September 19, 2020

Tim Complains About Beer, Vol. 2 – When Is A Beer Not Actually A Beer?

I’m back and I’ve got a bee in my bonnet and a bug up my butt about beer that really isn’t beer.

Welcome back, dear readers, to another edition of Tim Complains About Beer. Think of this as sort of an Adam Ruins Everything, but about beer. Also, my name is Tim and not Adam. And I’m not actually funny, just grumpy. Still, you just might learn something.

What am I angry about today? Additive-laden beers.

We all have that friend who says they like coffee, but when the server fills their cup, they grab seven sugar packets and 3 things of half and half. They don’t really like coffee; they like coffee-flavored drinks. That seems to be the way a lot of consumers are drinking beer these days, only instead of Sweet & Low and creamer, it’s fruit and lactose. And, in this not-so-humble curmudgeon’s opinion, it has gone too far!

Look, I know people have been adding stuff to beer for centuries. Many traditional lambics are fermented with fruit. A Berliner Weisse is often served mit Schuss—typically a woodruff or raspberry syrup. And I’m not saying I have a problem with adding stuff to beer. I’ve made a chocolate milk stout before. I am firmly on #TeamCoffeeBeer. I’ll get down on a well-balanced shandy on a hot summer day, and one of my all-time favorite beers is a blood orange IPA. Heck, I’m even fine with beer cocktails. I also understand liking sickly sweet things. I housed an entire box of Cocoa Pebbles the past two days. I eat candy like a 4-year-old. So, yeah, I don’t think every beer needs to be dry and bitter. As I frequently say, drink what you like.

What drives me insane, however, is when I go into a bar or brewery and I can’t tell if I’m reading a beer list or a TGI Friday’s drink menu. I came to enjoy a beer, not a boozy shake! A bartender who knows I’m a brewer once handed me a sample and asked me what I thought.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Come on, Tim! You always have an opinion! Do you think that is a good beer?” He’s right, I’m not shy with the hot takes.

“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I can’t taste the beer.”

Tim Johnson | The Tailgate Society

I get that people like a lot of flavors but having 5 different milkshake IPAs and 3 pastry stouts on your menu isn’t actually variety. And when you add so many ingredients, words start to lose meaning. I once had an “IPA” brewed with lactose, fruit and wild yeast. IPA? Get outta here! Just because you double dry hopped it doesn’t mean it’s an IPA! It was also a muddy mess. I couldn’t finish it.

But it’s not just style degradation that bugs me about these beers, it’s also that at some point they cease being beer. You can call yourself a “car guy” but if I ask you what your favorite cars are and you respond, “red ones,” I don’t think you’re a car guy. If your favorite beers all taste like blueberry juice or a strawberry malt, you don’t really like beer. And that’s fine! You don’t have to like beer! But don’t expect me to take you seriously when you self-identify as a beer snob! (To be fair, I tend to not take anyone who self-identifies as a beer snob seriously.)

At some point, all these additives materially change a beer. A brewery in Indiana recently raised some feathers when their 8% beer with raspberry, blackberry, graham cracker, cinnamon and vanilla tested out to be only 2.6% ABV! They added so many things post-fermentation, they essentially turned what was a high alcohol beer into a low alcohol fruit smoothie. Still sold, at high ABV IPA prices, though. At that point, save yourself some money and make yourself a screwdriver.

All these additives don’t just dilute the beer, they can also be dangerous. Most small breweries don’t pasteurize their products, and a lot are hesitant for whatever reason to add preservatives like potassium metabisulfite to make a beer shelf stable. Beer should be kept cold, but many consumers and even some liquor stores don’t do that. At room temp, secondary fermentation can easily occur and all those added sugars can turn a beer into a ticking time bomb. I certainly wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a can when it passes its 90 psig threshold because re-fermentation raised the beer from 2.5 volumes of CO2 to 4.0.

Look, drink what you want to drink. If you want to shell out $20 for a six pack of grapefruit juice with a hint of ethanol, be my guest. But please, keep it cold and drink it fresh. Even if it doesn’t explode, oxidation can make some of these things just plain nasty.

My biggest gripe is how all these “cocktail” beers are starting to kill some really good, really clean, well-crafted styles. You know, actual beer-flavored beer. Adding a ton of cacao nibs, vanilla bean and fruit juice doesn’t tell me if you’re a good brewer. If anything, I may wonder if you’re just covering flaws. But you do you, Boo.

Drink what you like, like what you drink, be safe, and come yell at me on Twitter at @TimJohnsonMN.

Now get off my lawn!

Chaplin
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Tim Johnson 5 Articles
Staff Writer

A native Iowan, Tim has spent the better part of the last two decades in Minnesota. With degrees from the College of Design at Iowa State and the Graduate School of Management at Hamline University, he has done everything from graphic design to cognitive neuroscience research. Most recently he was Head Brewer at Badger Hill Brewing in Shakopee, MN. When not cracking wise on the internets, Tim enjoys hanging out with his daughter and experiencing the outdoors.

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