Tomorrow’s new episode is one of my absolute favorites (just as parents love all their kids but still have a favorite). It’s at North by Northwest Restaurant and Brewery in Austin, or it starts there anyway. The real fun was travelling outside of Austin to a scrubby field full of prickly pear cactus to harvest the fruit for a prickly pear saison.
The field trip was fabulous – especially when our guide, brewer Kevin Roark, warned Michael Ferguson to watch out for rattlesnakes. And yes, being in Texas always feels a little like being in a movie or a theme park (as it did when I lived there back in the 80’s).
But what I enjoyed most was the idea of going back in time to make beer the way they did centuries ago – by using whatever grows in the area. Long before the reinheitsgebot German beer purity law tightened things up, and even longer before transportation made it possible to ship key ingredients from place to place, beer was created out of whatever grains or other edibles were available. Before hops were discovered, brewers used a variety of herbs, plants and spices for flavor. Centuries ago, beers contained everything from olive oil to bog myrtle to mugwort. Early American colonists brewed beer from corn at Jamestown – they had no access to barley.
Our prickly pear saison worked very, very well. The subtle roundness and sweetness of the prickly pear meshed wonderfully with the saison yeast of the base beer, creating a pleasing, well integrated flavor. In this case, the adjunct made sense and helped make an excellent beer.
But as more and more brewers turn to fruits and other added ingredients, more and more I find myself asking why? The answer far too often, in my view, is marketing. The craft consumer wants variety. And with more people considering craft beers, brewers find an increasing need to stand out on the shelf. The result? In many cases, gimmicks - combinations and additions that get noticed, but that don’t necessarily work well.
And look, this is subjective as hell. I recently tried an ale featuring hazelnuts that I couldn’t stand. Yet, it's a multi award winner. And perhaps it fulfilled the technical requirements to be judged so at a particular competition. But it didn't fulfill the requirements that it taste good in my mouth. There’s raspberry ale from one of America’s best-regarded breweries that I can’t stand – it tastes like raspberry soda with a hop kick at the end.
I’m not opposed to added flavors – if they make sense, if they are part of an overall flavor profile that is pleasing, if they result in a terrific beer such as the prickly pear saison we brewed at North by Northwest. So brewers, please, think about the entire painting – not just the fun of using a lot of one particular color.
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