On the first Friday of every month, beer bloggers around the world are invited to participate in The Session (aka Beer Blogging Friday). This month’s Session is hosted by Bryan at This Is Why I’m Drunk, and the topic is “Finding Beer Balance.”
What is balance in beer?
Short answer – I don’t know.
Long answer – Actually I do have an idea, but it’s vague and multifaceted and, rather than try to squeeze it into a twitter-sized sound-bite, it’s easier (and possibly more accurate) to say “I don’t know.” For the purposes of this article, I will try to express the long answer by taking you for a walk along my own personal road to finding beer balance.
From Pole to Pole
If I were to chart my taste in beer, it would begin very low on the graph, back in my teens when, as far as I knew, there were only two kinds of beer: mass-produced American-style pale lagers (MPASPLs) and Guinness. “Well geez,” I thought, “I know they say beer is an acquired taste, but this is just plain boring. Why would anyone go out of their way to learn to like this?” Still, Guinness is a good beer, and I’d drink it when it was available, but I’d opt for wine or hard liquor more often than not.
Then, when I had my first taste of something “different,” I realized that there is more to beer, and my taste entered the next stage. I jumped right past the middle of the graph and went straight to “extreme.” Coffee-porters, high-gravity beers, and of course, hop bombs.
I think the following is true of most craft beer drinkers in Canada – IPAs are what got us started. The first time we had a hoppy beer we were blown away. We didn’t know beer could taste like that. It was such a jump from bland, watery malt liquor to a flavourful, spicy/citrusy/flowery/grassy IPA. We wanted more.
IPA is the Gateway Craft Beer Style
IPAs (and their relatives, APAs and hop bombs) are now the most popular style of beer after MPASPLs, and are far and away the leading craft beer style. The craft industry is built on the taste buds of craft beer drinkers. Craft beer drinkers in general, myself included, want IPAs. They are the gateway craft beer.
This is, in some ways, unfortunate, because a lot of people don’t like them. The reason why we like them is because we thought the mainstream lagers were bland and boring and wanted something more exciting. Hop bombs are made for people who like things extreme and in-your-face, hence the name. The problem with this is that when we see someone drinking a mainstream lager, we say “don’t you know there’s better beer out there?” and they go “yeah I’ve tried that craft beer crap, it’s like licking a lawnmower.” And they’re right. And it’s because hop bombs are wildly unbalanced.
Finding Beer Balance
Most people who gravitate toward craft beer at a young age jump right to the extreme, one reason being that it seems to be the diametrical opposite of the mainstream lagers. They’re choosing their side, carving out their territory – that’s what I did. But after some experimentation in the extremes at the top of the graph, my beer palate entered the third stage: balance.
I discovered that there was something more interesting than extreme beer, and that thing was quality. More and more I shunned the beers with violent names that did violent things to my tongue and grossed out my friends. I set aside my obsession with tasting as many different beers as possible in exchange for just drinking good beer. I realized that if I could only drink one beer for the rest of my life, I would choose a session beer, not a mind-bending drinking experience.
That’s how I found beer balance. There’s nothing better than a beer that hits all the right notes on your tongue. I think that’s something that craft beer drinkers and MPASPL drinkers would agree on.
As long as hop bombs remain the standard bearers of craft beer, they will keep turning people away at the door. They are a pompous bouncer, telling the lager-drinkers “You can’t come in if you can’t handle the heat.” Non-craft drinkers who aren’t actively searching for a beer that will surprise them are not going to like hop bombs. Maybe it’s time to start looking for a gateway beer that’s not designed to blow minds, but designed to open them, a little bit at a time.
Ultimately balance in beer is shaped by our experiences and varies depending on our palates, but I don’t think it’s entirely subjective. I think it’s possible to say objectively which beer between a given two is more balanced. And I think that, given time to adjust, mainstream lager drinkers and craft beer enthusiasts can find a place in the middle of the graph, between boring and extreme, where they both have to admit that beer is at its best.
IPAs scare away people who might have been interested in craft beer. A good, balanced session beer has a better chance of convincing them.