Don’t let me be misunderstood.
I’m not calling out Food & Dining magazine, which pays me to write beer columns, or Jay Forman, who contributed a humor column to the "Summer, 2006" edition of the consistently excellent magazine.
At the same time, you are advised to bear in mind that neither contrarians nor curmudgeons voluntarily eschew the delicate art of the quibble.
The writer Forman’s column isn’t archived on-line, but it’s a genuinely funny rumination about simplicity of taste versus the multiplicity of choices in food and drink.
The author first suffers an anxiety attack trying to distinguish between the many types of honey on display at a natural foods mega-store, then extends his “when does experimentation and the mixing of genres become too much?” analogy to chocolate bars and beer before tackling perceptions of exhibitionism in fusion cuisine.
On the topic of beer, Forman writes:
All this harkens back to the onset of the microbrew craze in the mid-90s. Back then there was an explosion of new beers, some containing extremely wrong ingredients like oatmeal and pumpkin. I applaud that whole movement … but for every new beer flavor that scored, about 20 or so shanked wide right and tumbled ingloriously into the cheap seats of food history.
According to whom?
The problem here is that for the sake of an ephemeral chuckle, historical perspective is being sacrificed – and inaccuracies like that tend to bother me. In this instance, we’re left with the impression that the use of oatmeal and pumpkins in beer represents a disturbing New Age bastardization of tradition.
It took me less than five minutes on the Internet to find ample refutation for this thesis.
The colonists used pumpkin not only as a side dish and dessert, but also in soups and even made beer of it.
From Beer Advocate:
For instance, a particular sub-style of the stout genre, which doesn't get the respect it deserves, is the Oatmeal Stout. Its history dates back to the mid- to late 1800s, with the discovery that adding oats to beer made it healthier.
Verily, it would appear that the use of oatmeal and pumpkins in beer did not originate during the Clinton Administration, but rather are indicative of an often utilitarian but admittedly sometimes frivolous creativity that nonetheless has been extant since beer was first brewed in ancient times.
What about other contemporary examples of adding unconventional ingredients to beer?
Coriander and orange peel in Belgian Wit?
Sorry, that pre-hopping practice extends back to the spiced “gruit” ales of the Middle Ages.
Smoked chipotle peppers?
Here’s what Rogue has to say about its delicious Chipotle Ale:
Dedicated to Spanish author Juan de la Cueva, who, in 1575, wrote of a Mexican dish that combined seedless chipotles with beer: Chipotle Ale is based on Rogue's Oregon Golden Ale, but delicately spiced with smoked chipotle chile peppers.
Sounds like a relevant culinary antecedent to me.
Don’t worry; I’m not about to defend the practice of adding bananas, passion fruit and entire sugar plantations to traditional Belgian lambic. In a similar vein, there certainly have been examples of the experimental genre that have failed in the fashion cited by Jay Forman in his article.
Once at the Great American Beer Festival, I tasted a beer called Anthracite Porter. They wouldn’t admit to using real coal in it, although it certainly tasted that way.
However, in the end, the history of fermentation is all about innovation, from well before the time when hops were used to balance the sweet malt, and up to the current age, when coffee, chamomile and cayenne might each be deployed to create new flavor sensations.
Don’t forget the Curmudgeon’s Axiom: It’s a permanent revolution, and it you’ve found the one beer you like … it’s time to start over.