If you’re a beer lover, you’ve probably slogged through your share of geeky, jargon-packed treatises on beer. Rest assured “Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World’s Craft Brewing Revolution” isn’t one of them. Combining elements of a travel guide and a how-to manual with nimbly sketched profiles of a counterculture’s hardest-working heroes, it makes for a refreshingly accessible read. Fresh from a book-signing stint at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, author Joshua M. Bernstein shared his latest thoughts on the shape and direction of the microbrewing movement.
What topics in the book may not yet have received the attention you believe they’re due?
There are a few areas that I see as ripe for growth. For craft beer, one of the most crucial issues is education. How do you teach people about beer? Often, the language can get scientific and muddled. But a swell of educational beers have hit the market that can teach people about the differences in hops and yeasts.
Learning by drinking? We’re in, but can you elaborate?
When people first start out drinking beer, it’s a means to an end — to a buzz, to drunkenness, to a world where bad decisions become brilliant ones. Well, until that hangover kicks in. In this kind of first-wave beer drinking, flavor falls by the wayside. That’s why commercials tout that the beer should be served cold, cold, cold. The chillier the beer, the less you taste. It’s a mind-set reinforced by drill-it-in commercials flashing across TV screens. But craft brewers are all about showing people the scope of beer’s flavors. You don’t eat the same food day in and day out; you want variety. Why should beer be any different?
Elementally, beer is the union of four parts: water, yeast, grains and hops. What beer drinkers are tasting is the sum of those parts. But what role does yeast play in driving the flavor or hops? It can be tough to tell how each component impacts the beer. Lately, though, brewers have turned to educational brews to help drinkers identify different flavors. For instance, Sam Adams had a single-hop project using a base beer called Latitude 48 India Pale Ale. It usually contains a blend of American, British, and German hops. But for the special single-hop editions, they kept the base beer the same, then dosed each with a single hop. When you taste them side by side, you can begin to understand the differences between the varieties. Denmark’s Mikkeller does this too, also releasing a yeast series — the base beer is kept the same, and then it’s fermented with different yeast strains.
Where, in light of your Great American Beer Festival experience, do you see the future of the craft movement headed?
I saw the continued Balkanization of India Pale Ales, with the wildfire sector breaking down into red IPAs, session IPAs, white IPAs, black IPAs — a whole color wheel of hops are represented. Black IPAs (or Cascadian Dark Ales, named after the Pacific Northwest mountain range where many of these beers are made) are full of piney bitterness and subtle, complementary currents of cocoa and java — a happy blend of day and night. (Examples: Deschutes Brewery’s Hop in the Dark, Stone Brewing Co.’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale.) Red IPAs, like Green Flash’s Hop Head Red, combine a rich, luscious caramel base with a pungent citrus bouquet. White IPAs marry a cloudy, wheat-driven witbier with hoppy aromatics. Simply put, American beer drinkers are in love with hops.
Then there’s gluten-free beer. By and large, most gluten-free beers are humdrum, hoping to hit the widest swath of people. But lately, breweries have been investigating creating unique, off-center gluten-free beers with the same derring-do associated with most of craft brewing. Unfortunately, my favorite gluten-free beers are not national releases. But Colorado’s New Planet makes a tasty 3R Raspberry Ale and a hoppy Off Grid Pale Ale. Still, my favorite gluten-free beers hail from Vermont’s The Alchemist, where John Kimmich makes the delightful Celia Saison. Just remember that gluten-free beers should be judged against one another, not regular brews.
Finally, sours are primed to enter the mass consciousness. Taking cues from a family of Belgian beers by that name, these mad-scientist creations deploy funky yeasts and bacteria during fermentation, or sometimes during the aging process, to bring out offbeat flavors, such as mouth-puckering tartness and horse-blanket mustiness. Like stinky cheeses, these ales are as challenging as they are charming. Those who stick around past the initial shock are treated to beguiling undertones: champagne-like crispness, refreshing tang and natural sweetness from fresh fruits that brewers use to counteract the sourness. Excellent examples would be Ithaca Beer Company’s The Brute, or perhaps Cascade Brewing’s The Vine. Ron Gansberg, the head brewer at Cascade, makes a whole line of tart, terrific sours. Or perhaps look to Russian River Brewing Co. Vinnie Cilurzo is a genius when it comes to microbes and beer.
Oh, and terroir: Brewers are growing their own hops and grains, creating their own unique back-to-the-land beers.
Terroir? You mean beers can express the geographical and climatic circumstances of their ingredients, just like wine?
Yes, the concept can be related to single-estate wines. By and large, breweries source their grains and hops from producers scattered across the country, or even the globe. However, breweries such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Rogue have begun planting their own grains and hops. These are agricultural products, and thus will have slight variation depending on where they’re planted, the growing season, etc. In essence, these breweries are creating their own idiosyncratic products with their own unique flavor profiles. Examples would be Sierra Nevada’s Estate Homegrown Ale and Rogue’s Chatoe Rogue Series, as well as Lakefront Brewery’s Local Acre Lager.
Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.
Photo: Joshua M. Bernstein. Credit: Sam Horine