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Oakes Weekly - April 6 2006

Jumping the Shark
Oakes Weekly April 6, 2006      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

The question in the forums the other day about the best IPA stirred up the shit-disturber in me. I challenged the notion that Two-Hearted is anywhere near the top of the list when it comes to best IPAs. I stand by that, of course. It’s not bad, but anybody can make an IPA that isn’t bad. IPA is a drink that is made to a very high standard across the US, and there’s even a few good international examples these days, from Scandinavia and Japan and Canada. What separates a great IPA from a pretty good one? Ultimately, it’s probably more personal preference than anything else but I will tell you what most certainly does not make the difference.

Bitterness is not the key. Even if, like me, you don’t have very many really bitter IPAs available in your town, that doesn’t make the most bitter one the best. And lord knows there are a lot of really, really, really insanely bitter, dry IPAs. Hop character overall really doesn’t make it. I mean, what IPA isn’t dry-hopped out the yin-yang? They all ought to be.

I happen to feel that the standard of IPA making is so high out west that while almost all of them are very good, it’s really hard to stand out. So those that do will do so by nailing all of the more subtle aspects of the style. Getting hops that don’t just “work” with one another but truly light each other’s fire. Or going solo hop with a varietal that can truly shine in both a bittering and aromatic role. Or finding a delicate but skillful malt balance. This is where west coast breweries truly rock. It’s not a matter of having malts. That’s easy. I can do that. It’s a matter of having a malt bill that genuinely complements the hops and gives them a stage from which they can put on one hell of a show. The Californians do this slightly differently (chewier, more crystal) than do Washingtonians and Oregonians, and I respect what they do. I also happen to feel it better suited to the Double IPA category and indeed that’s where California really shines. There’s a lot of overrated ones down there, but the likes of Frank, Pliny the Elder, Hoptown Huey-DUI, the latest Jolly Rodger from Drake’s, Überhoppy from Valley Brew…anyway there’s some really good examples down there.

But I suppose I’m getting way off topic. Sorry about that, especially if you’ve already started writing your retort. I didn’t sit down to lay into a big IPA rant. I actually sat down to do my taxes, but screw that I have to talk about beer.

The question that really came out of that whole IPA thing for me was one that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks now, dating back to one of the Three Floyds threads.

Good breweries…great breweries…have the tendency to totally jump the shark for me. One or two of their finest beers stick around in my consciousness but the rest of the lineup, which I once salivated over, just sort of fades away. I don’t know if this happens with anybody else. There seems to be a few common things with breweries that fall into this situation.

First, they have to be really awesome, like I’ll go way out of my way to get their beers awesome. Out of the way by my standards, not my next door neighbour’s, which are a wee tad lower. They need to have a range of beers all made to a very high standard. One or two beers and the brewery overall will never capture my imagination in the first place. It also helps, but is not imperative, that I was one of the “early adopters”, to use marketing speak. In other words, I was one of the first people who really noticed what that brewery was up to and had a hand in spreading the world. It’s funny that I thought of this when Kalamazoo came up, because I was certainly not an early adopter and save for the Expedition I never really thought they were all that mindblowing anyway. But I digress.

As for when these breweries jump the shark with me, that’s a little less clear, but I have some theories. One that has to be considered is access. Of the breweries on my little mental list of those that jumped the shark, most I can’t buy very easily anyway. I haven’t had anything from some of these breweries for a couple of years now. I guess I don’t care enough to make a trade, but it’s tougher these days for me to hold a torch for any brewery. I used to be much better at that, back when I’d only find 40-50 really good new beers each year.

Another thing is when a brewery starts releasing more and more beers. This is related to a phenomenon I’ve observed outside the world of beer. It’s the music thing. Sometimes indie music lovers are accused of not liking bands when they become popular. Sometimes that accusation is undoubtedly true but there are other times when I notice that a band really only had one good album in them and by the time they got big, they’d run out of decent ideas. Other times, a band’s sound benefitted from the mediocre production they could afford early on, and when they get big their sound suffers from the slickness of bigger recording budgets. In the world of beer, this is when a brewery buys that big fancy new brewery and production quality goes up…quality of course in production terms means variability, or lack thereof. So the new brewery doesn’t have the capability of making those batches that were just this side of mindblowing. Consistency, I’ve always felt, is not necessarily a good thing in beer.

There is also the question about a band, or in this case a brewery, reaching the limits of their creativity. The brewer has used his best material on those first few brews. Those were recipes he made for years as a homebrewer and was able to perfect. Now he’s turning out new beers with barely a test batch under his belt and often not even that. Or maybe the really good ideas are gone, and he’s left to brew the ideas he passed on three years prior. So a brewer made it big with a few beers that totally rocked. Then more beers came on board. Then more and more and soon a brewery that used to take it slow and release only a couple of new brews a year is now cranking out a new beer every month. At that point, you’re not getting the A-list recipes.

Nor are you necessarily getting the A-list brewer. When breweries get big, they need to hire extra help. That extra help is probably plenty competent but there is something about a master’s touch that cannot be replicated. If the dude who made his brewery’s name with four killer brews hardly sees the inside of the mash tun anymore, the brewery isn’t going to be as spectacular with its new offerings.

I may not be right, but at least I have theories as to why I lose interest in breweries I used to adore. I can tell you what I don’t have a theory for. How to get that love back. If it is simply a matter of me not being able to get the beer, distribution would solve that. But what if it’s some of those other things? It obviously doesn’t matter to the brewery’s fiscal health I’m the only one who thinks the magic is gone, but if I’m not the only one, how does a brewery recapture that magic? How does a beer lover rekindle a love for beers that he knows are awesome but just can’t get jacked up about anymore?



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