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Are we losing sight of the craft?

Posted June 17, 2014 | 10:43 am, by Mirella

While at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver this past spring, I head a comment that has stayed with me. The comment was made during a session called ‘Using Belgian Yeast – Three Belgians’ Perspectives’ by one of the speakers, Yvan De Baaets, brewer and owner of Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels. It was just an aside, but it really got me thinking. This is what he said:

“There is a big tendency now to use yeast as an ingredient.”

This comment struck me mostly because I’ve always thought of yeast as an ingredient. Then again, I’m not a brewmaster.

Yvan’s advice to North American brewers making Belgian style beers was to focus more on “balance and drinkability,” pointing out that many American examples of Belgian beers (as well as some Belgian examples) come across as “caricatures” of styles. The parallel he drew was “if you buy curry powder in a grocery store and just put it on some lentils, you’re not cooking Indian food, necessarily. Maybe you are, but maybe you aren’t.” He then shared his perspective of yeast, which is: “it takes a lifetime to get to know your yeast. It’s so complex…”

A week or two later, I read this interview with brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø (of the Mikkeller brand), and came across this quote:

Bjergsø is quick to demystify the process of beer-making. He finds that some brewers suffer from an affliction where they get caught up in the technical aspects of their craft. “We do this because it has to be fun,” said Bjergsø. “You don’t have to overcomplicate it. Put a lot of hops into the beer and it will taste great. To walk around thinking that it is a science to make a beer, I don’t feel like that. You just have to try and see what happens.”

It’s clear from the article, that Mikkel is has a tendency to make flippant remarks. Having said this, his comments were directly in line with Yvan’s observations.

What’s getting attention in the North American craft beer movement, right now, is experimentation – brewers producing unusual styles and testing different ingredients and brewing techniques. While this results in a beer landscape that is very stimulating, it is definitely pulling focus away from the artisanal aspect of beer – the craftsmanship. Many brewers are spending less time honing their craft and “getting to know their yeast.” Instead, a lot of time is dedicated to trying new things and making seasonal and one-off brews. This tendency is being driven, largely, by consumer demand.

This call for unusual beers makes sense; many people are just now discovering that beer can have a range of different flavours and they want to try as many different beers as possible. I read this fantastic blog post, a few months ago that summarized the phenomenon well, addressing the ‘Westvletern Apex’ that many beer drinkers are currently striving for. The blog post concludes:

Beer appreciation is not linear; it’s circular.  First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.  Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what’s “good” and you begin disliking beer out of a blind prejudice.  Finally, you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.

The post draws a parallel between the phases of beer discovery and this Zen verse:

First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.  Finally, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

My feeling is that this experimental beer craze is just a phase, driven by the fact that a large number of people are going through the “mountains are not mountains” phase right now. In the USA, the industry seems to be swinging back in the other direction already, with the idea of lower alcohol ‘session beers’ gaining popularity but I may be wrong. Perhaps this constant quest of the new and different is the direction in which craft beer will continue to grow. I can see that many people, like Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, might consider Yvan’s notions of brewing to be old-fashioned. They are certainly less sexy.

I find all this very interesting, particularly in the context of the current debate on “craft vs crafty” and the ongoing efforts to define craft beer. Everyone seems to be focused on size and ownership, emphasizing passion and experimentation but the notion of craftsmanship doesn’t seem to be prominent on anyone’s mind. I think maybe that’s what Yvan was getting at…the next time I see him, I’ll ask.

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