Of Crappy Beers and Other Crimes Against Nature!

Here is a final post for the month of December, 2010. In it, I pretty much summarized my feelings as a beer snob and some of the experiences that brought me to that place. My apologies if I offend, but really, low standards make me ANGRY, as anyone who read the title line is no doubt aware.

After reviewing Alexander Keith’s IPA, and precisely what is wrong with that title (not an IPA, dammit!), I began to feel that special attention needed to be given to a subject that I have long felt strongly about. For years I have noticed a trend in brewing that runs contrary to the reemergence of craft brewing and is an insult to the tradition of microbrewing. I am, of course, referring to the “dumbing down” of beers, the reducing of hop content and the elimination of flavour in the hopes of making them more “accessible” to the mass market. Like so many other things, the beer industry, which many years ago began to see a resurgence thanks to the rise of new, local, and traditionally-oriented beer-making, has since seen a decline in quality because it seems to believe that higher standards means less in the way of sales. This may very well be true, but it is nonetheless upsetting, especially to people like myself who thrive on genuine beer! Some examples…

Granville Island Brewery: One of the first to spearhead micro-brewing here on the West Coast, this brewery once offered good, hoppy pale ales and crisp, clean lagers. Then, something happened… I’m not entirely sure when the transition occurred, but I can tell you as someone who regularly traveled to BC in the old days and sampled the beers when I got here, that the flavour began to change. The English Bay Pale Ale ceased to be hoppy and became strangely sweet and even a bit skunky. The same could be said of their Lager, their Gastown Amber and their Cypress Honey. They all ceased tasting like they once did, namely like they were made with clean BC mountain water and rich hops, and became odd tasting, what I can only describe as malty with an unpleasant aftertaste.

Vancouver Island Brewery: One of my favorite breweries of all time! I can’t tell you how many Piper’s Pale Ales or Hermann’s Dark’s I enjoyed back in my day! At one time, it was even a huge treat for myself and friends of mine to bring these babies back from the West Coast for parties since we couldn’t get any in Ontario. However, it wasn’t long before the Pipers ceased to be crisp and hoppy and became rather bland with a touch of sweet aftertaste. The Hermann’s was much the same, ceasing to combine in a perfect balance a tawny, hoppy flavour with a lingering aftertaste. Now the best I can say about it is that it remains pleasantly tawny, but has lost the bite and substituted it with – you guessed it! – a sweet aftertaste. Their lager’s are much the same, being still refreshing and crisp, but not as tasty as they used to be. Their Islander Lager, while I have been known to appreciate its clean taste after a hot workout, is one of the most flavourless beers I have ever had!

Hart Brewery: The little brewery that couldn’t! Located in Carleton Place, just outside of Ottawa, this little brewery was once my all-time favorite purveyor of beers! It was during a Nortel co-op tour, where I had the honour of taking part with a bunch of engineering friends, that I came to be introduced to their beers. I learned a great deal about beer and beer making from the brew master before sampling their extensive line of products. A moment to review them…

First, there was their Hart Amber Ale which won the gold medal at 1992 Food, Wine and Beer Show’s beer competition in Toronto. It was a delicious, hoppy and complex ale, not what you’d expect from a amber which are usually light, smooth, and tawny, with very little bitterness or complexity to them. Then there was their Festive Brown Ale, which was similarly hoppy, deep, rich and tawny with a lingering hop finish. The Dragons Breath’s Ale is none too bad either, combining a strong hop profile with a clean, crisp taste. It was my first real IPA, though I didn’t know it at the time! How painfully fitting, that this beer, like the brewery, never got the credit it deserved! (sniff, sniff) Then there was the Pumpkin Ale, the very first of its kind for me! Much like all the Pumpkin Ales that have followed Hart’s lead (Again, could be wrong in saying that they were the first) it was unique, like pumpkin pie in a glass, only with suds and nice hop bite! They had many others, most of which I cannot do justice too since it was such a long time ago, but remember as being really good!

So where are they now? GONE! The brewery closed shop, was bought out, and now puts out only two beers, the Amber and a Lager, both of which suck since the retirement of the brew master and the hiring of some hacks who went as far as to bring in a priest to bless the equipment because they couldn’t get it to work right (no joke!) Sad, sad, sad! A true great that received plenty of critical acclaim but not nearly enough commercial success. I salute you, Mr. Lorne Hart! What little honour I can bestow through my meager blog cannot hope to do you or your beer justice! But I will try!

To be fair, I cannot say the same for Sleeman’s Brewery. While their rise to national prominence did coincide with the rise of micro-turned-national breweries like Granville and Vancouver Island, their beers still taste pretty much the same as they always did. However, this is probably because their beers were never particularly challenging. Their Silver Creek, Honey Brown, Dark Lager and the like have always been accessible. While I do enjoy them here in BC, it largely because of their drinkability, which is due in no small part to the fact that BC water makes for great beer! In Ontario, where operations are centered in Guelph, the end result can only be described as skunky! Why anyone would want to use Guelph water to make anything is beyond me! I can only guess that the many breweries in the region get it piped in from somewhere clean!

In short, the beers I once knew and loved changed and I was obviously disappointed. The sudden change was something I was at a loss to explain until two things became clear to me. One, these breweries had exploded in popularity, and two, most people don’t appreciate beers that are hoppy. It therefore seemed likely that the brew-masters had decided to make changes in order to broaden their appeal and make them more accessible to the general public. And in a country where Coors Light is the number one seller (don’t even mention the C word to me!), and major establishments can be counted on to have zero micro-brews on tap (the closest they can manage seems to be Sleeman’s), dumming down the beer must seem like the only option.

Tragic! I say this for two reasons. First of all, the rise in craft brewing was supposed to be a reversal of this growing trend of crappy beer making. While popular, Coors, Labatts’, Molson, Keiths, Budweiser and the like make beers that are of low quality, have little flavour, and generally suck when compared to craft brews that are made in small batches with attention to detail. Whereas the 20th century seemed dominated by the monopolization of the beer industry, all by a few giants who made beers that all pretty much tasted alike, the late 80’s and early 90’s saw the move away from this trend. It would suck to see this end before it even had a chance!

Second, it sucks because it seems to confirm the rule that small operations are destined to compromise on their high standards if they are to be successful, at least highly so. Their are countless breweries along the West Coast that have been around for some time and enjoyed moderate to great success without compromising on their quality, such as Rogue and Dogfish, but are they the exceptions? Or are they holdouts? Will they too sell out in order to expand, or will they live on to say “I told you so” when those who have sold out fade into the background along with the other brewing giants? When the general public once again demands something different, something with flavor? Something that isn’t bland and same as all the rest?

While it may sound snobbish or elitist of me to say so, I truly believe that when it comes to beer, accessibility is the enemy of quality. As I said before, If “inoffensive” is the nicest thing you can say about a beer, then you know something is wrong, and you can quote me on that. Please, PLEASE quote me on that!

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