18 September 2017
Who Changed? You or Your Beer?
It happens every year. Your favourite seasonal release is eagerly awaited and talked about with rising anticipation on social media. Maybe you plan a special trip to the brewery or anxiously scan their website or your LCBO app for the moment it appears in stock. Your glee at its eminent return is finally met with fruition on release day when you acquire and then prepare for a return to the glory of yesteryear. Pouring carefully so as not to spill a drop, your happiness grows and you take your first sniff and sip...and are left pondering what your purpose in life was and what the hell did they do to my beer.
"It's not the same"
"They changed the recipe"
"It used to be so Juicy/dank (or whatever)"
The beer nerd in me sometimes agrees and we look to the brewer for answers. Did they change something about the recipe? Cut corners on costs or perhaps it was the new equipment/staff? We want accountability and ask these questions privately and often very publicly. When you anticipate something for so long and then it doesn't measure up, you are disappointed writ large. I get messages from friends all the time about how this or that beer has changed. I experienced it myself with the year to year release of Mill Street Brewing's Vanilla Porter, finding it falling from my favourite beer in 2015 to a watered down mess in 2017. But did it really change or is there a more plausible explanation. While Labatt's acquisition of that particular brand had me walking past them on principle, they didn't suddenly forget how to brew great beer just because they now answer to the lizard people of macro beer and pseudo craft.
Did Great Lakes change the hop bill of Lake Effect or Karma Citra? Unlikely, in fact if you ask them, they'll tell you it's the same beer, year after year, Mike Lackey doesn't skimp when it comes to quality and you can see every time you crack open a GLB product. This is true for the majority of our Ontario Craft Brewers and their commitment to making good beer. I am not naïve enough to think that it never happens, but I think the reason we are seeing more people questioning their beer is much more personal.
Maybe we are the ones who've changed.
There is little doubt in my mind that my palate has grown. My ability to perceive flavours I didn't know existed 3 years ago continues to amaze me and when I talk about beer with my pals, we are getting deeper into it every time. Is it possible that as we grow and change as beer drinkers, our perceptions of past releases is tinted with rose coloured glasses. My first foray into IPAs left me hating them, all pine tree bitter and nothing else was what I got out of it. But for the sake of Untappd and logging new beers I kept at it, pour after pour. Slowly I began to perceive the citrus notes, the complex relationship between the malt body and the hops used. Did they suddenly make Headstock better or did I understand what was in my glass because I had worked to train myself to? There is truth to learning flavours, I grew up with a pretty boring approach to food and drink, simple was best and I didn't venture far from the cores of middle class meat and potatoes, so to speak. As I've grown older, I have tried to open up to new culinary experiences and with beer it has been even more dramatic. Where before we would look to a sixer as a way to escape reality, we now turn to our fridge for flavour, texture and an experience to transport our taste buds to a magical place. We want our beer to be special, unique and offering us a chance to transcend from the everyday. But from your first stout to the 15 % Bourbon barrel aged bombers you'll find as the snow flies, you have changed and that has to be part of the conversation.
For me with Mill Street in 2015, the Vanilla Porter just clicked one day. It went from being a bitter coffee to a smooth dessert in a glass. I bought it every week and lamented its disappearance as the spring came around. My pursuit of great beer continued and when the next year headed for its last few months, I couldn't wait to get my favourite beer back. Spying it on the shelf, I bought a few and headed home with great joy. Turns out it was short lived and I was left with a bad taste in my mouth and a beer that I felt let me down, Truth was I had learned so much about myself through my beer in the year that despite my memory, it was the same beer but I could perceive it differently now. The growth of our own ability to pick out flavours and textures has to be part of what we discuss when we talk about the changing nature of any beer. The influx of new and very creative craft beer makers has challenged our long held notions of what is normal and we are confronted with things we couldn't have imagined not so long ago.
This isn't to say that variations and changes don't happen. There have been instances when I have had a beer that doesn't measure up and I always check with the brewery privately to see what's up. Most will be straightforward, a conversation is always better than a confrontation in my books and they are still a business trying to sell beer and grow their market share. So it doesn't do them any good to put out substandard beer or treat an inquiry with disdain. Do some of them do those two things? Sure, but they don't last long and the quality of your product and the way you treat your consumers flies along the craft beer pipeline really quick. Certain brewers are avoided just because their attention to detail or lack thereof is well known and time will bear out the pretenders.
I try to approach every beer with an open mind. I want to understand what the brewer is doing and if they are on point with the style they have chosen. My memory of a beer is often tinted with the happiness of the first time I had it because it was so new. That IPA you gushed about last year led you to try so many more and now you have a better grasp on what to expect. Maybe when you had it this year, it was still a great beer, but the wow factor was gone. Your personal growth didn't change the beer but it did change how you perceived it. I am living proof that we can and do become when we are more attuned to what's in our beer. Going from only perceiving the outside to digging deep and learning what true flavour is there.
First love is always bittersweet, be it human or beer. So take a moment and look inward to see what has changed about yourself in the last year and then go deeper into the beer. A true examination requires you to be honest and understand what the pursuit of the perfect pint has brought into your life. You know more than you think you do and that knowledge has given you insight you didn't know you had. And as always, remember that it's just beer...try and enjoy it while it lasts!
Raise your glass and your standards
One Beer at a time!