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So, what came first?

Jan 20, 2023

A very quick observation, and a couple of questions.

This afternoon I was in a local tap-room. I don’t care much for most of the beer that this particular brewery puts out, but I can usually find 1 or 2 out of the 10 or 12 that they have on-tap at any one time that I might drink. So, if I feel like going out to do some work in a public space (as is sometimes the case), and I’m in the mood to sit with a beer rather than a coffee, then I might find myself there.

Anyway, two ladies came in directly prior to me, and the conversation at the bar was frankly … bizarre. They were asking about the draft list, and essentially the exchange with the barman was completely centered around the flavor profiles that they were interested in. Fair enough, flavor in beer is important, but none of the flavors that they were discussing were related to traditional beer. Various fruits mainly (which rather than being limited to the odd fruit beer here and there are plastered across the whole menu), but also the ubiquitous (fake) ‘sour’, lactose and of course all of the adjuncts that appear in ‘beer’ these days. In this case I won’t list those adjuncts here because that would give away the brewery, but the larger point is that these people (apparently) don’t care for beer – or the flavors of beer – at all. They are here for “adult, alternative beverages” that possess flavor profiles that have nothing to do with hops, malt, water and yeast. They want smoothie inspired, fruity, flabby, thick, milky etc., i.e., the drinks that now make up such huge percentages of what we find in brewery taprooms. A therein lies the question(s).

Of course none of that surprised me in the slightest given the current state of things, but what struck me most was the idea that these people would have likely never been in taprooms five years ago. Or, if they were, did they actually hate the real beer that they were drinking? The other question is, “How did we get to this point?” The preponderance of ‘non-beer’ in taprooms came from where precisely? Was it driven by the chicken or the egg? Did the breweries precipitate this, or was it driven by the consumer that never liked beer in the first place? Did the economy necessitate that the breweries attempt to entice a complete new audience that never wanted beer in the first place?

I find the whole thing baffling, and I’m likely to continue to write about this because I find it so sad; so depressing; so odd; so maddening; so tragic, and most definitely not a neutral phenomenon that most definitely does have a detrimental effect on my own drinking pleasure.

6 Comments

  1. Bill

    I think it’s a confluence of two things. The first came from the morphing of the original forms of what is now called New England IPA: the early forms from Vermont and maybe Maine had pronounced bitterness and tasted like beer (possibly because the yeasts and hops in question were not the newer varieties that amp up the sweeter fruit flavors and the trend away from bitterness). My amateur guess is that the move towards less bitter, more sweet versions was an extension of the US craft mentality that “people who say they don’t like beer just haven’t tried the right one yet” that was big on the beer boards back in the early-mid 2000s. When the sweeter hazies hit the marketplace, they hit big — not just for existing beer drinkers with FOMO, but with folks who weren’t beer drinkers: these were the gateway beers for a huge part of the drinking population, in the way that the beers brought in by Merchants du Vin and those brewed in California in the 1990s were for me. Said drinkers would also like the adjunct-laden sweet stouts, the fruited sours, etc.

    The second thing would be that concurrent with the rise of said styles was the rise of sweeter wines, flavored seltzers (both alcoholic and non), canned cocktails (a huge percentage of which are sweet), flavored spirits, etc. The move here for a significant segment of drinkers was towards sweetness, away from bitterness/tannins, etc. The effect is the same as above: brewers were able to attract drinkers who didn’t like beer before by brewing these newer styles. So in effect, you’re right: many of these newer folks didn’t like beer in the first place — but one of the driving ideas behind craft beer was to convince folks who didn’t like beer (because they thought of Bud/Miller/Coors) that there were beers out there they’d love. It worked! But not in ways that were helpful to what you call legacy drinkers, alas.

    I remember years and years back when I was on BeerAdvocate in the mid 2000s, there was a thread on “what era would you like to live in, beer-wise?” and folks were looking back to when certain breweries still existed, etc., and I thought that the current era had to be better than past eras… and now I’m thinking I was right — if only I can go back to 2005! But practically, it’s fine if the market doesn’t cater exactly to my tastes. I can find stuff I enjoy. We can lament the shift, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re fine. We have options. It’s ok.

    Reply
    • Ding

      Great insight re: NEIPA and its evolution, and it’s gratifying to see that you agree with my wider hypothesis of attracting people that don’t like beer to ‘beer’. I also agree about the mid (and for me, late) 00s being a great time – it’s strange how that has worked out and like you, I would have never thought about that time in that way back then.

      Where we disagree is in your last sentence. I’m afraid that this lurch away from beer to ‘alternative adult beverages’ (and by that I don’t mean seltzers etc., rather I mean the stuff some people call ‘beer’ these days i.e., canned haze, fake sours and liquid candy bars) has most definitely not been neutral. Shelf-space has been devastated and imports have also been decimated. Sorry, I just don’t see the current situation as a genial one. It’s more than legacy drinkers just bitching and moaning, we’re actually worse off than we once were, perhaps even more than ever before.

      Reply
      • Bill

        Sure, I agree it’s not neutral, that things are worse in terms of difficulty of finding things — I’m just saying it doesn’t matter if the current trends are weighted towards things i don’t enjoy, as I can nevertheless find things I enjoy drinking. both here and when I travel, and I hope you can as well. I guess the way I look at it is, back in the day, I could walk into a bar or store and find so many things i wanted to try… but I’d still only have one or two beers at the bar or leave the store with a few bottles or a couple of six-packs. So now, the number of things I want to try in said situations has decreased — but it’s still more than I’m going to have at a sitting or leave the store with.

        Our life scenarios might not match up, of course — I’m in advanced middle age, I have family, responsibilities, etc., blah blah blah, and drink hits me harder as I age in terms of recovery, so I drink less. And one of the things i realized about five or so years ago was that my continual trying of newer things meant that I didn’t drink things I knew I enjoyed, so I made a decision to do that more — and as tastes shifted towards styles I knew I didn’t enjoy, it didn’t mean that my drinking enjoyment would suffer — because there’s a lot out there I know I enjoy, and if finding it is more difficult, it’s all the more sweet when i do find it.

        Learned today that Sinebrychoff Baltic porter is still around my area, and Dovetail’s Baltic porter will be available soon — happy news for me, but if both were always around, would I have drunk a significant amount? Probably not — I get to Dovetail once or twice a year; I’d probably buy Sinebrychoff once or twice a year in cold weather. I guess for me, the shift to things I don’t like has meant more effort towards getting what I DO like and less experimentation, and that’s fine — I’ve had 35-odd years of learning what I like. My being angry about the popularity of newer styles wouldn’t do me any good other than to waste my energy — so, much better for me to take what I’ve learned over the years and act accordingly. It doesn’t feel that I’m worse off — intellectually, I recognize that things are worse, but as far as it affects my life? It’s fine. None of which is to say that your experiences and views aren’t valid — they completely are! It’s simply that I’ve realized my drinking life hasn’t really suffered from the market shift, and maybe my experiences can resonate with other folks.

      • Ding

        Again there’s a lot of truth in what you say, and I agree with much of it (I too am in advanced middle-age and “drink hits me harder as I age in terms of recovery, so I drink lessABSOLUTELY resonates with me), but I just cannot get comfortable with the idea that there used to be a TON of Belgians, Germans and British beers on shelves for me to pick from, and now that section has been absolutely gutted. It really has had a negative effect on my drinking enjoyment, and like you, I am also talking about the ability to drink my own stalwarts. Hell, Westmalle and Rochefort recently got dropped by the distributor in my area. If that’s not a disaster for me, I don’t know what is!

  2. Phil Leinhart

    Thanks for crystallizing my thoughts. I’ve been in brewing 40 years and, although I enjoy a well balanced, not too sweet or grassy “Hazy” once in a while it has occured to me that they may appeal mostly to people who don’t really like beer…more “flavor lovers” than real “beer lovers”.
    I mean, to each their own and all that but if I really want something that tastes like a Pina Colada…I’ll order a Pina Colada.

    Reply
    • Ding

      The problem here is Phil, is that this is a zero sum game. These people that don’t like the taste of beer have hurt MY enjoyment of beer by skewing the market. I can’t get half the beer that I used to be able to buy, and I can’t move in stores for millions of millions of cans of shit. This is NOT a “neutral”, ‘live and let live’ situation.

      Reply

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