The Four Stages of Beer Evolution

There's an interesting discussion happening on the Trappist ales thread about American brewing evolution. Last night, Sally and I took a late-evening walk (mainly to beat the heat) and we got into this topic. I had a wee bit of a conceptual breakthrough I'd like to share. Let's start by setting up the question. In comments, Joe asks:
Let me pose a question: Would you like Deschutes to shelve Abyss for a year in order to properly pursue a barrel aged Belgian, or would you want to buy an Abyss alongside the best Belgium has to offer?
Let's back up a bit, because Abyss didn't emerge out of ... well, and abyss. It was the two-decade culmination of brewing evolution in Bend. To me, this is what that evolution looked like:

Stage One - Learning to Brew
Americans really didn't know what they were doing in the 80s. The breweries that got started weren't trying to compete with Fuller's and Guinness, they were trying to make decent beers. Almost exclusively, early breweries worked on English-style ales, because they were easiest and cheapest to brew. As beer drinkers, the standard we held breweries to in that era were "is this foul or not?" (Keep in mind that most of the brewers working in the micro industry then had never brewed professionally.) Among those beers that were not foul (certainly more than half, but something less than 100%), we began to find our palates and learn about styles. For the most part, breweries on the West Coast don't begin at stage one anymore--the apprenticeships that exist within established breweries produce brewers of skill and accomplishment.

Stage Two - Consistency
The second stage of brewing is being able to produce a line of consistent beers that meet the consumer's expectations and standards. These are beers brewed in recognizeable styles, or those that emerge out of consumer demand (Pyramid Apricot Ale, for example). There's nothing flashy about these beers, but they are respectable, enjoyable, and marketable. A good example is MacTarnahan's. Except for a few beers Brett Porter brewed in the late 90s, nothing coming out of this brewery set the world on fire. Redhook and Pyramid are other examples, as well as a host of brewpubs (the McMenamins are a case in point).

Stage Three - Mastery
Some of the breweries aren't satisfied with hitting solid Bs on their report cards. They strive to make beers that are in the argument for the style's best. Deschutes and Pelican are great examples. Deschutes' landmark beers are very traditional ales, but they're made at a level that elevates them above the less characterful lines of Redhook, for example. You don't necessarily shake your head in amazement when you tipple a Black Butte, but you do often smack your lips admiringly--it's just hard to find a tastier porter on the market. According to the Brewers Guild, there are roughly 90 breweries in Oregon, and just eyeballing it from memory, I'd say 20 have achieved mastery. The West Coast, due to the robust market here, has drinkers who support exceptional breweries and so we are over-represented in the country's slate of masterful breweries.

Stage Four - Evolution
The breweries that achieve mastery may begin to fiddle. They take what they've learned and alter an ingredient or change a method. They improvise and see what happens. Some of the experiments work, some don't, but the breweries learn from them and ultimately they may make a beer that is sublime and wholly original. Generally this evolution arises from the root style of the brewery. That's why Deschutes, although they're screwing around with Belgian styles now (with notably far less success than they've achieved elsewhere), have produced a few of these original beers. Deschutes has made probably 20 high-gravity special ales (Jubel 2000, Double Bale Quail, etc.) before they hit on a winner like Abyss. It is not a radical departure from a traditional imperial stout, but it's headed that way. What will emerge as the Abyss's grandchildren a decade from now? The success of Abyss is suggestive that evolution is under way at Deschutes. In some of the brewpubs around town, and in breweries across the country, styles are fraying at the ends as Americans innovate and dazzle. The fish are starting to leave the sea, but we don't know what the primates will look like in 50 years.

(One caveat here: I'd say evolution must follow mastery. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes, but breweries that don't understand what makes a masterful beer may make interesting experiments, but they're unlikely to hit upon the kind of genius that sparks an evolution in style. It's like the abstract artist who can't draw a dog. Sometimes swirls on a canvas aren't art. Sometimes a bunch of weird ingredients, a bourbon barrel, and an obscure strain of yeast just produce a weird, barrel-aged beer.)

So back to Joe's question. I would not like Deschutes to quit brewing Abyss (fat chance of that) to brew a standard Belgian. But I think this is a false choice. The beers in Deschutes regular line-up were, for the most part, available before Deschutes started brewing them. You could get a great pale, porter, stout, and bitter from England. Sure, they weren't made with NW hops, but that's hardly a variation worth mentioning. In order to achieve mastery, breweries have to stick with the extant styles. Hitting the mark on a maibock isn't easy. Mastering a maibock is even harder. The "Northwest style" beer isn't a new invention--it's a pretty faithful rendering of the English style.

However, I might like Deschutes to scrap Green Lakes, which I find uninspiring, so that they could fiddle with, say, a dubbel. If, in a decade or so, they had mastered brewing that dubbel, perhaps they would take what they know from that and combine it from what they know about brewing Bachelor Bitter and the Abyss, and wow me with something totally original.

The reason I'm so excited to see the Belgian styles come to America is because it opens up a whole new frontier of possibilities. If a brewery can brew both an exceptional English-style ale and an exceptional Belgian-style ale, it seems like a baby step to something we will be forced to call and indigenous American-style ale.