There's Stuff In My Beer

Martin Johnson - Extra flavors make a quality comeback.

About 14 months ago, I took on a consultancy to improve the beer program at a small chain of New York based specialty food shops and, during my “welcome aboard” meeting, I discovered something was amiss. One of the key figures in purchasing laughed, saying that they didn't really need much help with their beer selection. I bit my tongue rather than verbally disagree, then I listened in horror as he said, “Just tell us when to order the raspberry beer and when to order the pumpkin beer. That's all that the new beer is about, really.”

When I left home for college, my Godmother took me out to lunch and told me that the secret to success, aside from smarts and savvy, was to have thick skin and maintain a poker face. It never fails to amaze me how right she was. I kept my poker face and calmly replied, “Oh no, most craft beer drinkers are into beers that only have malted barley, hops, yeast and water.” The exec chortled, “Oh, you know your stuff, I guess that's why you're here.”

I've thought about that encounter more and more lately and not because that gig proved disappointingly temporary. It feels like beer with extrinsic elements and flavors have quietly made a comeback. There are a variety of high quality beers that have stuff in them, but the stuff doesn't mask the flavors of the beer. Instead, these flavors enhance them.

I think this trend began with saisons that are brewed with herbal and floral enhancements like the Stillwater Cellar Door, which is made with white sage or the same brewery's Of Love and Regret which contains chamomile, lavender and heather. However, this trend has really exploded in India Pale Ales and wild beer. For one, a good IPA is more than just a pine and resinous finish; a well made one will deliver the flavors of the hops: citrus, stone and tropical fruit overtones should shine. More and more, brewers are accenting those flavors. For instance, Evil Twin brews a bomb (13% ABV) called Molotov Cocktail that is made with orange and mango puree. Dogfish Head makes Aprihop, an IPA brewed with fresh apricots. The Westbrook Citrus Ninja Exchange has grapefruit zest, and everyone I've spoken to has been floored by the Ballast Point Sculpin Grapefruit, which is brewed with grapefruit. In fact, grapefruit has become such a popular additive that Parallel 49, the stellar Vancouver based brewer, adds it to their Tricycle, a lager.

Beers brewed with wild yeast often have enormous overtones of fruit, so it's only natural that brewers are experimenting with adding different fruit. For instance, Evil Twin makes Femme Fatale, an IPA with brettanomyces, in a variety of different ways. I especially like Femme Fatale Kabosu, which has a Japanese fruit added. Crooked Stave, the Colorado-based brewery that specializes in beers made with wild yeast, has a variety of brews with various zests and fruit.

Dark beers are especially receptive to flavors like coffee, cocoa, vanilla and the flavors that seep from barrels that once housed whiskey. I particularly like the Lagunitas Imperial Coffee Stout, which is brewed with Fair Trade java and aged in High West Rye barrels. Another new fave is Knee Deep's Tanilla, a porter brewed with Tahitian vanilla beans.

I have to confess that I'm not totally won over by all these beers with stuff in them. I draw the line at hot peppers. Rogue brews a beer with Sriracha and Ballast Point brews a version of their Sculpin with habanero. To me the spice becomes the point of the drink, not the beer. I'm sure there are people who find a pleasant balance in them but I'm not in that crowd. But three years ago, I would have scoffed at anyone who told me I'd be championing brews with fruit, florals and even coffee in them, but to me the brews mentioned above are great beers, not a way to soft pedal a malt and hops beverage. I doubt my contact at that consulting gig would get it, but real beer lovers do.

The Author:

Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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