Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'Extreme' beer and innovation

Al Gore became the butt of a lot of ribbing and sniping when he boasted that he had "taken the initiative in creating the internet." In today's Washington Post, Boston Beer's Jim Koch takes credit for inventing the term "extreme beer."

The founder and chairman of Boston Beer Co., best known for its Samuel Adams brand, first applied the expression to his Triple Bock, a dark, syrupy ale that upon its release in 1994 became America's strongest commercial beer, clocking in at 17.5 percent alcohol by volume.
But don't confuse "extreme" with "strong," Koch says. "Extreme is bringing something new to the brewing process. It's like creating a whole new genre of music, as opposed to just playing the same music louder."

When British beer historian Ron Pattinson pointed out that what's hyped as new is often something that has been done before, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont responded "In Defence of Innovation." He cited as examples Pilsner, innovative in the 1840s —'extreme' if using Koch's definition— and Liberty Ale, from Anchor Brewing, innovative and 'extremely' hoppy when it was released in 1975.

The posted comments provide some lively and give-and-take. For example:

I don’t think anyone is against innovation, as long as there is innovation. Many of the things that some believe, or sell as, innovative aren’t so much so.

There’s also the cult of innovation for innovation’s sake that many are against, or put in other words, the worship of innovation, as if innovative beers or brewers were somehow better than that brew “just” good beers

Alan McLeod — from A Good Beer Blog— chimed in:

My only personal complaint against innovation in brewing (if we can related that to X-treme) is that it is no longer very innovative. If, say, session beers were to take off with the nerd crowd or saisons were all the popular rage I would relish the innovation as there would be something new. Didn’t extreme jump the shark a ways back?
I wish more attention were paid in the marketplace to making more wonderful moderately priced beers where the edge is in the yeast or the another aspect of the brewer’s skill.

Innovation is fine —and is an indicator of health in the craft and business of beer— but at the end of the day (literally) I want a tasty, refreshing beer, please. The four principal ingredients of beer —barley malt, hops, water, and yeast— have not yet reached their final boundaries of flavor.

After a long lecture on an arcane bit of brewing technology, the venerable brewmaster asked: "How does the beer taste?" The answer: the process is subservient to the result.

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