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Love Craft Cult

February 25, 2015

In last week’s Ask the Profussor, I mentioned that the mystery link of the day would be the subject of its very own conversation. Well, that day has finally come.

That means today I’m talking about beer. The problem is that I don’t know a lot about beer. What I do know a fair bit about however is wine. And I can never resist making completely inappropriate comparisons between the two beverages.

What I do know a bit about is marketing. And I have a deep understanding of snobbery. Plus, words are very important to me. So, at the risk of opening up a giant can of worms, I want to share a few observations with where I see the language of craft beer going wrong.

I like the idea of drinking small. Small is idiosyncratic. Small has personality. Small doesn’t cut corners. Small isn’t available everywhere. Small can put quality concerns above all else.

One of my favorite wineries is a place called Navarro. You may have never heard of it. It’s typically not available for retail sale. It’s a small winery in the Anderson Valley. They mostly sell at the winery and direct to restaurants. But it still makes wine that’s readily available, if you know where to look.

That’s different from this pinot noir I tried once at a tasting event from Rochioli. Rochioli’s a small winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. After trying it, and falling in love with the juice in the bottle, I asked the woman pouring samples where I could buy a bottle of the stuff.

“You can’t,” she informed me.

Which is when I tried to buy a bottle of the stuff she had on hand, but she wouldn’t part with it. As it turned out, to buy a bottle of this pinot noir, you had to put your name on a waiting list for a couple of years, and then when your name was called, you had to agree to buy a full mixed case of wine from the winery. Of those twelve bottles in the case, just one of them would be this pinot noir.

Theose cases were not inexpensive. I think you had to buy one every three months. To make matters worse, if you decided to skip an order, you would be dropped from the rolls and the winery would move the next name up from the waitlist.

But even Rochioli wasn’t the rarest of the rare. Those were winemakers’ pet projects that were made in garages, in miniscule batches. These bottles were affectionately known as cult wines, and they were virtually impossible to get.

I think a lot of the hard core beer enthusiasts who say they are fans of craft beer, and who are very protective of what “true” craft beer means, may actually really be into cult beers.

It’s an important distinction. Because by having a different name for those white whales at the highest end of the beer spectrum, it opens up the definition of craft beer to include slightly larger, and perhaps even commercially viable, beers with a national distribution.

Even I was able to find a bottle of Lazy Creek Gewurztraminer once in a Pennsylvania state store. That place was the tiniest California winery I had ever seen. It was one guy, his wife and their pig Sophie (who we got to feed wine crackers, naturally).

Small beer can be great beer. Of course being small doesn’t make it great. Just like being local doesn’t make it delicious. And something can still be great even if it gets significantly bigger.

But being small and being local make things special for other reasons.

Nobody can reliably predict where the beverage market will go next. And I’m excited to be living through a time of phenomenal growth and innovation in the small brewery landscape. I think by and large the quality of these small breweries is better than the quality at small wineries around the country.

One of these days, I’m going to get my hands on one of those cult beers that people are so excited about. But in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy some of the great beer I’ve been finding at my local retailers. It’s mighty fine stuff.

That said, should anyone want to pick me up for a road trip to their favorite cult breweries, I’m ready to roll.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2015 11:34 am

    I’m scratching my head as to what you’re referring to here. Are you talking about Heady Topper and Farmstead? Or Bell’s Hop Slam maybe? The first two are indeed made in low quantities and you have to go to the source to get them; the third is a seasonal that’s made in limited quantities and sells out quickly.

    It adds breadth to the tasting experience to score one of these quaffs, but it’s hardly what craft beer is all about. How about looking at quality, rather than scarcity? At Saratoga Beer Week I tasted five European sours that probably would not be available in the U.S. without a groundswell of interest, and two esoteric beers from Alpine and Green Flash that probably would not have made it to New York without the efforts of the folks at Henry Street Taproom which was packed with folks enjoying said brews.

    As there is more interest in craft beers, brewers are motivated to push the envelope in terms of hoppiness, sours, unorthodox ingredients (not my cup o tea) and our friend ABV. Tell me why that’s a bad thing.

    • February 25, 2015 5:22 pm

      Why is it a bad thing? It encourages “craft brewers” to indulge themselves by making gimmicky, one-note, masochistic dreck. I am fine with brewers dabbling in sours and other lesser known (in the US) European brewing traditions. But am I fan of the next 10,000 minute hops gimmick that any given “craft brewer” is going to inflict on the public? Nope.

      The “hoppiness” trend in American craft brewing makes me stabby. I totally get it. It is an overreaction to generations of “bland” and less bitter “American Lagers.” But it is getting ridiculous. Remember those Warhead candies that kids used to eat? You impressed your friends by how long you could stand the sour/spicy thing in your mouth. That is what a lot current “craft brews” remind me of. Also, hops can cover flaws in your brew. Also, over-hoppy beers suck with food (for the most part).

      The “hops” trend is a pet peeve of mine. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good IPA or whatnot. But I would much prefer a “craft brewer” to set up shop and explore traditional German brews (an example) with quality ingredients brewed with integrity and care then another “Uncle Butthole’s 50 Ton-o-hops Double IPA” (I made that up, haha.)

      I feel like the “craft brew” market is driven by novelty for novelties sake at the moment and that sometimes quality is ignored.

  2. Jack C permalink
    February 25, 2015 12:17 pm

    I’ve got a few rarities sitting in my “cellar” (read: beer fridge in the basement). For a long time I was interested in hunting down the rarest bottlings, trading some of my more locally-available rare finds for someone else’s locally-available rare finds, etc. Eventually, though, my home market (at that time, Athens, GA) developed enough that there were a lot of really great beers crafted within two hours of my house that I hadn’t tried, because I was busy hunting down rarities from all over the world. At that point, my mindset shifted. Now I want to make sure I’m enjoying what’s brewed locally. I’ll still enjoy the rare “white whale” if I can find it, but I don’t go out of my way to get it. One of these days I’ll take a day drive into VT for some Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead, Sip of Sunshine, and Fiddlehead, but I’m in no rush anymore.

    As a side note, have you tried anything from Helderberg Meadworks in Duanesburg? I’m intrigued.

    • Jack C permalink
      February 25, 2015 12:23 pm

      I should add that I’m perfectly content to stick to the local stuff AND stuff that’s brewed a little farther away but available locally (such as Jack’s Abby).

    • albanylandlord permalink
      February 26, 2015 1:11 am

      Jack, I have had many bottles of the Helderberg Meadworks. I share it with lots of people and everyone at least likes it. Sometimes I describe it as my “summer port” , not because of taste, but it fits a similar mood for me. I think it is very reasonably priced and I like that it changes slightly from batch to batch. I would describe it as “honey wine” in that the honey is sweet (like grapes) but it has some of the dryness or tartness of white wine also.

  3. Josh K. permalink
    February 26, 2015 1:04 am

    Capital Region brewery tour on the horizon? If so – considered me interested and a good source.

    First place to check out after Rare Form would be Crossroads. Some fantastic stuff being produced there.

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