The Tension Between Art and Commerce

Charlie Papazian has a very insightful (if slightly scattered) post up today about the trajectory of German brewing. He set the stage yesterday with a post alluding to the huge changes both in the drinking culture and beer of Germany:
There are many reasons for this. The competitive nature of the beer business is purely based on price, forcing many to call it quits. Large breweries buy out small breweries to eliminate competition and international global brewers buy out large breweries to do the same.... The variety and wonderful nuances of different brands of pilseners, Helles lager, dark beers, wheat beers, etc. in Germany are disappearing.
In the first post he fingers consolidation, but of course, consolidation is nothing new; it is a trend dating back at least decades and perhaps centuries. In today's post, he points to a more disturbing phenomenon--one that goes to the heart of what makes a good beer country good.
There is one technical theme I have noticed throughout the decades. Innovations and new techniques are borne of the need to control the character of beer.

Here’s where my perception may get a bit controversial. The basis of brewing science is being able to identify beer character; flavor, aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, etc. It seems that the majority of scientific papers about beer focus on first identifying a character and then technology is further pursued to eliminate or reduce that character.

It’s the identifiable characters in beer that differentiate beers from one another. These characters lend personality and flavor and aromas of interest – but the most delicious and interesting are often not very stable. If a character in flavorful beer is not stable, then for mass beer producing brewers it’s not a good thing. For them consistency in character is king. If a beer changes on the shelves or while in the distribution system, well then, you can’t advertise its character. Why? Because it changes....

That is why whole or natural forms of hops are often not used in these kinds of beers. Hops of different varieties lend character nuances that are not as stable as beers that have been formulated with hop extract, which has no flavor or aroma character, just bitterness.

I have said since I started blogging that we are living in a golden age of brewing. Our brewers are now world-class. They have the luxury of appealing to a large customer base willing to try their new experiments--and this encourages further innovation and improvisation. Charlie is describing the death-spiral that happens when this trend reverses itself. Customers don't care about or understand good beer; they just want something cheap and predictable. Breweries can no longer appeal on the basis of quality or flavor, just cost, meaning only the biggest, most-efficient breweries survive.

Nothing lasts forever, and in 50 years, Oregon may no longer be Beervana. We might have just a handful of large breweries (or two, or one, or none) brewing a handful of boring styles (or two, or one, or none). It's a good reminder as we head into day two of Craft Beer Month. Sometimes we grow complacent about our bounty, but let Germany be a reminder: this really is one of the beeriest place on earth.