Evaluating Exotic Beers

Blood-orange saison, toasted-coconut brown, apricot-chile wheat. Beers brewed with strange and unexpected ingredients are far from novel, but they are no longer outliers. Those three beers all entered my consciousness last week (and two entered my belly); every week brings new examples. As an inveterate trend-watcher, I think 2011 will be the Year of the Strange Concoction. So long as we don't starting devoting style categories to every new mixture (American farmhouse ales brewed with citrus versus American farmhouse ales, no citrus), consider me very much a fan of the trend.

It does, however, raise questions about how we evaluate them.

Sally and I popped into Burnside Brewing on Friday night for a pint of the new apricot-chile wheat, and ripe was the issue. The intention behind the beer seemed pretty obvious: the sweet apricots were married to the Scotch bonnet peppers in the manner of Caribbean cuisine. The wheat base provided a soft backdrop, like a bed of rice under a fiery jerk chicken. Indeed, the beer evoked these notes precisely: the apricots, fragrant but gentle, offered just a hint of sweetness that drew out a sweet-spicy vegetable note from the peppers. Compared to some chile beers, the fire was at a lazy, slow burn. The wheat, scone sweet, softly swaddled the more assertive flavors. Right. But was it good?

Sally and I chatted about this for awhile. Take the peppers, which in a beer like this are a substitute for hops. In a light wheat ale, we'd have a baseline for bitterness--low to medium, not so much that it overwhelms the wheat character or makes the beer oppressive. But chiles? How much is too much? For Sally, Burnside went over the line. The pepper hit her so hard she had to really focus to find the apricots. I thought they were perfect. I thought, in fact, that everything was in great balance, and I could easily drink that beer all summer long. (In fact, on a drizzly charcoal day in Portland, it was a ray of sunshine.)

In grammar, they always say you can break the rules if you know them. Throwing in a little colloquial syntax can spice up an otherwise flat--but grammatically-correct--piece. "Style" is the grammar of brewing. As long as breweries stick to the rules, evaluation is a snap. But once a brewery wanders into the deep weeds way beyond style, it's not clear where the definition of "good" lies. In both literature and brewing, rule-ignoring virtuosity can produce a combination of exhilaration and uncertainty.

I guess we're going to have to take in on a case-by-case basis. The only criterion I bring is whether the ingredients harmonize with the nature of the underlying beer or conceal it. Back in the early 90s, when craft breweries were clamoring after new drinkers, they often released sugary-sweet fruit ales that bore a stronger resemblance to Fanta than beer. If I'm drinking a beer, I want a beer. But the use of fruit to draw out citric esters, say--that's very interesting. Kona is rolling out a new brown ale made with coconut. Brown ales, brewed for moreishness, have an innate malt sweetness that works very well with coconut. I had a couple pints last week and could have kept going. It was a beer gently accented by a complimentary adjunct. Had Kona tried to make a liquid Mounds bar, I would have reacted differently.

We better get used to it, though. I envision a future where a sizable percentage of American beers are brewed with something other than malt and hops.