Victors in the world of competitive barbecue are judged by just a single bite. Thus, when you’re producing some ribs or brisket for the blind tasting, competitors look to pack each and every possible bite with an overwhelming amount of sugary, salty, smoky, fatty flavor. The funny thing is, were you to actually try to eat an entire meal of these “competition” ribs or brisket, you couldn’t. They would be far too sickly sweet, way too nauseatingly rich.
When I look back at how I used to judge beer, I’m embarrassed to say I once acted like those blind-folded barbecue judges.
In my twenties, I strictly sought out the most ingredient-laden beers around. IPAs hopped and dry-hopped and perhaps even Randall-ized with numerous avant-garde varietals. Imperial stouts packed with more sugary adjuncts than an ice cream sundae bar. Sours jammed with a fruit salad of funk. Often these were enjoyed in few-ounce pours, sometimes as part of a tasting flight. Much better than having a full pint of something “drinkable,” something traditional, something not much different than the macro-lagers the craft beer industry was running from in the first place.
Which, makes it funny that, lately, I’ve found myself almost exclusively searching out and drinking beers I would have once labeled, gasp, “boring.”
Pilsners. Helles lagers. Kölsch, and not Citra dry-hopped ones either. Mexican-style crushers based on old-timey Vienna-style brews. As I reach my late-thirties, I’ve come to appreciate technically skilled, four-ingredient beer-making, and fallen in love with clean, crisp, drinkable styles.
How did I get so boring in my old age?
If you were a craft beer drinker, you loved these beers, because they were so far away from the boring beers the masses still drank.”
In a way, craft beer specifically arose to combat quote-unquote “boring” beer. From post-prohibition up ’til, oh, let’s say, the early-1980s, most consumers’ only choice was boring beer. Rice- and corn-packed industrial lagers, none much different from any other. Many came from the same exact factories in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Golden, Colorado. Buds in a different bottle you could say.
It got even worse in the 1970s when the beer industry tried tackling a most tricky riddle. Could boring beer be made even more boring? It could, and soon these 5% alcohol by volume adjunct lagers were being undercut by 4.2% “lite” versions. The preponderance of beer was now watery, thin, and, yeah, “less filling.”
Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams and the earliest craft breweries were an answer to those boring beers. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale might very well have introduced America at large to hops, always used in beer, but so rarely used to create an appreciable flavor and aroma. While Samuel Adams gave the world an honest-to-god beer that was kinda dark. By the 1990s, “extreme” beer had arrived, the Mountain Dew-ification of brew. We can laugh at it now, but it was anything but boring to our as-then unstimulated palates.
Starting in 1995, Dogfish Head offered a motto of “Off-centered ales for off-centered people,” while presenting beers made with peaches and raisins and beet-sugar, boozy beers hovering around 20% like their World Wide Stout and 120 Minute IPA. California’s Stone Brewing opened a year later, proclaiming “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.” They released hop bombs like Arrogant Bastard and Ruination IPA (“By the time you develop a taste for this beer, you may find that you are permanently ruined from being able to enjoy lesser brews.”).
If you were a craft beer drinker, you loved these beers, because they were so far away from the boring beers the masses still drank. And that you never would drink again.
Was any craft brewery making boring beer back then? Not that I recall. Plenty of breweries were making bad beer, but it was always in an attempt at being interesting. Styles like pale ales and milk stouts, the major breweries would never touch. Meanwhile, the craft breweries of the time wouldn’t dare touch lagers and pilsners – too indistinguishable from what BudMillerCoors made.
In the winter of 2015, I headed to Munich and then Prague, the Bohemian and Bavarian homes of some of the most iconic beers styles the world has ever known. I had become burned out by the overwhelming flavor, ingredients, and downright silliness inherent in modern American craft beer. I wanted to reset my palate, revisit these traditional classics, and again find the simply joy in just drinking beer again.
In Munich there really aren't any bars with 50 different taps and a bottle list of thousands of rare offerings. Mostly it's just giant beer halls and hauses, often serving one legendary brewery, and only one legendary brewery’s line of beers. Just a few different styles that haven’t changed in centuries.
You pull up to a table or booth and have a long session, downing steins of, say, Hofbräu Original or Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier.
In Prague, all I cared about was, of course, pilsner. Searching for the freshest tanks of Pilsner Urquell, then checking off pint after pint after pint. No need to Untappd that. Hitting up U Fleků for their dark lager, literally the only beer they serve. No need to even say what you want, a head nod denoting “Gimme ’nother” will suffice.
I certainly talked to my wife a lot more that week than I do in America, where I spend most of my time at a beer bar, head ducked down into a massive menu, trying to find something “interesting,” something I’ve never tasted before. It can get exhausting.
(Sidenote: I find nothing funnier than the fact that, according to RateBeer users, Munich—perhaps the most important city in the history of commercial beer—has only one establishment in the whole city that is highly rated. So...a beer scene about as good as Boise, Idaho, right?)
Things are changing in Europe, though, and I’m not sure it’s for the better. Most European cities are now trying to become more new-wave American when it comes to beer – with juicy IPAs, dessert stouts, and fruited kettle sours. You go to, say, Copenhagen or Berlin or, even parts of Prague, and it’s like Brooklyn, Jr.
While, oddly, many breweries in America are starting to become more old-school Europe in ethos. Which is, luckily, the same way my palate has been heading.
He doesn’t need any gimmicks, doesn’t need any bells or whistles to create something incredibly flavor-packed and extremely interesting.”
There’s actually a Boring Brewing, believe it or not. Its logo depicts a man placing his hand over his mouth as he suppresses a yawn. Of course, Boring Brewing is in Boring, Oregon, and has a motto of “The only Boring thing about this beer is where it’s made!” Indeed, their Big Yawn IPA is an ironically playful name. It hardly sounds boring, made with a self-described “proprietary” blend of hops and “generously” dry-hopped to boot.
The actual most boring, or, rather, “best” boring brewery in America at the moment, might be Suarez Family Brewing. I say that lovingly – they’re my favorite brewery in America these days and, in my belief, perhaps the best brewery in the entire country too. Located in New York’s Hudson Valley, they’re surely the anti-“barbecue bite” brewery.
Just a year ago, upon first visiting their taproom in Livingston, I found a pleasant space with a good eight beers on tap. None of which I had tried before. Well... I wanted to try them all. So I ordered a flight.
The bartender cleared his throat and told me that, at Suarez, they believe their beers are best enjoyed one-at-a-time, in a full glass. I felt like a real dope. Because he was right. Suarez doesn’t make these extreme beers that you can completely “get” in just a sip. You need to spend time with them. 20 minutes, 16 ounces. Owner/brewer Dan Suarez surely wouldn’t call his beers boring – they aren’t – but what he calls them instead are “little.”
Country beers, unfiltered lagers, crisp pale ales. These aren’t brash beers that announce themselves with crazy ingredients. They aren’t beers that will “ruin” your palate. They’re beers for a mature drinker who is ready to find beauty and complexity in simplicity.
Old-Fangled, a blonde ale brewed with kamut, an ancient grain.
Qualify Pils, a straw-colored pilsner, crackery with a touch of bitter hops.
His Palatine Pils I find truly eye-opening.
Yes, it’s “just” a by-the-book German pilsner, but it is absolutely packed with tropical notes. A whole glass is a journey of different tastes, from melon to peaches to, as it warms a bit, the more grassy and then biscuity hints. Suarez will later tell me that’s because none of his lagers are filtered – he thinks that strips these delicate beers of all their flavors and aroma.
From start to finish I can’t help but marvel at the craftsmanship of each and every one of Suarez’s beers (and, yes, I do find a way to try them all, flights be damned). He doesn’t need any gimmicks, doesn’t need any bells or whistles to create something incredibly flavor-packed and extremely interesting. Yes, occasionally he adds fruit and throws his beers in a barrel, but for the most part these are simple beers meant for drinking. Not meant for getting viral internet articles written about them.
(“You Won’t Believe What Exotic Animal Part This New Beer is Being Brewed With!”)
I’ll readily admit, Dan Suarez’s offerings are beers and styles I would have completed ignored in just 2008 or so. I would have probably skipped his brewery altogether – lagers??? Boooring!!! – and gone to another brewery with plenty of high-gravity nonsense.
By the end of 2016 I had named Palatine Pils one of my top beers of the year.
An imperial stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, and maple syrup? Gimme gimme gimme.”
I recently caught up with some other beer writers at Covenhoven. One of Brooklyn’s best beer bars, they offer plenty of bottles and cans to stay or go. They always have a splendid, esoteric tap list of which you can buy small taster pours of anything. On a recent Monday evening there, the list counted experimentally-hopped IPAs from many of the region’s top purveyors and sugary stouts from around the world. Yet, I noticed most of us writers were drinking full pints of Industrial Arts Metric, a clean and crisp pilsner.
We talked about beer over our pints, but more told war stories about the industry, as opposed to fetishing any whalez or playing any sort of “You haven’t had that yet?” one-upmanship like we might have in our younger days. The upcoming local release we were most excited to try was an Other Half and Interboro collaboration. Two of Brooklyn’s hottest IPA makers, they had just combined to make a 4.5% Helles lager, with a label paying homage to Rothaus Pils Tannen Zäpfle, one of my most favorite boring standbys.
On one of the final rounds of the night, a friend changed his pilsner order, instead opting for a small pour of Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Vanilla Maple Shake. I joked to him that back in the day, that would have so obviously been the first beer I ordered upon entering the bar. An imperial stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, and maple syrup? Gimme gimme gimme.
Now, though, at 13%, with so many palate-punishing flavors, with such a strong potential for being cloying, with it being near midnight, (and, god, what about all those calories?) it didn’t really hold much interest for me.
“It’s good, though, wanna try it?” he asked.
Well, why not?
I took a small sip. Thick and viscous, like chocolate syrup, it was hardly boring.
It was, in fact, quite delicious.
But there was no need for that second bite.
I ordered another pint of pilsner.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.