Sour Beer

What's In a Name: Pitfalls and Opportunities in Beer Naming

"What's in a name?," Shakespeare asked.  "That which we call a rose - By any other name would smell as sweet."  Good point, Will.  But that's a pretty narrow view of the effect and import of names, and lately beer has been struggling with multiple identity crises.  

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet: but what happens when people start referring to a dead rat as a "rose rat"?  Or when strawberries become "rose berries" because they share a common color, resulting in the death of a number of people with strawberry allergies?

Names matter.  And in many ways, when it comes to beer, we suck at it.  The issue of sexism in beer names has been well documented, and that's not what I'm talking about.  I'm talking about how marketing has resulted in an odd winnowing of the names we use to describe beer, and how that's hurting craft beer in ways that buyers and brewers alike should be concerned about.

Beer naming allows consumers (us) to get a preview of what's in the bottle, can, or keg.  It increases the utility of our selection process and makes it more likely that we get what we're looking for.  But more and more we're seeing names that are potentially working against us and making it harder to predict what's in the glass, and it's baffling to me that brewers don't see the downside of that.  

Once upon a time, I lived in Texas and worked as a waiter.  One of my first shifts educated me on a genuinely odd and unproductive reality of many Texans: all soda was referred to as "Coke."  

"What can I get you, sir?"

"I'd love a Coke, thanks!"

I bring him a Coke.

"I wanted a Sprite."

"But you ordered a Coke..."

"Right - but a Sprite."

Without a bit more care in how we name these things - and we consumers have a part to play and a share of the blame - we're at risk of shooting ourselves in the palate and, as a kicker, constricting the beer world in which we claim to value diversity above most other things.  

A World of IPE

I'm talking about India Pale EVERYTHING.  

It's an easy and obvious target, but good Lord, it HAS to be said: is there anything that brewers won't call an "IPA" these days?  The multitude of color variations is one thing (apparently IPA now comes in White, Red, Brown, Black and even Blue - true story), and while I agree there is potentially a difference between some of these and other base styles, the distinction isn't all that apparent when you get down to the actual beers.  Any number of Brown/Black IPAs are really just American Brown Ales or Porters or Stouts.  Those names already existed, and they already included the potential for significant hop character.  Why not use them?  "Josh, this way consumers KNOW they're going to get PRONOUNCED hops!"  Do they, though?  My last three in the Brown/Black IPA (or Cascadian Dark if you roll that way) category were pretty conventional/limited in their hopping, and in fact came in dragging in terms of bittering/hop flavor compared to many current examples of other already-there styles (fittingly enough, Rogue's Shakespeare Stout is rocking about 70 IBUs and a healthy dose of flavor hops - is it a stout or a Black IPA?).  I was judging a Best of Show panel for a homebrew competition about six months ago and the BOS winner was a "Red IPA" that was far less hop-driven than many of the American Amber ales in competition.  

Then there's the Farmhouse IPAs.  The Belgian IPAs.  Rye IPAs.  New England IPAs.  Fruit, Spice, Herb IPAs. Coffee IPAs.  SESSION IPAs, for crying out loud.  IPLs.  I could go on, possibly forever.  

Brewers, not everything with hop flavor needs to be an IPA.  And by tagging EVERY hop-flavor-having beer you make with that name, you're diluting the utility of it.  I know it's a useful marketing tool that feels good, but it's bad for you in the long run, like heroin, or Sons of Anarchy after season two.

A Fine Pilsner Beer

And what the hell is happening with Pilsners?  They don't get quite as much attention, but have you noticed what's developing here?  It would seem that "Pilsner" is being used to describe basically anything that's pale in color and uses a lager yeast.  And it isn't like we don't have a good historical basis for knowing what to expect out of a Pils.

I could rip on a certain macro lager that claims to be a "Fine Pilsner Beer," but I won't - for one thing, I kind of like it as a neutral option when I'm in macro-land and the closest thing to craft is Shock Top.  But for another thing, there's far less risk of a Danny Thomas-style spit take with that.  Maybe just a shrug that it doesn't seem to be as roundly malty as a classic Czech Pils or as flinty and spare as a classic German Pils.  

No, I'm talking about Pilsners (seriously - Pilsners) that are 8% ABV.  Or barrel-aged (no kidding).  Or dry hopped (which I can get behind, but is still a little surprising).  Or black - seriously, a Black Pilsner (which was also heavily hopped, btw); what, was "Black IPL" just a bridge too far for you?

Much as most hoppy beers are now just called some-kind-of-IPA, it seems that an increasing number of lagers are just called "Pilsners," regardless of whether the name actually applies.

And don't even get me started on...

'Tis the Saison

Yeah, one of the buzziest terms now is "farmhouse" or "Saison."  Cloudy, wheaty, spicy, hoppy, all or none of the above?  SAISON!  FARMHOUSE!  RUSTIC!  I can almost understand this one, since Saisons were originally very much a local-driven beer, made with whatever was on hand, and so there was a lot of variation.  But this isn't that - this is just laziness.  It's an appeal to an image, not a reflection of brewing history.

Spicing a Saison was actually not all that common.  Farmhouse beers weren't simply rustic, they were usually wild-fermented.  And they sure as hell weren't sold as being "smooth" as a Saison from a particular wildly popular brewery is.

No, this seems much more like Golden Age thinking and nostalgia run amok, picturing the quaint brewers of rural France and Belgium - not an homage to the authentic seasonal styles of Northern Europe.

And then we have...

Sour is Sweet

Some recent writing on Sour beers has suggested that calling beers "Sours" is applying too-generic a moniker to a very diverse set of beers.  I see their point (it's in many ways the point I'm making here - too-broad a name reduces utility), but this is one area where I ultimately disagree with it.

Justin Grant, writing in the Tampa Bay Times, notes: "'Sour' is about as meaningful as 'dark.' Both terms are woefully lacking in information, and they unfairly lump dissimilar beers together, simply because they share a single, arbitrary attribute."

I think that's significantly overstating the case.  Sour isn't an "arbitrary attribute" - it's a defining feature that provides a substantial indicator of what's in the bottle. The examples of how different and diverse Sours can be are accurate, but ignore the fact that if you had to describe Berliner Weisse, Lambic, and Flanders Red the first word nearly anyone would use is "sour" or "acidic." 

Moreover if you picked up beers that aren't called Sours and tasted acid, you'd probably be very surprised, right?  And maybe a little concerned/pissed?

"Dark" as a descriptor has almost no utility. "Sour" by comparison does add utility in that it identifies a defining (and often divisive in terms of the drinkers' impressions) attribute.

Nor is "sour" in any way necessarily pejorative as some have claimed.  Sour Cream.  Sour Candy.  Sweet and Sour Chicken.  We make use of the term all over the place, because acid is one of those things that makes us sit up and take notice - potentially as a sign of contamination or spoilage.  If it's going to be there, you should probably let people know it's there on purpose.

Let's Leave My Anus Out of This

Some (including some of you) have accused me of being a bit too anally retentive when I suggest that we should be conscious of and actively use the beer-nomenclature history and tools with which we are already endowed.  To that, I say, let's leave my ass-tightness out of this.  It's not about me being a stickler - it's about how branding and naming impact craft beer as a segment.

When making ordering decisions, individuals rely on the names of the products on offer to guide their choice.  They use them to increase the probability that what they order will make them happy.  When we over-use (and even mis-use) category or style names, we undermine consumers' ability to get what they want, and as that probability function starts to yield fewer happy customers, we start to lose them.  That's bad for beer.

It's also bad because it makes it harder for bar owners and managers to put a diverse selection of taps on.  First, you're making it harder for them to know what they're getting (much like you're making it harder on consumers).  "But the reps know what the beers are and can help them!"  Yeah - sure.  We'll deal with that one another day.  Second, though, by encouraging consumers to too-broadly categorize beers you're creating "demand" for only a few things (IPAs, Saisons, Pilsners, for example) which can result in tap lists that are overcommitted to just a few flavor profiles.  Yes, there's great variety within them since EVERYTHING is getting over-grouped into these macro-categories, but now we're relying on the bar to know the differences within the macro-category to effectively put on a variety of beers, and that's an iffy proposition.

Finally, it's bad because it makes craft beer look like what it's trying to replace.  When consumers see this macro-grouping going on, and see tap lists at "craft" beer bars that are 80% IPAs, they start to think we're just like THEM (the macro breweries).  "Macro" becomes "pale lager," while "Craft" becomes "IPA."  That's not a fair assessment on either side, but I've literally heard this very statement out of the mouth of a number of friends, relatives, and neighbors.  And we're feeding it, to our own detriment.  A tap list of nearly-all IPAs isn't all that different from a tap list of all-macro-lagers.  It just makes us seem uncreative, and as though we've become what we despised - boring and repetitive.

So let's make an effort to call beers what they are.  Why throw away the diversity and variety that fueled the rise of craft beer in the first place?  When you get a brown Pilsner, or a not-at-all-bitter IPA, or a smooth "farmhouse" beer, let the brewery know that they're misrepresenting their beers.  This is a tide that can be turned, but won't unless we reward a brewery for calling an American Amber an American Amber and not a Red IPA.  

And lest anyone accuse me of hypocrisy (how does "Beer Simple" oppose general names for beer?), I'd simply note that a synonym of "simple" is "obvious" or "clear."  Overgeneralization is the enemy of clarity.  

Keep it Simple.

JJW 

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Soured: Craft Beer's Misplaced Obsession With Bugs and How to Deal With It

I like sour beer.  Hell, there are sours that I love (I'm lookin' at you, Rodenbach Grand Cru and Nodding Head Berliner). But craft beer, you've gone too far.  You're obsessed. I also happen to know that in many cases you don't even want to do it.  But you've clearly bought into the sour beer trend hard, and it's starting to irritate (I almost said "bug") me.  

This isn't, "oh, everyone loves sour beers so I need to be all post-modern and say I hate them" time.  I'm not writing this because I want to poke fun at trends to show how edgy I am (I'm not).  I'm writing it because a lot of you brewers are making these and, well, they're not good.  Your batting average on sours sucks.  Sure, some of you are great at them - but you're a very small minority.

The rest of you should probably knock it off.  It's might hurt your brewery, and it's definitely wasting your time.

In the meantime, I'd also like to talk to you drinkers about a reasonable approach to drinking sour beers.

So, a little something for everyone this week!

The Trouble with Sours

If you're a brewer these days, you probably want (and need) to stand out, for purely economic reasons if nothing else.  So you put together your lineup, and identify a "workhorse" beer that'll pay the bills while you brew your passion projects and more-interesting beers.  So why sour beers?  Because you love them, right?  Wrong.

I just got back from the National Homebrewers Conference, and the Opening Night Kickoff Party features pro brewers.  When I asked those who had a sour why they brewed it and why they brought it, not one said anything about their love of the flavors and complexities of sour beer, or the challenge of making them.  They all said some variation on "they're a way to get attention" or "because people kept asking me whether I had one."

OK, I can buy that.  Peer pressure plus marketing utility can equal a powerful incentive.  The trouble is that sours are hard beers to make.  Even if you know that, you still might mess yours up.  And once you do, are you going to dump a beer that, because of the sluggishness of Brett or the contact time needed in that barrel, took you six months to a year to make?  

I doubt it.  You might not even notice, depending on how familiar you are with sours.  And even if you do, I think you'll serve it anyway.  

Soured

The sour beer I'm drinking these days isn't good.  When sours were much more rare in the marketplace, I'd say that three out of four were definitely worth a try, and even that fourth was usually good-but-not-what-I-wanted.  

Today?  Well, I drank between 15 and 20 sours between Thursday and Friday and...one.  One was a good beer.  The mass of them were adequate, but not really something I'd want to drink a pint of (and I certainly wouldn't order them again).  Two were downright awful and got poured immediately after provoking a gag.  Now, to be fair, about half of them were home brews and half were pro brews, but as a preponderance of "quality" the homebrewed versions were better (and there was one "gagger" from each gaggle).  

Those concerns a couple of weeks ago about brewer quality?  Yeah - amplify those times ten when we're talking sour beers.

Sours are hard to make.  The microbiota are less-predictable, the process is longer, and most brewers are pairing these beers with fruit and wood and who knows what else which also increases the degree of difficulty.  

My advice?  Don't do it.  You risk turning off a large pool of prospective customers for the sake of satisfying a few beer geeks that were attracted to nothing more than the novelty of that sour.  Don't chase a dream of long lines awaiting your next bottle release of an impossibly complicated sour.

A Rudyard Kipling Moment

It's time to do a little allowance-making for their doubting, too (see the poem "If - "). 

Because the best beer I had at the conference, all week, homebrewed or not, was a sour.  A sour from Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co., to be precise.  It was a sour Saison whose German-ish name I can't remember [UPDATE: It's "Kleinevriend," and it's Dutch!] and isn't listed on their website yet, and it was incredible.  Moreover, a number of other people told me the same.

So does that mean I'm wrong, and sours are a great hook?  Does it mean that maybe the real issue here is that the flavor profile of sours is idiosyncratic and tuned to particular palates and one person's Orval is someone else's Goat Urine?  

Maybe.  But I think that it's much more likely that breweries like NCBC are just good at what they do, and so their sours are good, too.  

An Approach to Sours for Beer Drinkers

In any case, let's take a moment and consider some advice for navigating the sometimes-troubling world of sour beer.

Stick to breweries that you already know make good beer.  Don't take too many fliers on "never heard of them" breweries' sour beers, even if your super-beer-geeky friend says you "just have to try it."

Don't buy into barrel-aged sours (with some exceptions).  They're bad more often than they're good, in my experience. Barrel-aging adds a whole new universe of ways to muck up a beer that's already hard enough to make.  Your established Lambic breweries are probably worth giving the benefit of the doubt, but if it's from a new-ish place and/or is bragging about the kind of barrel (i.e., Bourbon Barrel Wild Ale), then maybe try their Berliner first.

Don't believe the style labeling.  I'm not sure that most brewers have even had the "style" of beer they're emulating.  Every Gose I drink these days is just a Berliner Weisse - it's an intensely sour pale wheat beer - or it's a salt bomb.  Neither is accurate, and while I love the idea of a Gose revival (or any endangered beer style, really) it's baffling to me why brewers bother calling them that if they're, you know, not that.  

Keep it simple (duh).  Beers that are a "soured ____________ " where that blank is some style you already might recognize are usually better than the generic "Wild" beers.  A "Soured Whatever" is probably just the base beer plus lactic acid, however derived, which is easier to get right, because it's simpler.

Trust fruit.  I'm not usually one for fruit beers, but for some reason in simple sours, it seems to work well.  Cherry Gose.  Apricot Berliner Weisse.  Mango Sour Saison.  Since fruits often impart tartness or acidity on their own, it's a natural pairing.  

Share.  If this is a bottle you own, open it with others.  These things are often good in small doses, but terrible in larger quantities.  

Experiment - but moderate your expectations.  If this is a new beer from a new brewery, don't judge them too harshly.  Give their Pilsner a try before you write them off for good.  Remember, this brewer might not even have really wanted to make that beer.

Others, I'm sure, have other strategies, but I'm confident that these won't hurt you.  Oh, and consider Tums to avoid "sour stomach."  The chewable kind seem to work well.

Moving On

Sour beer obsession might just be a fad, and I certainly hope it is.  When it passes, those who care about it will keep doing it, while those who were groupthought into it can move on to something else - and those that care are probably the ones doing it best. 

It isn't that I want sours to go away - I just want them to be better.  I don't want to keep wasting $6 to $36 for a pint or bottle of a bad beer that took years to make.  Dare to dream?

I've heard that Craft Lagers will be the next big thing.

Now there's something to dream about...

Keep it simple.

JJW

 Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).