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Smell your beer. Does it reek of gimmickry?

More musings on ‘sincere beer’
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Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

A couple of weeks ago here, I blurted out an idea that sounded suspiciously refined. Really it was more like an amorphous phlegmatic thing, coughed out while clearing my throat mid-ramble. I barely stopped to marvel at how that loogie has the face of Elvis.

Then an author as accomplished as Stan Hieronymus had to point and say, “I wish I had written this.” As my head swelled I sighed deeply, realizing that I would have to bear the heavy, heavy burden of fleshing this thing out before some marketing whiz swipes it and runs with it and makes a gazillion dollars, and here I would remain, holding up a sign: “WILL WRITE FOR SOUP.”

So let’s talk more about “sincere beer.” It sounds so nice — and it rhymes! — but what is it? How can we explain this thing so that the really bored ones among you can start grassroots campaigns to promote and defend it? (Please don’t.) How can you know if you’re drinking a sincere beer?

Maybe you can’t. We’ll get to that. I’m going to raise a whole flotilla of questions you can ask your next beer. But first, the context: Sincere means honest; it implies simplicity. We might be talking about old-fashioned folk beers, or those that have barely changed in a century or two, but more to the point we’re talking about a reaction to today’s bewildering, disconnected, limitless variety.

Our thirst for variety has convinced breweries to pump out novelty after novelty — always on to the next new thing, the seasonal rotation taken to absurdity — rarely settling down to perfect a drinkable product.

Why improve a beer, after all, if we never drink the same thing twice?

Today a brewer can theoretically produce anything by rebuilding water, getting fresh ingredients from anywhere in the world, and ordering yeast from fetishistic catalogues. But that beer will not necessarily have anything to do with the place from whence it comes. Sincere beer represents a different sort of choice — and we should recognize that it is a choice, not an inevitability. Not modern, but metamodern.

The days when brewers were limited to local water and ingredients and drinkers are gone. Thankfully. But we’re allowed to be nostalgic. On to sincere beer. Trying to define it clearly just strikes me as pedantic. So instead I’m going to raise a whole bunch of questions. Not all are relevant, but Socratic method is more fun.

  • Do you know where your beer is made? Are you sure?
  • Is the label clear about the beer’s origins? Is it clear about the ingredients?
  • How many ingredients are there, anyway? Are they from far away?
  • Did it come from a cask spiced with Cocoa Puffs and dingleberries?
  • If the beer is made locally, does the name include a foreign city?
  • What did that beer cost you? Did you feel it?
  • Read all of the label’s text. How many exclamation points do you count?
  • Any yeast in there? Is the beer alive, or merely embalmed by refrigeration?
  • When it’s done, would you like another?
  • Would your grandpa have liked it? Do you think it might still be around for your own grandkids to try one day?

And maybe there is another thing to consider, in an age when any sort of beer can be made and shipped anywhere in the world. For whom was that beer made? Is it for anyone or everyone?There has been much written lately about beer that somehow expresses terroir — or sense of place, or somewhereness. But I think my favorite explanation comes from Tim Webb, who writes (with Stephen Beaumont) the World Atlas of Beer and (with me) the Good Beer Guide Belgium.

“Beer has terroir,” Tim says, “not for the soil where the grain or hops are grown, but for the people in the area for whom the beer is brewed, who shape by their cultural expectations of how that beer will be.”

That reminds me of one of the classic pieces of advice for writers, which I received as a young reporter: Imagine your reader. Name him. Talk to him.

I wonder if many brewers imagine their drinker. The way they’re cranking out new beers, I wonder if they even have time.

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