled and stored on its voyage from the brewery across the seas and to the store shelf or bar tap. It may be quite tasty but it will (most likely) not qualify as fresh.

Just recently I started studying to retake the BJCP tasting exam in July. I want that 80+%! This means, again, looking for representative beers from twenty (20) European style categories and sixty-seven (67!) European substyles I need to have a grasp of.

Imported beers—of whatever quality—will be critical to my preparation. If our exam administrator finds the time to do a prep class again, like last year, then they become critical in the context of a larger group of people. Perhaps the importance is the same but moving scale from one person to a class of several or more amplifies any learning by being able to discuss the beers with other like-minded folks towards the same purpose. That seems to me amplification enough of their value, in an educational context.

Imports also provide some variety, which is quite nice amongst all of the PNW (and other) beer at hand.

Back to the larger question: “What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?”

#2: What place do imported beers have in a craft beer market?

One of the areas I think imports may serve in the craft beer market is as a potential gateway. There are many folks—of all ages but especially nearer mine—for who it is little to no stretch to consider an imported beer on occasion instead of only industrial lagers. They might not think much past that but they can at least get that far. It might even only be on a “fancy” occasion.

While I agree that many craft breweries can brew a craft light lager that blows any macro away as far as flavor goes, not all beer drinkers want their light lager to be so. If they consider an international lager, or a Festbier, or German Pils, or Hefeweizen or any other imported beer that has just that much more flavor, then perhaps craft Euro-style beers might also appeal or at least be given a chance. But if said drinker never deviates from industrial light lager then all flavor “lures” are off-the-table already. Then they might be tempted to try an American craft version of that style [which is another completely fraught issue of its own].

Aside on imported beer and craft/macro: Let me be perfectly clear, by-the-by, that craft beer and imported beer are neither mutually exclusive nor mostly overlapping categories, but overlap they do. Just as much imported beer overlaps with “American” macro beers.

Now this should not be the only role for imported beer in a craft scene. As I just said, many of these beers should and do qualify as “craft” [define how you like].

Beers like Saison Dupont are exquisite and amazingly affordable. Then there are the even more renowned beers such as Westvleteren XII that is neither affordable and was only once legitimately available here in the states. I still have 2 bottles that came with my 6 bottles and 2 glasses package. Being able to taste this “best beer in the world” and to share it with friends and fellow craft beer geeks was very special. Is it delicious? Quite. But I like beers of that profile, call it a style or not. Is it “the best beer in the world”? Seriously? Those titles are always ridiculous. It is not even my favorite beer. By a long shot. But I am stoked that I still have 2 little bottles to drink and enjoy some day in the future.

I guess I don’t really know “What place imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market.” Many traditional European beers are craft beers.

Primarily, they should be available in their own right for being the (often) tasty beers that they are.

For many folks studying for Cicerone, MBAA, BJCP or other certifications, having a diverse array of imported beer available is critical to their study, preparation and continued learning.

Lastly, they might serve as gateway or transition beers for folks who either “do not like beer at all” or to lead those who might on occasion drink an imported beer to other craft examples, whether imported or American.

Discomfort Beer (Session #119)

This month’s The Session on the topic of “Discomfort beer” is hosted at mostly about beer … by Alec Latham.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

“For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.

I think this could be a good archive for people researching fads, the origins of styles and the dearths of others – but especially how new ones were initially perceived.”

My wife told me to keep this simple and focus on this one specific aspect of the question. I will attempt to do that but from there I hope to extend the same concept because my discomfort beers are like that.

Not talking about

And to get it out of the way, as the host said, “bad” beer was not on the table. I agree. I am a BJCP Certified judge and I taste a few discomforting beers while judging; and, to be fair, the same is true at the one professional craft beer awards I judge at. Beer that is infected or full of diacetyl when inappropriate and so on. Bad beer.

I am also not including styles I simply do not like or even beer with ingredients I don’t like in beer; except in one instance. To cut to the chase, I have had to drink a few peanut butter beers to realize I do not think it a proper ingredient for beer that I am going to drink. They exist; drink them if you enjoy them. Same goes for most nuts. Nuts are simply too oily for beer, for me (Although Ninkasi’s versions of Ground Control Imperial stout with Oregon hazelnuts were exquisite). Same goes for a few other ingredients and that includes almost every instance of spiced beer. Fremont and a few others can pull off spicing, for me, but most cannot. I will not be going into detail about these beers in this post.

Styles not loved as a whole

What I will talk about are a few styles that I do not love as a whole; that is, I do not love the entire spectrum but a only very narrow slice of that style spectrum appeals to me; immensely so. Two particular instances are IPAs (any strength) and American sours. There are a handful of IPAs—that I am aware of and can get routinely—that I simply adore. The bounty of Oregon and nearby surrounds, again.

The same is true for American sours, although I am aware of and get fewer. My wife does not like any sours so being my primary drinking partner I get them at bottle shares and on draft here and there on occasion. But most American sours are way overdone for me. Making a beer sour for the purpose of being sour is just as unbalanced of a beer as going extreme on anything else (IMHO and not saying they are all made with that intent as that’s silly). I like very few of these. I do love many Belgian sours and Berliner Weiss and … though. Different animals often.

So I particularly love a (few) very narrow slice(s) of the IPA and American sour spectrum and there are large slices that are, to me, nasty beers. There are, of course, some that are tasty enough and are also superbly executed beers but simply not to my palate.

The point

The point is that to find this narrow slice of heaven that my sensory palate adores implies drinking quite a bit of discomforting beer. It is not that I inherently dislike the entire style nor is it that I “need to adjust” to them. The world is rarely that simple.

My palate / Judging

I have a long, interesting and hopefully fun, journey ahead of me but I have a pretty good handle on what my palate likes within a huge range of the beer spectrum, although there is always so much more to learn, which I am actively attempting to do.

Helping others is the point of judging, for one. It forces me to be better about recognizing my experience for what it is, as it is happening, and to turn that into words useful to the brewer of that beer. It also forces me to learn all about brewing and the causes and fixes of issues, and to have a good grasp of many styles. I did this for me for my own learning but the ethical duty is towards others.

As BJCP judge I must drink in styles that I do NOT like. But I can objectively tell the difference between a bad beer and whether or not it is to style (as codified currently). These are discomfort beers that I consume out of a sense of duty. Getting certified as a judge tends to bring along with it the duty of actually judging—everybody always needs judges—and sometimes you have to judge styles you do not like. “Christmas” spiced beers—and others—on a 90°F (32.2°C) day in May; for example. But you must be professional (and ethical) and do your best to determine whether the beer is within the style, if not so how not, and whether the brewing processes were successful, and if not, what and how to overcome. That is completely different than “do you want to be drinking that beer ever” or “just not right now.” This again implies drinking quite a bit of discomforting beer.

Reductionism is (generally) futile

Of course, I earlier critiqued the idea of “you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to” as being simplistic. So is my current topic/reduction of “I think a few exemplars of this style are the bee’s knees of the beer world but I could not care less for the rest of the broad spectrum of the style” or I simply do not like that style or ingredient.

Because sometimes as you figure out whether you do or do not like a style (I find it sad to rule out a whole style unless you simply cannot do, say, sour then OK all of the sours are out, I guess, but, again, it is rarely that simple. IMHO.) or perhaps as you “adjust” to higher ABV/IBU/pH/… levels you are in the quandary as presented. There are other ways to be in it too but those seem the basics to me. Those are only some of the slices of life that can lead to consuming discomforting beer, as I see it, is what I am saying.

Complexity

I have presented two other angles above, and now I want to make it more complex.

There are also the styles I particularly love, my go-to-styles, if you will—Pilsners, Imperial stouts and barleywines, bourbon-barrel aged Impy stouts—to name a few.

But here’s the thing, you can’t just put some crap Imperial in a bourbon barrel and have me call it good. See the discussion of my palate above. I have a great handle on how my sensory enjoyment prefers these. There are few combinations of the various elements that can vary within ranges but I know what I like; even if it is a new combination. I also know the difference between a well-executed one and a bad/off one, as above.

The same goes for these other styles: Pilsners, stouts, barleywines. I might tend to stand a broader range of the style from “amazing” down to “meh” than I do for say, American sours, but that still implies I drank a lot of potentially discomforting beers to find this narrow slice of sensory heaven for myself.

Bringing it together

Within the beer styles of which I choose to drink any exemplars—whether I love the style as a whole or not—there is a very narrow slice of heaven for me. Those are the beers I want to drink as routinely as possible. But I also like experiencing many different beers, although that is slowing down. So maybe I’ll be better able to put this hard-won and often discomforting information to even better use.

To find out what my preferred flavor profile is for any individual style implies drinking lots of discomforting beer (Not to imply the many “merely good” beers also consumed are discomforting).

Secondarily, as a BJCP judge I have an ethical responsibility to both judge and to accept sometimes judging styles I would really prefer not to even consume. Lots of discomforting beers.

Main point, recapped, in brief

I experience discomforting beer in looking for outstanding examples of a narrow range of these styles to both learn what I do like and what I do not and to also learn that I do not like a style/ingredient wholesale and then being called on to consume them anyway.