Beer is supposed to be fun, remember?

Beer is fun.

Right? Beer–that is, drinking it, learning about it, making it–is fun! That’s why we’re all talking about the stuff and it’s why you bother to take time to read a beer blog (Thanks, by the way).

But man, sometimes it seems like we forget that and every once in a while we turn into a pretty cynnical bunch of snifter-swirling, stout-sniffing snobs (see: most of the things I write, for example).

And so sometimes it might be worth taking a considered look at the impact and target of our collective snark and maybe reign in the spray, just a touch.

Case in point, the Old Fashioned Cocktail Beer from Toronto’s Henderson Brewing, released last night at a party with the Martini Club at Dominion in Toronto.

A few days ago, the folks over at blogTO slapped together a post about the beer that noted it was “the country’s first official beer cocktail” and the beer nerds on twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere were pretty quick to pile on.

What makes this a cocktail beer, they asked each other, noting that it sounded much like a common rye beer. The gimmicks, others mused, are just too much.

When I too wondered, how is this beer made in a way that makes it a “cocktail beer,” I took the unprecedented step of asking the guy who runs the company. Here’s what Steve Himel told me:

“First we brewed a small batch of 20% Rye ale. To this we added a number of botanicals (essentially creating our own beer-based bitters) and aged it on whisky wood for eight weeks. We then brewed a large batch of beer using the same 20% rye recipe and, along with the Martini Club, blended this fresh beer with the aged beer to taste,” he told me via email. “The purpose was to capture the essence and spirit of an Old Fashioned cocktail- and I believe this [is what] we achieved.”

Now, notwithstanding some perhaps dubious claims about this being a cocktail, this all seems fairly innocuous–and it’s not new for a bunch of beer nerds to whip each other into a frenzy trashing something they perceive as cheesy or overly-market-y. Indeed, many times I’ve been the one cracking that proverbial whip.

But there’s a lot about this specific scenario I don’t particularly like.

For starters, folks appear to have been getting worked up over information reported by blogTO–without seeking clarification or more info. BlogTO isn’t exactly known for hard-hitting journalism or in-depth beer reviews. For god’s sake they paid ME to write for them on a regular basis for the better part of five years, so how high can their standards be? Also it looks like Toronto’s favourite weblog has chosen an “events manager” as their source for info on the beer.

Alright then.

BlogTO. It ain’t gospel.

Second, and most important, given that the beer was literally just released yesterday, it’s a safe bet that those piling on after reading the blogTO post hadn’t actually even tried the beer, and instead are getting their backs up about the IDEA of a beer.

This where things get a little stinky for me. That is, it has whiffs of the cool kids picking on someone they don’t like, simply because Henderson might not be the average beer nerds’ favourite brewery.

Henderson, you’ll likely recall, was at the centre of a mini-drama a while back when they publicly touted Toronto’s “Brewery District,” lumping themselves in with some more established breweries by virtue of the fact that they were neighbours. The problem there was that it wasn’t clear anyone checked with those other breweries before “the brewery district” was suddenly a thing in the news. Some brewers took exception. This is water under the bridge now, but it seems to have left something of a bad taste in some brewing industry types’ collective mouths.

Additionally, Henderson has made some moves that, sure, yes, could be construed as “gimmicky.”

They did a beer with Honest Ed’s-inspired branding, they have a Geddy Lee beer, etc. But frankly, I don’t actually fault any brewery for trying new things to get noticed in an increasinlgy saturated market. There are 200+ breweries in Ontario after all and only so many ways to get folks talking about your beer. Of course, the all-important caveat here is that the beer needs to actually fucking taste good.

As far as I know, most of the snark about the Old Fashioned Beer went down before anyone could have possibly tasted the beer. And so we’re juding beer based on…marketing? Wait. Judging beer based on marketing…Isn’t that the kind of thing we beer nerds hate?

If we are at a point now where we piss on the idea of an original or experimental beer before we’ve even tried it, isnt that sort of counterintuitive to the kind of things we got into craft beer for? Experimentation and a willingness to try new things is the reason most of us drink beer made by independent brewers instead of the same old lagers from the big guys.

Mark Benzaquin, Henderson’s head brewer, might not enjoy the kind of fan boy love that perhaps Mike Lackey, Luke Pestl/Mike Clark, or Iain McOustra enjoy (and yes deserve), but let’s be honest, if Great Lakes, Bellwoods, or Amstrerdam announced a blend of ales aged on Rye-soaked wood chips for eight weeks and made with house-made botanicals, the same beer nerds from those snarky twitter accounts would have lit up with excitment yesterday.

I’m not saying Henderson is necessarily making beer as good as these breweries, and I’m not even saying I think this beer sounds good. It could very well suck. I’ll be happy to tell you all what I think of the beer. But after I drink it.

Shitting all over every beer idea from breweries that aren’t our favourites doesn’t help the industry, it could actually hamper it. If we foster an environment where people are afraid to try new things, we run the risk of taking all the fun out of this industry.

And, worse, we might end up with a scene that’s largely populated by safe, boring, crystal-malt forward Ontario Pale Ales. Lord knows we don’t need any more of those.

7 thoughts on “Beer is supposed to be fun, remember?

  1. Great message, Ben.

    For what it’s worth, I see Henderson’s “gimmickry” as an honest effort to infuse as much Toronto culture into their products as possible and they’re doing a fine job of it. Not every beer has been a hit with me, but the effort is keeping me engaged and happy to return to the brewery for another try.

  2. Turns out the beer is actually fairly good. Nice texture from the rye grain and it doesn’t really wear its 10%. The only problem they had at the launch is the bar was sending out old fashioned cocktails alongside the beer, so the fresh citrus twist in the cocktail sort of highlighted the lack of citrus punch in the mix within the beer. The bitters sort of overwhelmed it. I’m not sure I’d order it again, but I think it did a reasonable job of approximating the concept. I could see a couple of minor tweaks improving it, but even at that point it’s still sort of a niche property.

  3. Its not the first – good or bad is a matter of personal taste (its probably good) – but no subjectivity in being 1st or not (probably 5th in the last 3 years).

  4. Great post Ben — some breweries are just not accepted by the community out of the gate and always have to struggle to be part of the “in-crowd.” Beer bullying goes against the very concept of craft beer building community.

  5. Agreed. Either the beer is good or it isn’t, but one should not suggest either conclusion without, you know, trying the beer first.

    The craft beer scene is reminding me more and more of “indie music”—both tout the tenets of no-rules creativity and appear to invite exploration, but in practice are mired by “in-crowd” dynamics and the trappings of groupthink. Nobody wants to go out on a limb and shower praise on an “outsider” brewery for fear of their opinion not being affirmed by the cool kids. Drink what you like.

    Regarding the crystal malt pale ales, I’m not really seeing a glut of those in my area (Windsor). Every now and then I see an infusion of new labels in the local LCBOs and, anecdotally, as of late I’ve seen a notable uptick in the number of non-IPA/APA beers popping up. On a recent beer shopping spree, I counted no fewer than 5 different beers labeled Kolsch. Sure, those beers may not even resemble the traditional style, and yeah, there were still 634 cans with hops plastered all over the label, but it was a pleasant thing to see and I hope to see more of it.

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