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Our Conflicted Relationship with Pioneers

beer101logoThe arrival of Sierra Nevada to Alberta in the fall was a noteworthy event. Most beer fans were quite happy to find in their local liquor store bottles of SN Pale Ale, Torpedo and other classics from one of the first craft breweries in North America. However, I was surprised at the degree of negative feedback I heard informally from some beer aficionados.

It is not that anyone was actually trashing Sierra Nevada – I am pretty certain they have near-universal respect in the beer world and their beer is unquestioningly of the highest quality. The crux of the naysayers’ argument was that Sierra Nevada has gotten too big and their beer is not edgy enough to merit attention.

The critique is not actually about Sierra Nevada but instead is reflective of a broader reaction to the maturation of the craft beer movement. As the scene grows bigger and the boundaries expand outward, it is easy to get enamoured by the shiny new baubles arriving on our store shelves every month. Beer consumers today have access to a range of flavours not seen since before prohibition. And that is a good thing.

But the whole thing got me thinking about the perception of the craft beer pioneers these days. And as I think about it, there is a greater tendency to dismiss them then there is to revere them. I lament that. And actually do so in my most recent Beer 101 column that ran in December. (you can read it here).

By the pioneers I mean those that started this revolution. In the States that includes Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Sam Adams and others. In Canada we have Granville Island, Big Rock, Okanagan Springs, Amsterdam, etc. These are the breweries that brewed craft beer before anyone actually knew what craft beer was. And obviously all of us owe them a great deal of gratitude for being so damned stubborn.

But what I find today – more often than I would prefer – is that people dismiss these breweries. They are “uninteresting”, “past their prime”, “too big” or “sold out”. Sure, some have been bought out by the big corporate breweries and a sub-set of those have had their beer suffer as a result (although, increasingly, the corporates are learning to leave the beer alone). Others have gotten quite big. And both of those things seem to sully their craft credentials.

My recent column is an attempt to do two things. First, it tries to understand the motivations behind such dismissal. I land on a couple of things. First, palates have evolved. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale was earth shattering when it first hit the market. I like to say that Big Rock had the nerve to brew a brown beer, for god’s sake! Today, however, these beer – even though they are still high quality beer – don’t tickle the palate as much as they did.

Second, there is the simple fact of brand fatique. These brands have been around for 30 or more years. It is human nature to seek out something new and exciting. Finally, I think craft beer fans sometimes conflate size with credibility. Just because Sierra Nevada (or Sam Adams or Big Rock or Goose Island) is quite big now doesn’t mean they have lost their ability to create good beer with integrity.

I don’t wish to overstate my argument. I truly believe most beer fans understand and admire the bravery, determination and good beer sense of the pioneers. I think they just drift away from the actual beer because they find things that are more interesting/edgy/hip/niche. Fair enough. In fact, I do that myself. However, despite my instinctive opposition to the big corporate breweries, I really do try to close my eyes and judge every beer solely on what my mouth (and nose, since most taste perception is aroma) tells me.

And, so, that was the second reason for the column. To try to remind craft beer drinkers to remember two things: 1) that we all owe them a deep gratitude for blazing the trail; and 2) they still make good beer and to judge them on that and that alone. If you truly don’t like their beer, fair enough. Just don’t tell me you refuse to drink it because they have gotten too big, too corporate or too old. Because that argument, my friends, makes no sense. You are free to explore the wide expanses of beer – I am pretty sure the pioneers would want you to do that – but just don’t forget the beer that got us here.

Plus, I dare you to try a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and tell me it isn’t a good beer. I dare you.


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