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Jun 8, 2008 09:24 AM

Should Beer be Considered More Compelling and Interesting with Increased Strength and Complexity?

I’d like to challenge this apparent axiom in the beer community that with increased complexity and strength a beer is more interesting and compelling (SEE, ). We surely don't apply this same paradigm to music for example. To me what should only make a beer compelling and interesting to each of us is if its particular character “works”.

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  1. Totally agree. I visit the two sites you mentioned often and it seems there is some sort of "macho factor" in the way many beers are rated. The higher the ABV the higher the score in many cases.

    It's true there are a lot of weak and flavorless beers, but then again some of the strong ones that get rated so high (Double Bastard Ale for one example) are a one dimensional boozy mess.

    A beer doesn't have to be strong to be great.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Whisper

      I've found the same sort of attitude (although I've always felt the hopheads lead the charge, to the extent that I've seen people state that if you don't love massive IBUs that you're not a true beer fan) in my travels. It is similar to what you see in chilehead type communities - where there's always a vocal group who creates an artificial boundary and any who don't meet that level aren't "real fans". To bring it back to beer, homebrew forums tend to get this sort of snobbery at times (all grain, etc).

      I've never really noticed the ABV police before, perhaps because I love a good ABV and thus often agree with them, but now that you mention it, I know what you mean. The OP mentioned Beer Advocate - if you go to their festivals, it is pretty clear that a lot of the people attending look at the list of the offerings and go straight for the ones with the high ABV.

      1. re: jgg13

        Playing devil's advocate (as opposed to beer advocate) here, these high-gravity beers are relatively new, and they are certainly different than the beers we used to see, so it makes some sense that beer enthusiasts would seek them out.

        Having said that, I think your argument has some validity.

        OTOH, I know more than a few beer drinkers who have a deep appreciation of low-gravity beers, conventional-strength pilsners, etc.

        1. re: Jim Dorsch

          That's a good point ... IMO it'd also hold true for the trend to the extreme IBUs as well.

          I think that some folks are just natural snobs, and whatever their current interest/hobby is, they'll seek each other out and come up with some way to weed out who are the real fans and who aren't.

          This isn't to say that everyone who likes the things that they like is a snob, but the people who aren't don't feel the need to look down on those who might not like the high grav beers, ultrahopped beers, crazy ingredient beers, etc.

    2. I am a sucker for many of the Imperial Stouts and Quadrupels with their high alcohol and hugely complex flavors...but on the other hand I vastly prefer a balanced IPA to almost any ramped-up overly alcoholic, hoppy and sweet DIPA. It's a matter of taste and context. 95 degrees outside, I am going for a Hoegaarden, not a Westvleteren 12.

      Many session beers and pilseners are perfect in their context, but they may not drive up ratings because they don'thave that wow factor...the situation is verysimilar to the huge, alcoholic, sweet new world style wines favored by the critic Robert Parker, who almost singlehandedly changed how wine is produced worldwide. These wines impress in wine tastings and may outshine more subtle, acidic, drier old world-styled wines. But these wines are often overwhelming when more than a small glass is consumed and are often impossible to drink with food.

      11 Replies
      1. re: kenito799

        Many times at the GABF PPBT you see bigger beers in a particular style winning the medals. I guess that's the wow factor at work.

        1. re: Jim Dorsch

          Tasting and drinking are two completely different things. I think the reason why bigger beers get all the attention is because, well, they taste well. A lot of new beer drinkers out there are only getting samples at fests, sharing bottles with other tasters, buying one bottle of something just to try it, and are not sticking with the same beer for a whole session. A small sample can give lots of flavor, but when you actually sit down and drink a whole bottle or three, drinkability becomes a factor not present when just tasting or judging.

          1. re: LStaff

            Similarly for chili cookoffs, where the purpose of competition chili is not to be eaten a bowl at a time, but for one spoonful to wow a judge.

        2. re: kenito799

          Just a couple of things. I often hear people say "I love {name smaller beer} when the weather is hot". But you rarely hear the reverse said of bigger beers (e.g. "Imperial Stout taste really great particular when it's well below freezing out.") . There's rarely any qualification of when they should be consumed and how they can be better enjoyed.
          I don't need any other reason to enjoy a Pils for example other than it's a champion beer style imho.


          1. re: Chinon00

            I tend to drink seasonally and do end up preferring certain styles depending on the weather. A big stout or barley wine are nice to drink when it is well below freezing out. I rarely drink these styles in the summer.

            I think it is totally acceptable to say I love a certain beer when its hot. I think you might be a little sesitive due to your love of smaller beers. I love em too, but I generally prefer them in warmer weather.

            1. re: MVNYC

              Having a preference be informed by the weather is reasonable. But if you are at all familiar with beer related blogs, website forums, etc, you know as well as I that one rarely ever sees the enjoyability of these big beers being qualified by the weather. But one almost always hears Pils for example being described as great "after mowing the lawn". It's like people need an excuse when it comes to enjoying them or they just don’t have the faculties to fully appreciate them.

              1. re: Chinon00

                I hear what you are saying, it does seem like an excuse. I thik sometimes people get worried that their cred will suffer from liking smaller beers. I

                A beer bar down the block from me recently had Harviestoun Ginger and lime at about 3.8%. Basically it was the bitter and twisted with a very subtle ginger and lime background. Perfect for hot weather. I for one stay away from the big boys most of the summer with the exception of Tripels and some Saisons.

                1. re: Chinon00

                  I live where it is basically summer all year, so I drink all styles all year. But it should be noted that when I make a homebrew it is usually a British Bitter or Scottish 60/. Layer upon layer of flavors in a beer that you can drink without worries. I think if more breweries made this type of beer here in the U.S. it could become a popular alternative to the macro-produced "lites"

                  Nah, never happen. Americans don't want a flavorful 3.5% beer

                  1. re: niquejim

                    Some Americans do!

                    One of the best beers made locally is called Even Keel Session Ale, and it's a hoppy 3.5% beer. It sells quite well around town. I had another beer just like this at 21st Amendment in San Francisco called Bitter American. Apparently it's quite popular there, too.

                    1. re: Josh

                      I totally agree. To further plug Victory Brewing Company they keep four pilsners in rotation at their brewpub including:

                      Braumeister - Tettinger
                      Braumeister - Spalt
                      Braumeister - Hallertau
                      Prima Pils

                      along with a delicious English style bitter (Uncle Teddy's) on cask.

                      All are wonderful example of their style. But having each fresh is essential to their fullest enjoyment I think.

                      Our ability to make solid versions of these classics, and therefore providing them fresh to customers, will improve their image and esteem here in the states I believe. Go Victory!


                      1. re: Chinon00

                        Maybe I should have said, Americans (who don't come to sites like this) don't want a flavorful 3.5% beer.

                        I'm glad to see some well recieved smaller beers. I just wish they were available in bottles in a larger area( Florida is not craftbrew Nirvana).
                        I've been a baker for 20+ years and I know it is easier to wow someone with huge flavors, but to do it with less is quite difficult.

          2. I'm not sure if I completely understand your question. I believe a lot of people like the complex beers that don't necessary "work" all the time because they are new/different/unusual and pushing the envelope on what we now consider beer. I agree in some ways with kenito that there is a certain wow factor and anticipation for some of these beers that probably effect peoples perception of the beer thus causing them to rate them higher.

            1 Reply
            1. re: JonDough

              Yes I agree. Does the beer "work" is the more interesting question to me. And I don't think that the question arises enough when it comes to beer evaluation. If it did I think we’d see more “smaller” beers ranked highly.


            2. "Should Beer be Considered More Compelling and Interesting with Increased Strength and Complexity?"

              Tougth question, not only because it has compound elements, but that's a big part - so let's cut off a couple of elements: "Should Beer be Considered More Interesting with Increased Complexity?"

              This makes it simple - in essence you are asking should a beer be considered more interesting if it is more interesting. Seems to me the answer is plain.

              Let's try a different part of the OQ: "Should a beer be considered more interesting because of increased strength?"

              That is a little less straight forward and i would posit there is not a straight-forward answer. I am sure that sometimes a strongly alcoholic beer could have additional interest for the drinker; I am just as sure that sometimes it would really make very little difference.

              "Compelling" for me is a tough quality to define - how would you define it?

              If we define "compelling" as "attractive' or "desirable" then I again come up with an indefinite answer.

              I was moving furniture the other day. After a couple of hours of this chore, I was offered a cold one, which I drank in under 30 seconds. I would not have wanted a strong, complex beer for that circumstance.

              10 Replies
              1. re: FrankJBN

                Quick point

                "This makes it simple - in essence you are asking should a beer be considered more interesting if it is more interesting."

                It may seem counter-intuitive but I'm of the opinion that it is possible for a beer to be less complex than another yet be equally as interesting.


                1. re: Chinon00

                  At the risk of disappearing into my own navel, I do think that there's an inherent contradiction in what you're saying, unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by "interesting". I love a good pils, but compared against something like a good trappist ale, it's not got as much to offer in terms of different flavors, at least to me. When you're dealing with Belgian yeasts that produce lots of different flavors, some of which don't reveal themselves until they reach warmer temperatures, you're talking about layers and layers of flavor complexity that simply aren't found in something like a Pils.

                  Now, I'm not saying this is better or worse, but I do see it as a very real difference. I don't think increased complexity makes a beer more compelling, but I do think it can make it more interesting.

                  1. re: Josh

                    That depends on how one defines 'complexity'; I think a great Pils will develop in its own way, and along a different path than a Trappist Ale, and it takes a certain sort of complexity to pull that off. Sometimes the bitterness will hit you right away, then after a half liter or so your palate will start to pick up on other nuances, and then after some more you will get even more nuances. These beers are specifically designed to be consumed in quantity and to not get boring, or tiring, or (probably most importantly) to keep from getting overbearing after a few. I've had what I consider 'not so great' Pilsners (or Helles, etc.) that don't really seem to go anywhere, some of them may have even made a nice first impression, but they don't really have the sort of complexity that make the great ones shine.

                    1. re: TongoRad

                      For me, when I say complexity I'm referring to quantity of different flavors, and the way flavors change as the beer warms up. Pilsners I typically taste the malt and the hops, since lager yeast is so clean. But I generally feel that the flavor profile of pilsner is pretty straightforward. You don't really get fruit flavors, for example. Whereas a beer like Westvleteren 12 offers a huge range of flavors. I'm not knocking pilsner. I like pilsner. It's one of my favorite styles. In fact, in most instances I'd rather have a pilsner than a trappist ale.

                      1. re: Josh

                        To clarify, I am of the opinion that for any beer to be interesting SOME level of complexity is required. What I'm arguing against is this apparent notion (SEE BA and RA top beer rankings) that to be considered "top rated" that a beer MUST be of HIGHER complexity. I would like to do away with this notion and would argue that greatness can also be achieved through a beer's ability to simply tell a great story.


                        1. re: Chinon00

                          A quick glance at the BA and RB top beers shows a lot of imperial stouts, DIPAs, etc. Does that mean these reviewers like a more complex beer? Or do they just like big beers?

                          One might suppose these folks have sophisticated palates, but perhaps they just like a lot of flavor and have little appreciation for subtlety.

                          It would seem obvious that beers are not being rated according to style. If they were, then you would see a wide range of beers in the top lists. Another explanation would be that brewers aren't doing a good job making beers that aren't big and huge, but it's not an explanation I would believe.

                          To put it another way, hedonic considerations are trumping technical, stylistic criteria in BA and RB ratings.

                          1. re: Jim Dorsch

                            To define my terms, I'm considering "complex" and "big" to be synonymous.


                          2. re: Chinon00

                            I agree with you here, for sure. I always think not enough love is given to smaller beers, though the professional brewers I know greatly admire well-made beers of any kind.

                  2. re: FrankJBN

                    >I am sure that sometimes a strongly alcoholic beer could have additional interest for the drinker; I am just as sure that sometimes it would really make very little difference.

                    With increased strength, you usually get an increase of flavor. The way you increase a beer's strength is to make the gravity of the wort higher - and higher gravity worts are usually less fermentable than lower gravity worts (unless you use some kind of adjunct to increase it fermentability) which leaves more unfermentable sugars and flavors behind. Lets say you brew a wort with a starting gravity of 1.060 and your yeast's appearant attenuation is 75% for that wort makeup, that will leave the final gravity of the beer at 1.015 - now if you boost the gravity to 1.080 using more malt, and your attenuation is 75% (let's keep it the same for sake of argument), you wind up with a beer at fg of 1.020. All else being equal the beer that finishes at 1.020 will have more malt flavor than the one that finishes at 1.015. And the alcohol that yeasts produce in beer wort have flavor, so with more alcohol, you do get more flavor - for the most part.

                    1. re: LStaff

                      There may be more flavor in higher alcoholic beers but it doesnt mean that beer "works" or that all the flavors blend together to make a good beer. I am mainly talking about some of the specialty beers produced in small batches sampled in small qualities that make up a good portion of the top rated beers. I agree with BanhmiFortheringayPhipps below that there are some people who get off on these beers and will rate them high no matter what.

                  3. I hear what you are saying but I don't believe that this is a new phenomenon in the good beer community- Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is an example of a highly popular big beer from 20 years ago as are Salvator and Old Foggy. Well made big beers have flavor, not just ABV.

                    I don't judge fellow beer nerds, if they get off on extreme beers so be it. If lagers or session beers are your thing thats cool too, some of us enjoy the whole spectrum.

                    14 Replies
                    1. re: BanhmiFotheringayPhipps

                      "I don't judge fellow beer nerds, if they get off on extreme beers so be it. If lagers or session beers are your thing thats cool too, some of us enjoy the whole spectrum."

                      Amen to that. I enjoy things all through the spectrum (and don't enjoy things all through the spectrum). People should be drinking what they want/like, not instructing others that the only way to happiness is based on One True Path. Most folks seem to feel the same way, IMO its just a vocal minority that causes trouble.

                      1. re: BanhmiFotheringayPhipps

                        I understand you as well. But I often wonder why we don't think that same way about music for example. I mean if we were to ask lovers of classical music to list what they consider highly regarded works they surely wouldn't broadly exclude classical period music for the more heavy and complex baroque and romantic periods would they?

                        1. re: Chinon00

                          How does beer compare to wine in this regard? Do the cork dorks tend to drink huge red zins and such?

                          1. re: Jim Dorsch

                            There were certain trends that I noticed when I worked at a wine shop. Like some people would announce that they didn’t drink Riesling or any white wine for that matter, for reasons such as:

                            1) Fear of being perceived as unrefined in front of us (I believe).

                            2) Claiming to like wines with more "flavor".

                            These people tended to be younger (under 50 years of age) and male. Most customers however weren’t biased in this way with their selections.

                            The typical craft beer consumer is the same age and sex demographic as the “anti-white wine” consumer mentioned above (i.e. young and male). Therefore it should really be no surprise that we see extreme beers getting all the attention in the press and in rankings; it is a reflection of the attitudes of its primarily young male demographic (hold on, I think that I’m answering my own question).
                            So if the top rankings are a reflection of the demographic then the question becomes, will craft beer “mature” (i.e. have fewer hop bombs and “imperials”) as its current consumers age, or will it attempt to continue to appeal to a young male demographic, or do both?

                            1. re: Chinon00

                              Interesting points. I've often encountered that same attitude when trying to get people to try things like Riesling or vinho verde. Garrett Oliver compared it to someone saying they don't like bread based on trying Wonder Bread once.

                              I think part of the issue you're identifying is that for craft beer to grow in terms of market share and a customer base, then it has to appeal to a larger demographic than the older, more mature beer geek crowd. For better or worse, that market has been successfully penetrated via the promise of a more manly, extreme beer experience. I think the hope is that this is viewed more as a hook to get more people drinking and aware of craft beer, and once they are consumers of it then work to refine their palates to appreciate subtler more nuanced brews.

                              Look at a place like Russian River. One of their most popular beers is Pliny the Elder, which is a pretty hoppy and robust DIPA. But because of the success of this beer, they can produce incredibly sophisticated and delicate beers like Temptation and Sanctification. That's a trade-off I'm willing to live with, for sure.

                              1. re: Josh

                                Huge beers aren't pulling the craft beer cart. The big sellers are Blue Moon (and let's not get into what's craft in this thread), Fat Tire, Sam Adams Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, etc, ... none of them big beers.

                                Extreme beers do garner lots of press, and in that sense they're drivers.

                          2. re: Chinon00

                            Just like beer fanatics, maybe some would, be it for personal musical taste or if they had not developed a broad understanding of the genre. Leaving aside the music analogy, there is a generation of beer lovers who have grown up with BA, Ratebeer, ebay auctions, and geeking out on cult status beers/breweries from the US, Belgium and elsewhere. I like their enthusiasm and many of the cult beers they worship, knowing that at the end of the day people who focus only on these beers are but a tiny fraction of beer consumers.

                            This is a great board, lots of good opinion and a mix of posters create a different flavor of discussion from that found on BA and RB.

                            1. re: Chinon00

                              I dunno. I've met plenty of classical fans whose appreciation seems to end at Debussy or Ravel. Messianen or Ligeti would send them into fits. I think any art form is going to have fans who stick to the familiar, fans who sit on the extremes, and fans who try to find the best in all categories.

                              1. re: Josh

                                Having worked in the music industry, and in the beer world, I'm probably in a better position than most to draw out this analogy.

                                There is a absolute black and white distinction between self proclaimed "serious" consumers, and more run of the mill "fans."

                                Being "serious" about something very quickly robs it of the any of the simple enjoyment that it may once have had. Instead it becomes an obsessive pursuit that leads to increasing degrees of expense, discomfort, and generalized extremity.

                                A run of the mill music afficionado will have a collection that includes the seminal works in a variety of genres and will be able to converse convincingly on many of them. A "serious" listener, on the other hand, will have shelf upon shelf of rare, experimental, or ostensibly unlistenable works that they discourse upon incessantly...

                                The Fan: an album or two by Miles Davis

                                The "Serious" Listener: John Coltranre's Hamburg Bootleg catalogged by Fujioka as "three long titles, details unknown," shelved next to a 45 minute unreleased DJ Shadow white label than samples the same track.

                                The same is true in the beer world...

                                The average beer fan might have a Bitburger Premium, or a Sierra Nevada Summerfest.

                                But the self defined "serious" beer afficionado will chase a fresh growler of Pliny the Younger half way across the country, and will stock it next to the Broodoo in their fridge. Then they'll want to argue, passionately, about the merits of the particular strains, quantities, and relative freshness of the hops used in each.

                                1. re: Moomin

                                  The only black and white distinction that exists is on a checkerboard, IMO. Nothing in life is black and white.

                                  I'm not sure if this was your intent, but I'm inferring from your comments that you think people who are passionate about music or beer don't experience enjoyment from their passions. If that's what you're saying, then I have to say I disagree. All you have to do is watch someone roll their eyes over a mouthful of Westvleteren 12 to see that the appreciation of this beer is based on something very real.

                                  I think you could make the case that the more experience and knowledge has of a subject, the more they can appreciate things that might seem harsh to someone with less experience. I know when I was a teenager, I really liked Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The first time I heard atonal classical music, I couldn't stand it. But through time and exposure and stretching my ears, I began to understand the role of dissonance in music, and now like it quite a bit, especially when expertly mixed with more tonal stuff. Like Zappa said, it's the difference between eating oatmeal and salsa.

                                  It's the same with beer. At first you like things that are simple and easy to understand, but as you challenge your taste buds and your palate you come to appreciate ever more complex flavors.

                                  1. re: Josh

                                    Nope. I was simply calling attention to the contrast between the obsessive acquistve passion of the serious afficionado, versus the simple appreciation of the average fan.

                                    Incidentally, it's possible to experience both, it's just that the obsessed talk louder and more consistantly about their obsessions than they do about the stuff that they just kinda like.

                                    1. re: Josh

                                      I've found at least that as I've gotten older that things that I might have once considered simple now have revealed themselves to me in new and very appealling ways. For me it took much longer to fully appreciate a beer like say Victory Braumeister 'wet hopped' Pilsner than Chimay Blue or St-Feuillien for instance (both of which I drank continually throughout the 90s).
                                      I think that younger craft beer drinkers naturally gravitate toward the bigger dramatic stuff (as I did) because of their age (and the current craft movement fully accomodates that interest).

                                      1. re: Chinon00

                                        Totally agreed. Sometimes simplicity is underrated. To again go back to the music analogy, some hardcore music-heads I've known deride The Beatles, and other pop music, for being simple. The truth is there's a lot of craft involved in making a pop song, it's much harder than people think. Listen to a tune like XTC's "One of the Millions" with careful ears and there's lots going on there in three minutes. I've extolled the virtues of a beer like Prima Pils to lots of beer geeks, and the people I consider true beer lovers all agree that it's a simply phenomenal beer. Deceptively simple, but making a great tasting pils is no small feat.

                                        I remember reading that when chefs gather, they often will make simpler dishes like roasted chicken, because doing something simple well can often be more challenging that doing something complicated.

                                2. re: Chinon00

                                  Folks, just a quick reminder that the focus should be on chow -- by all means draw the analogies with music appreciation, but please do try to relate the discussion back to the beer, rather than going off on tangents that are entirely about music.