Thursday, 26 January 2012

Beer Geeks, Macro-Lagers, and Local Alternatives to Corporate Mono(Beer)Culture

I have been wondering the difference between a so-called "beer geek," and a "beer snob," and it strikes me that a key difference relies on imposing one's judgments on others versus offering information that others may find useful - though how to do that and not be perceived as a 'snob' is a tough balancing act, especially since the difference between geekery and snobbery may be solely based on perceptions beyond one's (entire) control.

Sure, some may note, you need not always offer a suggestion, but many a beer geek has found themselves at a beer bar with a pal who wanted a [insert major brewery, preservative-laden, quality-compromised-for-price-reduction-purposes, American pale lager here] only to discover, to their horror and dismay, that none of the entire repertoire of beers they know of are even offered here - so-called 'premiums' like Stella and Heineken included *gasp*!  Yet, you know a similar craft beer that could fit those tastes well, but making such a suggestion is frowned upon.  Thus, my post: to those beer drinkers who enjoy a pale lager (as is certainly your right to do and as I too do on the right occasion with the right beer) I offer the following as thoughts and as segue to the insightful links of the day I wish to share (that partially inspired this post).

The highly respected beer website,, lists 104 different beer styles, yet many beer drinkers have only ever tried around 1 to 3 of them (typically American pale lagers, the virtually indistinguishable American light lagers, and perhaps one dry stout, Guinness).  I know, Alexander Keith's claims to be an India Pale Ale, and Molson Export also purports to be an ale, but both are (entirely or effectively) pale American lagers with no real resemblance to the beer styles they purport to be (but more on that and marketing later).  Moreover, many beer drinkers I know have never tried a single beer not brewed by a Major/Macro/Multinational Brewery.  In Southern Ontario, if you are seeking a pale lager, why not try that Neustadt Springs Lager or Nickel Brook Organic or Steamwhistle Pilsner, or perhaps even another style entirely?

I have a few points in noting this.  The first is that you can't possibly be certain you wouldn't far prefer another style (whether similar/closely related or radically different) without trying one/some example(s) of another style.  The difference between Guinness and Budweiser is arguably less substantial than the difference between a bourbon-aged, smoked imperial stout in comparison to, say, a witbier and both are vastly different from the standard lagers of North America.  If you truly like beer, there is almost assuredly another style, if not many other styles, that will inspire you to broaden your beer horizons.  Maybe you'll return to your pale lagers often or periodically, and maybe you'll simply find other options to occasionally go along with them, but what have you to lose?

I often hear, "I don't like dark beer," and wonder, "would I be perceived as a snob for informing this individual that colour has no, and I mean NO, reflection on the flavour of a beer at all?"  [Thus, I typically censor myself.]  Yes, certain malts, roasted and kilned in specific ways result in specific colours and flavours and, yes, the malt profile of a beer has an effect on beer colour and flavour, but the colour itself does not dictate the flavour any more than it does the process with which that colour was arrived at.  That is, the type of malt and roasting/kilning have an effect on flavour, but two vastly different tasting malts (and processes) can, and often do, produce remarkably different-tasting beers with identical colours.  Many dark lagers taste more like those widespread American standards than an English Brown Ale tastes like a Belgian Dubbel despite much more similar colour characteristics.  In fact, many major brewery 'lagers' are pale coloured only due to added colouring agents that make them appear straw or golden!

On the note of additives, many such Macro-lagers claim "no preservatives," despite using a heavily-chemically-modified hops that is full of countless added preservatives and often include 'colouring agents' that have a preservative effect but need not be labelled as such since they are not added (exclusively, anyway) for that explicit purpose.  In contrast, many craft beers (regardless of style) actually list their ingredients, and take pride in them, rather than hiding them under mass-marketed claims of quality unsupported by evidence!

But, you may ask, just what are the ingredients of beer?  Typically only hops, malted barley, water, and yeast.  Anything else added during the malting stage is called an adjunct, and adjuncts can add to the quality of a beer and are, in fact, requirements of certain styles.  That noted, however, almost every Macro-brewed American Lager uses corn (and sometimes simply the cheaper and more unhealthy alternative, corn syrup) instead of (only very occasionally in addition to) barley.  Perhaps you like that corn taste, and I am being sincere when I say you are welcome to, but did you know that the rationale behind such a change was not to make a better product?  In fact, it is added, self-consciously, to manufacture a cheaper product for higher price points - yet this product often then produces off-flavours and aromas and diminished head, such that flavour/aroma/head-producing additives are again added to mask the off-flavours of this initial product.

It is for the same reason, to mask these bad flavours and aromas, that we are encouraged (and basically required) to drink these beers at an ice cold  temperature since tastes and aromas are highly muted in frigid beers, such that the product no longer tastes or smells like beer.  For me, I am not even sure that anything so made can actually be called a beer, but I won't impose that judgment on you though I will state my opinion.

While a beer snob might tell you that you then can't like these products, I think a well-intentioned beer geek would say, as I intend here, "Did you know you have (often locally-made) alternatives made from whole ingredients by small businesses/brewers that you may never have even heard of because of the marketing power of these multinational behemoths (let alone alternative types of beers to expand the joys of your beer consumption)?"

Ironic how many people identify with a multinational beer brand who otherwise buy local and support small businesses.  However, insofar as many are unaware of the differences - an intentionally disseminated ignorance that supports the interests of large corporate breweries - I think a beer geek typically feels compelled to offer this information to support their local craft industry and to combat manufactured consent, not out of judgment or snobbery.

The (virtual) penning of these thoughts was (perhaps oddly, since only vaguely related) inspired by the debate over the definition of "Craft" beer and some excellent writing on the subject by Jason Foster.  As Foster insightfully notes here, after defining adjuncts as the defining characteristic differentiating craft from non-craft beer, "the difference between craft and non-craft is the INTENT behind the use of the adjunct. Is it a cost-saving, palate-lightening practice? In other words, is it trying to take away from the beer? Or is it an exercise in adding a character to a beer (which, admittedly can include a lighter body)?"  In considering this difference - and the ways a Macro brewery can make craft beer, while a Micro can make fraudulent 'craft' products, as Foster exposes in an absolutely excellent piece here - I got to wondering about my own feelings of support for craft breweries (now) owned by major corporations, such as Granville Island (now owned by Molson-Coors) and Unibroue (now owned by Sapporo).

Perhaps, despite my intentions to avoid beer snobbery, I do embody hypocrisy in embracing a different kind of snobbery, an anti-corporate snobbery that, despite 'knowing better,' gets waylaid when I consider the enjoyment I get from an excellent Unibroue beer (though I only discovered this corporate ownership today, hence my reflections!)  Personally, I don't impose my corporate suspicions on others - as if I could - though I do try to spread awareness of their monopolizing practices, marketing misinformation, union-busting, rights violations, environmental degradation, chemical additives, and more.  I guess in many ways, I feel the same about beer.

I may not entirely boycott Granville or Unibroue, but I will pause at the store and perhaps buy them less often.  Though I agree in still valuing their high quality craft products and their legacy since they procured that esteem by making an excellent product brewed since their days as both a "Craft" brewery and a "Micro" brewery, such purchases ultimately fuel the corporate consolidation machine that has historically stifled smaller business, diminished consumer choice, and hindered product innovation - in beer no less than with other products.  Yet, many excellent, local, craft, microbreweries will never get the chance since they are disadvantaged in competing with the mega-marketing-machines of the Macros, and to that end I will continue to espouse their merits.

On that note, I offer for both your entertainment and the exposure of the marketing myths so widespread in beer production, a link to a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek assessment of the claims of Alexander Keith's 'India Pale Ale.'

Soon, I promise to offer all of the links I can find to Ontario breweries, to their Facebook pages, and to their Twitter feeds since a world without support for the small, local business - no less than support for the beer alternative - is a world I'd rather avoid.

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