While there is plenty of debate around what craft beer is, the craft beer movement has often defined itself by what it is not. Craft beer is not like the Other beers – bland lagers, brewed with adjuncts and produced en-masse by faceless corporations in unknown locations.
Many craft brewers brand themselves as ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’ in opposition to these Other beers and the corporations who own them. Such terms have proven useful marketing material for the likes of BrewDog, Rogue and other craft brewers to differentiate craft beer, but this has also caused misconceptions about who and what the enemies of craft beer really are.
Adjuncts are not the enemy
The Other (not craft) beers often use adjuncts like rice and corn rather than malt, and craft brewers often take exception to their use, categorising these as cheap substitute ingredients in place of malt. However, there are exceptions to this claim too.
Two Brothers’ Kung Foo Rice Lager and Willie the Boatman’s ‘Albo corn ale beer‘ are two examples of Australian brewers who have highlighted the adjuncts used in their beers. But perhaps the best example I’ve tasted of malt substitutes being used effectively is from US gypsy brewer Stillwater. His use of rice and corn they use in the ironically named ‘Premium’ produces the typically thin body, which allows the flavours from the funky Belgian and Brett yeasts to shine through to great effect.
This is where I have an issue with the Reinheitsgebot, which was so talked about with its 500th anniversary. These German beer purity laws are often lauded for upholding beer quality (whether that is the true reason or not), but by restricting what ingredients can be used in beer, the laws also serve to homogenise beer, which goes entirely against craft beer’s spirit of creativity and experimentation.
Hop extracts are not the enemy?
The Other beers often use hop extract rather than real hop flowers or pellets, which again is seen as a cheap substitute. And again it’s a little more complicated than that.
Traditional Belgian strong ales are some of the most revered beers by the craft beer community, strong and flavoursome beers from the likes of Westvleteren and St Bernardus always rank near the top of the lists on beer review sites. And yet these brewers are also known to use hop extract rather than hop flowers.
In Australia, NZ brewer Garage Project showcased Mecha Hop at GABS 2014, a beer which ironically highlighted its industrial process and use of hop extracts. While hop importers Hopco recently called for craft brewers to open their minds to the idea of brewing with hop extracts.
Lagers are not the enemy
The beers that dominate the mainstream beer landscape are almost all pale lagers and the term ‘lager’ has suffered in reputation as a result. But of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with lagers – a lager is simply a beer brewed with a top fermenting lager yeast revered for its ability to produce a clean taste.
Craft brewers have long favoured ales, but some lagers are now making a name in craft beer too. A number of Australian craft brewers produce excellent quality lagers that take advantage of the desirable attributes of a lager without sacrificing on aroma and flavour.
Temple’s Powerstance Pilsner and Hawker’s Pilsner are excellent Aussie examples of tasty craft lagers. Building on this classic European style, the beers possess grassy aromas and a firm spicy bitter finish.
While the term ‘lager’ evokes images of pale lagers, the lager yeast can also be effective with darker malts too. Dainton’s Samurye Lager uses rye malt to give the beer some intriguing spice, while Burleigh Brewing’s Black Giraffe black coffee lager is an old craft favourite with plenty of taste.
There’s no right way to brew a beer, there are many
Craft brewers have demonised some of the methods of the large-scale beer companies producing beer, in order to differentiate and justify the premium prices of their beers. As you can see from the examples above however, there are many shades of grey around what constitutes good and bad beer.
By pushing black-and-white claims that adjuncts are bad or hop extracts are bad, craft brewers make themselves liable to be seen as liars and hypocrites.
It’s time for the industry to worry less about right and wrong ways to brew beers because for me craft beer is about pushing beyond the boundaries – not simply shifting them.
Whether a beer is a lager, follows German purity laws or includes corn, rice, or hop extract, the important questions are – is it good? Is it interesting? Is it a taste experience that’s worth paying for? If the answers are yes, the purity of what’s in it will matter a whole lot less.