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Oakes Weekly - May 26, 2005
Purging the Old Outlook
May 26, 2005
Written by Oakes
So it’s been a busy year. The flow of new beer hasn’t stopped. That’s put me in a strange position. I haven’t actually sat down and just enjoyed a few good (old) beers yet this year. Sure, there’s been a pint here and a pint there, the pace has been fairly relentless. Returning to the Pacific Northwest has given me this opportunity. The number of breweries within a three hour drive is staggering, especially given that 90% of them are in one direction – south.
But exploring the region has given me some great perspective. Just when I thought I knew a thing or two about beer, I learned more things. That’s how it’s been. So last year I went through a fairly long string of almost nothing but macrobrew. China was especially tough. In seven weeks, I found precisely three craft breweries. In three consecutive days, Friday to Sunday. So it was a good weekend. But other than that, it was a hundred or so light pale lagers. Not much room for learning? Wrong. You learn a lot, actually. In each individual beer, you don’t, but over the course of this stretch I learned a lot about nuances. It wasn’t always beer either. Because most Chinese cities have sprung up rapidly in the past couple of decades, they have all been built to the same plan. They look and feel the same. You can get this feeling for yourself simply by venturing out to the suburbs. You have to look at the license plates just to figure out what state you’re in. So I learned about nuances from Chinese cities, and from Chinese beer.
I get back out here, and beers are certainly more different from one another than the beers in China. But I’ve had a lot of beer, and at times they start to run into each other. I’ve gone through stretches where it took something really crazy to rock my world. When I had Two Druids Gruit for the first time it blew my mind because it was the first beer in a long time that was totally different. Those kinds of beers still impress me. I love to be surprised. But surprise isn’t everything.
I look around the site and I see that shock holds great value. Bombastic beers rule the world. I understand part of that can be attributed to a lack of consensus when it comes to session beers – the English can’t figure out what the best bitters and milds are, and the rest of us are the same way with hefeweizens and IPAs. We all have our favourites. Fair enough. But where my head is right now, bombast means nothing. Brashness and braggadocio are irrelevant. Those nuances I learned to pick up while washing down fried pork and mi fan are what I want to know about.
Take appearance for example. It’s always been a question of the degree to which the visual presentation whets my appetite. It doesn’t have to be clear, and it doesn’t need a billowing head. The pint on the homepage for <a hrefhttp://www.waterstreetbrewing.com/>Water Street Brewing is pretty far from technical perfection. But I can smell the grapefruity hops and hear them calling my name. So I think it looks outstanding. That begs the question – what goes into that? This is where those nuances come in. When you’ve tasted as many beers as I have, just about everything you try will be similar to something you’ve had before. Differences can be minute, but can also be crucial. Understanding how this system works for you is important. There’s technical perfection, but because beer tasting is ultimately a subjective discipline, you have to understand the intangibles that go into the way you interpret beers. That doesn’t merely involve tasting a lot of beers, but it involves tasting under a variety of circumstance and giving a fair bit of reflection to the beers you taste.
The point at which I am right now is simple and clear if you look at my ratings. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the latest hype beer, the latest big bad mamma jamma. So somebody stuck an imperial stout into a bourbon barrel. I’ve been drinking that shit since 1999, dude. Imperial stouts, barley wines – it takes more than big flavours to impress me. I want the beer that does all the little things right. Big flavours hide flaws, but I’m at a point where they can’t hide the flaws from me anymore because I’ve had too many killer giant beers.
I want perfection. I want an appearance that inspires me to drink. I want an aroma that inspires me not to drink, lest I diminish my supply of that which is providing such a pleasurable olfactory experience. I want each and every element in the flavour and palate to be executed to perfection, and for every one of those elements to be madly in love with one another. This is not achieved by tossing some liquid into a barrel, or lazily stuffing a mash tun with crystal malt and a brew kettle with C-hops. Any idiot can do that. I want product of the brewer’s brewer. I can look at the Top 50 and figure out who’s making the biggest beers. The guys making the best – you don’t always know who they are. Sometimes they work in small, obscure breweries. Sometimes they are in countries far away. And yeah, sometimes they strike pure magic one day and fall flat on their face the next. But that’s why I’m dropping the highest praise on the North Forks, Iwate Kuras and Grand Tetons of this world.
Now, this doesn’t mean any old session brew is going to rock. Some brewers think that because they fall within somebody’s style guidelines and use well water that this makes their beer good. Get off it. Try five thousand beers and get back to me, talking about how I need to try your beer again. I’ve tried it fifty times from fifty brewers. You think I’ve never tasted East Kent Goldings and Fuller’s yeast before or something? Stop boring people if you want them to fawn over your skills. At the very least, raise your game. Perfection is never boring, but it isn’t even remotely easy to achieve either.
And make no mistake, perfection is not Anheuser-Busch. We all know brewing isn’t strictly a science and we all know Budweiser isn’t a very good beer. If it was a well-made beer, we wouldn’t be able to figure out how to make it better. Yet I think we can all do that. If it was truly a consistent beer, they wouldn’t hold in-house competitions to see which brewery makes the best Budweiser. So let’s dispel all those ridiculous notions about consistency and stylistic adherence being important right here and now. I care about that stuff as much as I care about size and strength. The only things that matter to me today are inspiration and perfection. There’s a lot of great paintings, and I like great paintings. But there are very few masterpieces. I feel I’ve finally reached the point where I can tell the difference between the two. So masterpieces are what I seek.
With this shift in perspective over the past couple of months, I’m experiencing a shakeup in my world order. I’ve shaken off the old paradigms – the ones everybody (myself included) has been writing about. Beer is fresh, new and vibrant. And totally different than it was this time last year.
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I want perfection. I want an appearance that inspires me to drink. I want an aroma that inspires me not to drink, lest I diminish my supply of that which is providing such a pleasurable olfactory experience.
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