Thursday, November 16, 2006

Be skeptical of tradition.

Here's a sketch I wrote as a preview of sorts for a possible general interest beer writing gig. For me, 300-400 words is awfully succinct.


Skepticism is the best response to any suggestion of “tradition” offered to you as recommendation for a beer.

While it may be the case that tradition plays some part in the beer being touted, more often than not it has been “new and improved” so many times that original methods and intents have been lost, or at the very least extensively modified.

Furthermore, brewing tradition is far from monolithic. Exactly which tradition is being referenced? Is it Bavarian lager brewing, or English-style cask ale? The legacy of austere Trappist monks in Belgium, or the experience of a college dropout using converted dairy equipment in rural Oregon? Grandma’s sorghum beer recipe in South Africa, or an ancient Chinese homebrew?

You’ll often hear people say, “that’s good beer.” Most of the time, they’ll say this just as frequently as the beer they’re drinking at the time tastes precisely like the beer they’re accustomed to drinking all the time.

Drinkers of Miller Lite and Budweiser are seldom heard to say, “that’s good beer” when sipping Doppelbock or India Pale Ale, and yet examples of these may be quite good – for the intended style, of which there are dozens of others, each with a profile. It’s the apples and oranges analogy, writ large.

Whenever I think about James Joyce and his descriptions of drinking stout in early 20th-century Dublin, I can’t square it with Guinness as I’ve known it my entire adult life, even if Guinness has been very, very good to me.

That’s because stout in the writer’s day wasn’t served by the familiar nitrogen system that came into being only later, after the war, and was designed to mimic the characteristics of cask-conditioned (naturally carbonated) ale while offering predictability (and greater profit) to the presiding publican.

It’s very likely that the stout being served at a Grafton Street public house in 1900 had a slightly sour or even funky edge to it, and lest you jump to the conclusion that this is a bad quality, consider that it aptly complements the sharp contour of heavily roasted, unmalted barley – a prime source of classic Irish stout’s dry palate. It also would have added fetching additional flavor components, and might have made dry stout an even better match for oysters than it is today.

Of course, a shot or six of “the grain” and all notions of tradition become academic, just as they did for the regulars staggering back across the Liffey a century or more ago.

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