A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

A couple of weeks back, Widmer's annual "W"-series release hit the supermarket shelves. The beer is a slightly refurbished version of an old Gasthaus fave, KGB imperial stout. This one is at once bigger (a hefty 9.3%) and smoother, employing dark wheat malt. Amid this unexpected tsunami of new beers, I hadn't had a chance to try it, but my friends had. These are a couple of guys who enjoy good beer but aren't afflicted with terminal beer geek disease. In an unprecedented move, they started raving about it on the email. (Politics and current events are the usual topics.) They never talk about beer.

As a contrasting view, I checked in with BeerAdvocate to see if it was unanimous acclamation, and was a little surprised to find a tepid B coming from the 24 reviews. And some of the reviews are just scathing:
"What a joke. It looks like an Imperial Stout that was severely watered down, probably a one part stout, two parts water ratio."


"Moiuthfeel is very thin, to thin, it is about as thick as a lager really, a bit of carb, but leaves a very dryness afterwards. Overall, I really hope this is just a dumb'd down for the masses version of from what I heard was a great beer."
I had a pour of this at the Collaborator release a week ago, but I didn't take notes and it was the third in a line. A review will come later. But my impression is that Widmer was aiming for something specific and very different from, say, Abyss. Reading through the negative comments, one has the sense that people weren't tasting KGB for what it was, but rather measuring it against a beer in their minds Widmer had no intention of brewing.

It happened again with Ninkasi Renewale, which I tried last night. It's an Irish red ale, made mostly to style. A bit strong (5.2%) and quite a bit hoppier (40 IBUs), but still in possession of the hallmarks of the style--a rainwater softness and gentle heather-like malt sweetness. This is one of the most sessionable styles, and it should really please the palate. Ninkasi's does, and I admired it quite a bit. (I'd give it a B+, knocked down for just 5 BUs too many hops--forgivable for a Ninkasi product.) Only five reviews on BeerAdvocate, but they average out to a B-. The unimpressed reviewers remarked:
"A beer to bring to a dinner party as it won't offend or put off many beer drinkers or overpower the food served."


"Ok on the palate ,i suppose quite thin and watery near the end. Very very average beer."
Again, these reviews seem not to be judging the beer for itself, but compared to some bizarre standard--like a double IPA. It's hard to imagine any beer below 50 IBUs and 6.5% alcohol getting any kind of nod from these drinkers.

As many of you have noted, I've been on a bit of a small-beer kick lately. A related phenomenon, and one which didn't become clear to me until I started thinking about these beers, is that this extreme-beer phenomenon seems to be in danger of swamping craft brewing and setting the standard for what "good" beer is. If you look at the "best" beers in BeerAdvocate's ratings, almost none are below 6% (in the top 20, only Weihenstephan Hef crashes the party--there are only three in the top 40). Seven of the top ten bests have 10% or more alcohol.

I know most of the people who read this blog--those of you who are afflicted with terminal beer geek disease--will probably agree that size matters little to accomplishment. And there are a lot of regular drinkers out there who are also able to appreciate lots of different kinds of beer. (When I look at the beer selection in the grocery store, I notice that mostly the beers people actually buy are closer to 5% ABV.) But there's this middle stratum of Xtreme beer fans who have very fixed ideas about what a beer should be. And somehow they freak me out.

On the other hand, it could be because today's my birthday. The older I get, the more my get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids nature emerges. Lucky you.