Hello, Congregants! Today’s article is sure to anger some people, but there’s no way around it. It’s an important part of the Doctrine of Beer, and we need to talk about it.
Isn’t any beer better than no beer? Isn’t it all a matter of personal preference?
Those questions do have merit, despite what many “Beer Snobs” will tell you. The thing is, despite personal preference, there are certain facts that lead us to make the judgment call that there are, in fact, crappy beers.
Basically, beer that we deem to be crappy is mass-produced, relatively flavorless, American pilseners. Yes, that means Budweiser, Miller, Coors, etc., not to mention Pabst Blue Ribbon, Keystone Light, Natural Light… Yeah, it’s easy for us to be flip and answer seemingly carelessly, but there ARE reasons behind the judgment. We’re not going to have time to get into all of them, but here are some brief overviews of some reasons.
The Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 specified the use of only 3 ingredients in the production of beer. These ingredients were barley, hops, and water. This standard (with the addition of yeast in the 1800’s) is often appealed to for the “proper” ingredients of beer. While, certainly, it can be argued that we owe Bavaria a great deal for the legacy of excellent lagers, it must be understood that the Purity Law was primarily an economic decision rather than a decision of the brewing process remaining “pure”. Under the Reinheitsgebot, for example, wheat beers, pumpkin ales, any ale using maple syrup, or any fruit would all be ILLEGAL.
Arcane legislation aside, I’m pretty lenient on ingredients in beer, when it comes to various flavoring agents. I want to draw your attention to my qualifier there…flavoring agents. The major lager beers in the United States use the major ingredients, but to varying degrees, they also add corn and rice. Now, I have had beers made with some corn (New Glarus’ Spotted Cow is one), which have a good flavor, and go great with corn chips. Rice, however, is not my favorite brewing ingredient. It is somewhat misunderstood these days as a way to cheaply produce beer. This may be the case, but the history of using rice in beer goes back well before prohibition. Rice is fermentable, despite what I have read. (Sake, anyone?) However, much like vodka (as the Minister of Mixology can attest), it brings no flavors to the party. It adds alcohol, but cuts a beer’s body and provides no flavor. Comparing lager styles brewed with all barley and mass-produced fizzy yellow water shows a tremendous difference in flavor and body. Now, to me, I don’t see a point in consuming a beer designed to taste less like beer. And yes…the “Big 3” brewers in this country really don’t want you actually tasting their beer. I know this because…
Cold kills flavor
It is a scientific fact that the colder a substance is, the less you can taste it. The larger breweries have worked hard to ensure that their beers are served as cold as possible. Craft beer, on the other hand, is generally designed to be consumed at higher temperatures, though not “warm”, despite the cries of detractors. While all light lager styles are designed to be consumed colder than their darker counterparts, those made from all barley will be more completely enjoyed warmer than one would normally consume a mass-produced American lager.
As I said earlier, I don’t see the point in drinking a beverage which the creators don’t want you to taste. If that doesn’t define “crappy beer”, I don’t know what does.
Marketing and Business Tactics
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this topic, as I feel it can be covered more thoroughly in its own article, and has been covered VERY completely in Anat Baron’s documentary of the brewing industry, Beer Wars, but I do feel this topic needs to be touched upon.
When a company spends money on marketing, one might assume they want these dollars to go toward advertisements that say something positive about their products, or at least something negative about their competitors’ products. Beer marketing, on the other hand, has turned into an interesting race to see who can make the ad which has the least to do with the product they’re selling. When an advertiser spends so much of their marketing budget producing commercials which get you to focus on nothing but their humor, you have to wonder if there’s much to be said about their product.
Furthermore, while I understand that we do not live in a world with a completely free market, underhanded tactics designed to get successful competitors to leave the market are just lame. In Beer Wars, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales showed a cease-and-desist lawsuit from Annheuser-Busch ordering him to cease the usage of common words in the names of his beers. Specifically mentioned words are “Punkin'”, from his Punkin’ Ale, and “Chicory”, as used in his Chicory Stout. Ultimately, AB can’t really be wanting to use these words, so why sue Mr. Calagione? Simply put, AB has the lawyers and the budget to chase such a garbage lawsuit to its completion, while they hope Dogfish Head does not. Of course, as Mr. Calagione points out, AB didn’t seem to have such a huge problem with common words being used in beer names when it came to their own Natural Light. Couple that with the large brewery domination of the 3 tier distribution system (where breweries can’t sell directly to the consumer, and must go through distributors, who are all but owned by one of the “Big 3” breweries) to force their competitors out of the market, and you have a recipe for a market that is extremely tough to break into.
So this all means…what?
In short, we at Ale Evangelism have developed a set of principles that we’re not willing to compromise on. I want my beer to taste like beer, and I want to drink it at a temperature so that I can actually taste it. If someone is adding adjuncts to their beer, I want that adjunct to be added because of what the adjunct brings to the party in terms of flavor, and not what it helps to remove. Finally, I want to support breweries who have put their heart, soul, and credit on the line to brew high-quality beers because they love their beer. I’m not averse to a brewer making money. Shoot, I hope they do. I hope they are successful. But I don’t want their success to become the goal to the exclusion of their original dream of making quality beer from quality ingredients. If it does, I will continue to vote with my wallet. This is why we have Article V, Section 1 of The Confession:
Simply put, life is too short to drink crappy beer. Be discerning in what you enjoy.