Alworth's 9.5 Theses
Yesterday marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Catholic theologian's assault on the church's several abuses of the day. (That Luther gets credit for launching the reformation angers Hussites, but let's leave that debate for another post.) In homage to that event, I turn my own attention to beer and the elements about it requiring their own reform and/or settlement. Since no one has time for 95 theses, and since beer is only 10% as controversial as the medieval Catholic Church, I offer you 9.5 theses. Please adjust your beliefs accordingly.
Experience is more important than flavor.
The craft and execution of brewing is responsible for the differences in quality from beer to beer. But these differences are less important to the drinker than the time and place a particular beer is enjoyed. The focus on flavor misses the greater joys beer, a social beverage, offers. I can tell you which beers are most accomplished from a technical perspective; all the best moments I've had with beer drew from the experience, not the beer. The lesson is to engineer good moments rather than obsessing over the "best" beer.
Your preferences are more important than my preferences.
The drinker always has final say. All of the internet may tell you that Bud Light is shameful and New England IPAs are sublime. If you like Bud Light, ignore the internet. Hive mind is wise, but it can't know what tastes best in your mouth.
Subtlety is harder to achieve than intensity.
People, particularly people new to a hobby, mistake intensity for quality. When Americans first discovered good coffee, the fashion was gnarly roast bitterness. With wine, it was jam and oak. In beer it was bitterness, booziness, tartness--anything so long as there was a lot of it. Aesthetic maturity arrives when the taster is able to appreciate the elements of a beer when they don't overwhelm. Subtlety lays bare a beer's elements for those able to identify them. Appreciation of subtlety, not intensity, is the higher achievement.
Prague is the finest place to drink beer.
The Czech Republic (it will be a frosty day in hell before I’ll call it Czechia) does not have the broadest beer selection, nor the most breweries, nor much of the cachet attached to breweries in Belgium or America. No matter. As we've established, beer is all about the experience, and ain't none better than one found inside a Czech pub. I would accept other locations in the country except: Prague. I mean, come on.
Gueuze is the most accomplished beer in the world.
We will come in due course to the best styles, but in terms of accomplishment, nothing can top the three-vintage blend of spontaneously-fermented ale. The sheer amount of effort it takes to get to a bottle of gueuze is astonishing, but this pales to the complexity and harmony you find inside one. The average large craft brewery made more beer than all the gueuze producers combined last year (guesstimate), but no matter. Gueuze is the king.
If you want to tour breweries, go to Belgium, and if you go to Belgium for God’s sake tour breweries.
People don't spend enough time in brewhouses. They go to "breweries" but stay in the taproom or pub. If you like beer even a little bit, go on tours. It's not easy for casual drinkers to swing private tours with brewers (but ask--it's more common than you'd imagine), but take public tours. They're nearly as good. And definitely do this in Belgium, where the breweries are weird, exotic, and always entertaining. And if you go to Belgium and come back to tell me about it and you didn't go on a tour, expect me to be cranky. If you rob yourself of the experience of standing among the giant foeders in the still cellars of Rodenbach, say, or witnessing hot wort pour into the coolship at Cantillon, I don't know what to say to you.
Beer is objectively superior at the dinner table to wine.
Right? This doesn't need any explanation, does it?
Cask bitter is the most underrated beer in the world.
A pint of bitter, served fresh on cask, is surely one of the greatest achievements in beer. Its reputation, both in its native UK and elsewhere, ranges from misunderstood to meh. My greatest failure as a writer is evidenced by the paucity of casks at my local pub.
Unless you come to Oregon or Washington in late September, you don't understand fresh hop beers.
The technique of fresh-hopping is a crapshoot. There are techniques to maximize the likelihood the hops express their unique character, but there are no guarantees. And, if a brewery does happen to pull it off, that beer will be at optimal fresh-hoppiness for no more than two weeks, and probably less. The only way to fully appreciate the full capacity of fresh hops is to drink many, many beers made with them. That way you encounter the bad, the old, the near misses, and--rare joy!--the triumphs. Each year I drink at least a couple dozen and find only one or two that really sing the moment I try them. (How do I know two weeks is the outer limit?--because I keep going back until those winners are no longer winners.) If you've only had one or two of these things--and god forbid your experience is limited to bottled beer--the odds are vanishingly small you've tasted a truly spectacular fresh hop beer. Make your travel plans now.
These are the five best styles of beer.
I often ask people what their five essential styles of beer are—those they could not, say while stranded on a tropical island, live without. It’s a question I myself have never answered; beer styles are like my children and I love them all. Nevertheless, for the purposes of these theses* I shall not only give my own personal answer, but the answer that is empirically, scientifically accurate. The first is gueuze for the reasons I’ve already identified. The second is pilsner. Let’s not be pedantic and try to narrow it to an unnecessary subcategory thereof—pilsner is adequate. The third is
*When I start a band I'm calling it These Theses.