HAS CRAFT beer jumped the shark?
If you’ve listened to the collective drone of the beer cognoscenti in recent weeks, it sure sounds as if it has. They have their knickers in a knot over a continuing quest to produce the world’s strongest beer.
The battle was reignited last November with the release of the hilariously named Tactical Nuclear Penguin, from BrewDog, of Scotland. The ale registered a bone-jarring 32 percent alcohol.
As two other small European breweries joined the fray this summer, the record leaped to 40 percent, then 45 percent, then an astounding 55 percent. Beer, which rarely exceeds single digits, had suddenly reached a strength that is beyond that of whiskey, rum and, probably, paint thinner.
The condemnation was quick and mean.
Writers at countless blogs and online review sites griped that it was all a stupid publicity stunt that would hurt the image of beer as a sensible, low-alcohol beverage. Overproof beer, cried one, would bring “a crass element to craft brewing. “
British beer writer Roger Protz tut-tutted BrewDog’s “overinflated egos and naked ambition. ” And Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont got his cap key stuck while pounding out his dissent: “Enough! Enough!! ENOUGH!!! “
I can’t help but think these people missed the joke. Did they not notice that bottles of BrewDog’s latest are packaged inside the remains of a dead squirrel?
Worse, they seem to have forgotten that craft beer’s incredible success over the past 25 years – the unprecedented rise of a small-business alternative to corporate blandness – is precisely because innovative brewers have broken rules and taken chances. Imagine what we’d be drinking if they didn’t suffer from overinflated egos and naked ambition.
Both BrewDog and Schorschbraer, of Germany, obtain their high numbers through a process known as freeze distillation. After fermentation, the beer is chilled to below 30 degrees and the ice crystals containing mostly water are skimmed off, leaving a relatively higher volume of alcohol.
Early this year, Schorschbock climbed to 40 percent alcohol. BrewDog, claiming that it had “struck a mortal blow to the sausage-munchers,” clawed back with Sink the Bismarck, a “quadruppel IPA” with 41 percent alcohol.
Brouwerij’t Koelschip, of the Netherlands, jumped in with Obilix, which reached 45 percent alcohol through both freeze and steam distillation.
In July, BrewDog answered with its 55 percenter. His tongue firmly planted in cheek, brewer James Watt named his new beer after Francis Fukuyama’s thumb-sucking 1992 conservative tome, “The End of History and the Last Man. “
The End of History, Watt intoned in an over-the-top online video, was “the end point in the evolution of beer. ” Just 12 bottles were produced and packaged inside – I’m not kidding – a stuffed gray squirrel.
Price for a single 12-ounce bottle: 700 British pounds, or about $1,100.
They sold out immediately. And the critics went ballistic.
It’s not real beer, they complained. This madness must stop!
Much of the criticism is aimed not at the beer’s flavor (for few have actually tasted these brands), but at the method of achieving the high alcohol. It’s as if these brewers have broken some rule that condemns innovation.
Yet throughout history, brewing – like all of mankind – has always advanced exactly because individuals have pushed the boundaries, with new ingredients, improved techniques and advanced knowledge. Everything from the isolation of yeast strains to the invention of the imperial IPA is a product of rule-breaking.
There have been failures, yes (Zima comes to mind), and sometimes the hype is unwarranted.
But this is the first time I’ve heard anyone say, “Enough! “
The backlash is especially hard to fathom when the people who are making these high-octane bombs seem to be having so much fun.
“We’re just having a little bit of competition, with a smile,” ‘t Koelschip’s Jan Nijboer told me. “You should see it as a joke. “
As if the underscore his point (and mine), Nijboer last month dropped an even bigger bomb, at 60 percent alcohol. Its name: Start the Future.