Dogmatic Brewing (or, What Rudyard Kipling Can Teach Us About Beer)

Dogma (n.): a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted. 

That’s the Merriam-Webster definition of “dogma,” and I never realized how much we run into this as brewers – until I started offering brewing advice to brewers.  We're a pretty dogmatic bunch, it turns out.  Which sucks, because "Dogmatic Brewing" sounds like a pretty cool name for a brewery...

Since I started writing Beer Simple, I’ve offered in the Brewing posts a number of recommendations, suggestions, and commentaries on brewing.  Not that I expect that every one is a gem that needs to be adopted - far from it, in fact.  Brew your own way.  I heartily and happily acknowledge that I'm not a biologist, chemist, professional brewer, or metallurgist.  I like to think I'm just the friendly neighbor, chatting over the fence.  "Say, Bob, you ever think about putting that sprinkler on a timer?  Works well for me."  Like that.

But often, the response isn't just that someone isn't interested in the advice (which is perfectly fine, of course - your beer, your rules!).  It's that what I'm saying simply can't be right.  But why not?  Shouldn't the proof be in the Pilsner, so to speak?

DOGMATIC BREWING

I’m sure it’s not just me that runs into this stuff.  We all do, don’t we?  When talking methods, or ingredients, or tools and tips and tricks?  Every brewer has their process and their habits, and even though someone tells you that it isn’t strictly necessary to turn around three times and spit before adding your flameout hops, you just always have done it, so you don’t necessarily want to change.

I get that.  That’s fine.  We’re all a little idiosyncratic that way – otherwise, we’d have a more “normal” hobby.

But even though we all have our own process, I’m certainly not hostile to those who suggest that there’s a better way.  I might decline to adopt their idea, but I’m not going to aggressively deny its validity.  And yet that seems to happen frequently, when I share something from my brewing process.  Not just that they prefer not to change – but that I’m wrong for even suggesting it.  To take a recent example (my OneStep addiction), you’d think based on a lot of the comments made that I’m running a mineral-caked shitpile of a brewery that produces nothing but rancid and infected beers since – as we all know – it’s IMPOSSIBLE  for a product to clean and sanitize.  And yet there’s my equipment: no more calcified than anyone’s.  And there’s my beer: hundreds of batches without a single infection.  We "all know" it can't work.  But it does.  That's a contradiction we need to reconcile. 

That’s the issue, really: that “we all know it” mentality.  Remember in Men in Black when Tommy Lee Jones’ character talks like that?  He mentions lots of mistaken beliefs from our past that we all just "knew" to be accurate, and then asks, “I wonder what we’ll know tomorrow.”  I've always liked that.  It reminds us that we should be critical of our stereotypes – that persistence or pervasiveness of a belief shouldn’t be sufficient to justify that belief.  Empirical verification should be our goal.  That truth isn't arrived at by majority vote.

So why the resistance to new or heterodox or unusual ideas when there’s support for their validity?  Answer: we’re prone to dogmatism.  And we shouldn’t be.  It’s a very bad habit to get into, and it’s limiting us as a homebrewing community.  As Winston said, “To improve is to change – to perfect is to change often.”  I’m always happy to hear brewing advice.  If I think it’ll make my brewing day shorter, easier, or better, I’ll give it a try. 

ACORNS AND LIONS

And I’m not talking about adding things to the process.  That’s getting us into a whole level of cause-and-effect that I’m not set up to test for (but please go see the good work over at Brulosophy!).  No, I’m talking about taking away – getting the leanest, neatest, SIMPLEST, most-parsimonious brewing process I can.  If I tell you that adding hops in five additions is the only way to get great hop aroma, then I understand if you doubt me – after all, maybe it’s only one of those five that really creates that great hop aroma.  But if someone tells you that they only ever add hops in the whirlpool, and that their beers win GABF medals for hop-forward styles, then you might consider taking that under advisement. 

It’s like the old story about the Englishman who scattered acorns everywhere he went.  When asked why he did it, he informed his questioners that it was “to keep the lions away.”  “You fool,” they said, “there aren’t any lions in the whole of the British Isles.”  “GOOD GOD,” the man yelled, “it works even better than I thought!”  So I understand skepticism if, for example, I tell you that I add a quarter teaspoon of baking soda to dark beer mashes to improve the roundness of my malt flavors – maybe they’d be nice and round without it .

But if I tell you (as I did) that you can use OneStep alone to clean and sanitize without fear of infection, the only reasons to doubt me would be if: a) I’ve only brewed a few beers, some of which got infected, or b) I live in a bacteria- and wild-yeast-free house.  If neither of those things are true (they’re not), then aggressive denial of the factual basis of my claim seems to be unwarranted.  But that’s just what happened: in at least a dozen places, I was told that what I was suggesting simply couldn’t work.

But it has.  Or I’m a pathological liar. 

I’m not, though.  I’m not advocating the spreading of acorns.  Addition by subtraction – finding out what practices may not be essential or unavoidable, through multiple assessments of repeated trials – is incredibly valuable, but we throw that away when we reject advice on principle rather than on merit.  Don’t be that guy.  Or rather, don’t be this guy…

MR. BEER’S ESTABLISHED ELDER

You all remember my friend Mr. Beer, right?  Turns out he has at least one friend who’s something of a bigwig in the brewing industry.

I was already planning on writing about brewing dogma this week anyway, but then something so perfectly-timed happened that I couldn't believe it: I was accosted this week by someone who was straight up offended by my questioning of brewing dogma (FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW!  You’ll want to read this one, trust me).  I was perusing my mostly-beer-and-politics Facebook feed and doing the usual commenting, liking, and sharing that that entails. 

I ran across a comment that wondered why beer enthusiasts don’t seem to be all that enthused about lagers (at least according to the Ratebeer rankings).  One of the respondents thought that it might be because Ratebeer users prefer intense beers which, “by and large, lagers aren’t.”  As someone who brews a lot of lagers, that caught my eye.  Sure, there are lots of light-ish and boring-ish lagers, especially as a percentage of beers on offer in the marketplace, but I wasn’t convinced that it was lagers per se that lacked intensity, but rather the kinds of lagers that tended to be brewed.  So, in the spirit of social media, I made what I thought was a conversational observation.

I said I wasn’t sure about the idea that lagers are just inherently not-intense.  Maybe it’s just that there are fewer lager styles, and thus a smaller proportion that tend to be “intense” - but maybe the same proportion of lager styles fall into the "intense" category as Ale styles.  And after all, with the possible exception of some Belgian styles, it isn't the yeast family per se that makes a beer intense - it's ABV, IBUs, etc.  Sure, you get Imperial IPA and huge stouts in Ales, but we Lager folk have Baltic Porter and Eisbock, and some others that could be considered “intense,” and since they’re part of a smaller subset…

You’d have thought I questioned the notion that the Earth orbits the sun.  What followed was an impressive display of dogmatic reasoning.  No evidence, no empirical support – just the repeated assertion by this person that everyone knows that lagers aren’t intense, and a litany of ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority, and other logical fallacies.  First there was name dropping of this individual’s relationship to a Prestigious Brewing Institution.  Then it was reference to his/her frequent judging visits to a Prestigious Brewing Competition.  Then it was that I was clearly the only person who believed my claptrap.  But here’s the thing: at no time did this individual actually provide any support for his/her position.  And I wasn’t even saying that I was right – just that I wasn’t sure, and maybe there was something to investigate.  But that was enough to have my sanity, sincerity, intelligence, unrelated professional acumen, and beer knowledge not just questioned, but outright ridiculed.

This was someone who should know better.  As he/she repeatedly referenced, this was someone who contributes to a prestigious brewing institution, is a professional brewer, and judges at prestigious brewing competitions.  How dare I, someone of no beer standing, question something that “every brewing scientist and a majority of beer bloggers knows.”  On the strength of what evidence did “all beer scientists” know this?  None, none whatsoever.  In fact, this person refused to even engage on the limited evidence that I offered.

And let’s not forget: I wasn’t staking out a position here.  I was just suggesting that there might be something worth considering.  But for doing so, I was a target for ridicule, passive aggression, and belittlement. 

In other words: classic alehole behavior.

A PLEA FOR REASON

And so, I ask this – and not for my sake, but for others and your own, and I hope it doesn't sound too preachy:

Don’t be that person.  Don’t be dogmatic.  Look for evidence, and empirical support, and opportunities to learn and evolve. 

Don’t swallow every single suggestion or recommendation you hear (because God knows there's a lot of bad advice out there), but don’t be hostile to people and their ideas, either.  As the poem says, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming you for it, then you can trust yourself when all others doubt you."  True - you can trust yourself.  You're a competent brewer.  However, Mr. Kipling warns us in the very next line: "BUT MAKE ALLOWANCE FOR THEIR DOUBTING, TOO.”

In other words, embrace the openness that brought you into craft beer and homebrewing in the first place.  Be willing to be wrong, and to be right if you think that others are wrong. 

Be kind.  Be considerate.  Be the kind of people other people think beer people are.

If we aren’t, then we’re driving new beer people away and undermining our own brewing success.  It’s just not worth it.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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APPENDIX A: Social Media Incident transcript; emphasis is mine.  Names/identifying items have been changed to protect the innocent, but otherwise this appears exactly as it played out in public.

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Original Poster I asked (the hive mind) the other day: What's up with lagers? Why don't beer enthusiasts like them? Is it technical? Are ales simply more amenable to fiddling? Lager brewing not as flexible in terms of creativity as ale brewing?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Original Poster nobody answered because nobody knows smile emoticon As Another Beer Guy says its a self selecting group active on a site because they are attracted to extreme intense beers. Which, by and large, lagers aren't. Last weekend I visited a place packed with the young, affluent, employed, college educated demographic, and they were pounding 24oz Bud Light cans which represented the best value for money at that time. The place had sold the draft lines to the highest bidder so the choice was bad. Both groups represent the beer industry. One of them is just getting on and enjoying their lives however, while the other is sitting at their computers worried they're missing out on collecting something. It was beanie babies before.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT - I'm not sure i grant the premise that ales are somehow inherently more intense/extreme than lagers. Yes, you have RIS and DIPA, but lagers have Baltic Porter and Eisbock. If you did a style-for-style comparison between ales and lagers, you might find a greater proportion of intense flavor profiles in lagers than ales, if only owing to the relatively smaller number of lagers...

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) I actually wrote "which, by and large, lagers aren't... Nobody reads anymore. I did just read what you wrote a few times, and here at the  Prestigous Brewing Institution  we won't be changing our curriculum to reflect your views.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT How did what I write suggest I didn't read? There are extreme/intense ales and lagers. They're defined by style/recipe. If there are 4/16 styles of lagers that are intense, and 8/60 styles of ales that are intense, then the "by and large" characterization isn't valid. I'm not saying those numbers are accurate - just that it's worth considering. It seems that you're basing the position on a prevailing view of lagers, not necessarily their defined characteristics.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Also, not for nothing, but who asked you to change the PRESTIGOUS BREWING INSTITUTION curriculum based on a FB comment? Is that something you'd ever even entertain?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) I'll bear that advice in mind when judging the Prestigious Brewing Competition in May.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT is there a reason you're credentialing all over the place?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) You took issue with a simple statement about a commonly known fact, and proposed an alternative view that defies conventional wisdom. Its not particularly relevant to the discussion. Your position that lagers are statistically more likely to be more flavorful than ales is one you alone hold I believe.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT I took issue with calling it a fact, yes. And I recognize that my response defies conventional wisdom (but so what?). And if part of the conversation is about the attractiveness of intense beers, then it's certainly relevant.  I'm an academic. We're encouraged to question assumptions rather than assume they're correct, consider context, and look for empirical verification of claims. As I thought about it, the claim that lagers "by and large" aren't intense seemed like an assumption, not a conclusion - as you say, it's "conventional wisdom," but in my business that's not really evidence of fact, it's evidence of potential bias.  And it wasn't my "position" - it was just something I thought merited a thought or basic investigation. Following up as you did, name-dropping PRESTIGOUS BREWING INSTITUTION and Prestigous Brewing Competition and implying I'm some kind of beer rube, was fairly high-handed, dismissive, and rude.

It doesn't matter what my credentials are - what was gained by taking that attitude? If I was just someone with a passing interest in beer, wouldn't it be better to politely correct me? Because if this was one of my earliest interactions with a beer professional, then I'd take a pretty dim view of them - which, by and large, and according to conventional wisdom, has them being a pretty friendly and easygoing group. Thanks for providing a counterpoint.

At any rate, in the 2008 BJCP guidelines there are 40 Ale styles, 19 Lager styles, and the rest are either hybrids or specialties that might use anything. Of the 19 lager categories, I'd say there are 4 that could be called "intense" (numbers to save space; 5C, 5D, 12C, 22A). That's ~21%. Of the 40 Ale styles, I have 11 (13D, 13E, 13F, 14C, 18C, 18D, 18E, 19A, 19B, 19C, 9E). That's ~28%. Obviously there's an element of subjectivity in this - it'd be better to have some objective standards, but this is just a rough-and-dirty look. So, more likely by style, but not overwhelmingly so. And of course there's nothing stopping you from making an extreme beer with a lager yeast that defies style descriptions, which a lot of them do these days.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Publish a paper on your assertions. I'm sure there are any number of peer reviewed brewing publications falling over themselves to present your research. Or write a review onratebeer.com. Your opinion is equally as valid.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) I'm curious - do you always approach conversations this way? It seems very counterproductive. To my knowledge I've never insulted you, hit on your significant other, or stolen money from you.  At the risk of repeating myself, it's not a position or an assertion, it's an observation and a question. I've offered an observation and some basic data to support it. It's my understanding that that's what often happens in a public and social forum.  I don't see how elitism and sarcasm are relevant to the discussion.

 BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT I refer you to my previous comment

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT "I'm not sure i grant the premise that ales are somehow inherently more intense/extreme than lagers." Grant the premise that every brewing scientist and the majority of beer bloggers know to be the case?

 Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) EVERY brewing scientist "knows" it? I'd love the supporting reference. But in the meantime, please tell me why yeast strain alone equals more-intense beer across dozens of beer styles, fermentation profiles/practices, and recipe formulations.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) Now you're getting the hang of it. A spirited intellectual debate with nuanced insults. American community college debates not quite at the Oxford level I take it.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Now you're changing the subject

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Stick to the original statement you took issue with.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Would it help it I put smiley faces on the end of all my posts smile emoticon

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) How is that changing the subject? The original statement was: "...attracted to extreme intense beers. Which, by and large, lagers aren't." My response was that I wasn't sure that was correct, since there are numerous lagers that ARE intense, and that suggesting that they're less likely than ales to be so might be worth considering. I subsequently proposed that this was a statistical artifact that's a result of there being relatively fewer lagers than ales.  You're making the argument that lagers, on average, are not intense (presumably compared to ales). So what we're talking about is whether lager yeasts and their standard fermentation lead to less-intense beer. Why would that be the case, when what makes a beer "intense" is rarely the yeast alone? And if it's that lager styles are, on average, not intense, then I'd refer you to that quick breakdown/evaluation - not that it's the only one, or that it's definitive or unassailable, but that it at least suggests that the question is a valid one.  And I'm not a child - I don't need smiley faces. I'm just confused by the passive-aggression. It seems out of place in my experience with brewers and craft beer people, and doesn't seem to add anything to the discussion. I'm not over here touting credentials or making appeals to authority - I'm just talking about beer and evaluations of it, and what might account for the ratings bias in favor of DIPAs and other intense beers.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) by speculating about facts that all brewers know?

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) How can you claim it's a fact? You haven't cited a single piece of evidence, and haven't responded to the only data on the page. Moreover, what's even the logical argument for it? As I said, I'm not staking out a position - but I'm also not impressed by a statement that "everyone" knows it, and that that's the same as evidence or theory.   If I take a 100 IBU beer with a potential ABV of 11% and ferment it with a lager yeast, is it intense? And if not, what magic does the ale yeast impart?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT What does that have to do with what I was talking about? You're getting desperate my friend. My original statement stands. When your college adds a brewing class I sincerely hope there's someone else there to teach it.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) Not at all desperate. Either ales are more intense because of the yeast, or they're more intense because of style parameters for beers that typically use ale yeasts. You've offered no support for either statement. And again, why the snarky comment? I haven't made a single claim to being any kind of beer expert. We actually do have a brewing course - it's taught by a chemistry professor. Not my field.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Evidently

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) Ok. Well, if you're unwilling to do anything more than be snide and dismissive, I guess I'm done. Really wish you'd have been willing to actually support your position - and that this isn't reflective of what you teach other brewers. If I'm questioned by my students I give them the theoretical explanation, empirical evidence, and supporting references. That way they see that I can defend my statements, and that I'm not peddling opinions dressed up as fact.  Good luck to you.

END TRANSCRIPT