As we ride the craft tidal wave it’s easy to get pulled along by the current of massive hops and coffee, chocolate, caramel, toasted, roasted, dark fruit grains that largely typify modern craft beer. In all fairness, these big beers are the exciting newcomers and have been the driving force behind this growing and flourishing craft beer revolution. They are the very beers that press the boundaries of what we imagined was possible with beer and have forced the industry to create whole new style designations to capture them accurately in our current vocabulary. They are the beers that win the fancy awards, get the hot articles published about them, and compel beer enthusiast to stand in line for hours just to get a 6 pack.
It seems that in all of the excitement, their little brothers have been a bit left out. This occurred to me the other day as I was sipping a Wells Bombardier and marveled at the amazing balance and complexity that had been packed into this very approachable and low ABV beer. I also thought back to the many 4-5% abv beers that I had brewed over the years and was reminded of how very difficult it is to craft a truly interesting and tasty session beer. Extreme flavors generally strike the palate as something exciting and arresting which is why big hoppy beers and Russian Imperial Stouts get the consumers attention right off the bat while the more subtle malts and hops of a British Bitter or a German Pilsener take a bit more pensiveness to tease out.
It is amazing what you will find upon further consideration of these great beers. Because the hops and malts are not blasting your taste buds where they become quickly overwhelmed, you can really begin to experience the light caramel and toffee malts as well as the delicate herbal and floral hops typically found in the Blonds, Lagers, Bitters, and so on. Achieving balance in this more naked environment is a tremendous challenge. Brewers have very little to hide behind when the big roasted malts and the resinous hops are diminished in the recipe. These are the beers where technique and skill matter most – where a temperature spike in fermentation, or a bit too much hops can quickly turn the beer into something very different that what had been planned. Off flavors and improper cellaring or conditioning of these beers shows up as a major flaw as opposed to something that gets conveniently intertwined with the colossal flavors of a big beer.
So, the next time you’re browsing the bottle cooler of your favorite store, consider taking a second look at the many wonderful beers that have fallen off the radar because they can’t boast “120 IBU’s”. I think you will be refreshed to become re-acquainted with the subtle beauty these beers have to offer and will be challenged to pause and think about the ingredients that would otherwise flow right past your tongue on the way to your belly. These more diminutive flavors are easily and often overlooked but they are there and are often well worth the additional effort needed to find them.
Remember, the unexamined beer is not worth drinking.