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Why can't Minnesota's beer drinkers just drink... beer?

Disclaimer: I like Jerard, and I like his work. I value his insight, opinions, careful reporting, and his ideas, too. He does good work.

This article about beer cocktails represents his good work, and that’s probably why it’s got me all fired up. I could forget about the piece if it were sloppy and lazy, but because it represents a clear and reasoned point of view, I can’t resist the urge to respond/engage/debate/incriminate myself. Disclaimer No. 2: I work for Summit Brewing Co. Though I am not speaking for my employer in this capacity as a beer-loving City Pages reader, it is important that I point out precisely why I am stepping up on this pedastal as a beer evangelist.

Quote: “Despite prophecies that beer cocktails were the next frontier in mixology, bars have been hesitant to embrace the union of beer and booze, and patrons seem happy to enjoy both intoxicants on their own merits.”

Response: Yes, I am happy to enjoy both cocktails and beer on their own merits. I feel seen and validated. I love a good Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, or even a Cuba Libre. I often like to drink my contraband Cuban rum or my Maker’s Mark on the rocks, and sometimes I even like to drink these straight and complement them with a sweet and spicy malt-forward pilsner. The buzz is fantastic.

Quote: “Now that we’re living in the most mature beer market in Minnesota history, Blume doesn’t see why more people aren’t intermingling the two.”

Response: Look, Minnesota’s craft beer market is large and still growing. There’s a lot of beer out there — I won’t argue with that. Additionally, a good amount of the beer is wonderful. Many brewers are winning awards and making exciting, high-quality beverages. But, speaking objectively, plenty of the beer here in Minnesota is not very good. Off-flavors, inconsistencies, and poor practices are easy to spot if you know what to look for — but so many craft beer drinkers are new to the beverage and do not know what to look for.

Do these consumers, some of whom have never tasted a pilsner, kolsch, or oxidization in their bottled beer, represent a mature market? Furthermore, many of the brewers contributing to the rapid and exciting growth of Minnesota craft beer have been in business a relatively short while.

Schell’s has been making beer over 160 years; my employer, Summit, for 32 years. But what’s the next oldest? A decade? A little less? When you have a base of consumers who are new to the beverage, and a majority of brewers who’ve not yet experienced anything but rapid growth, expansion, and a never-ending lovefest for anything and everything IPA, it’s hard to make the argument that we have a mature beer market.

Changing tastes and downturns are, unfortunately, inevitable. The ability to weather those events, whenever they occur, will help this market grow, evolve, stabilize and become mature. So, what about these new customers who are discovering craft beer via beer cocktails and experimental fermented beverages that break style guidelines and traditional boundaries? I believe they represent an opportunity for craft brewers.

They are a market waiting to be introduced to the wide range of flavors and aromas produced by hops, by grains like barley and wheat, by yeast character, and yeah, even by the occasional fruit addition or exposure to a spirit barrel. They are also an opportunity for winemakers and distilleries — beer’s age-old competitors for the drinker’s dollar.

Let me be clear: I’m all for experimentation and breaking boundaries and developing new styles — it’s exciting! Booze is delicious! But I am also very much in favor of defending what is unique and traditional and historical about beer and its four traditional ingredients — water, yeast, hops, and barley.

If we mask the flavors and aromas produced by these ingredients — everything from cereal and bread crust to sourdough, toffee, caramel, spice, floral, citrus, grass, hay, phenols, esters, and more — then we mask what is unique to beer. We communicate to consumers, however subtly, that beer on its own is not complex or deep or interesting enough. We tell them, “Hey, you don’t actually like beer. Here’s something with vodka and lime to make it taste better.”

Quote: “Brewers craft, age, carbonate, and package [beer as a finished product] to be enjoyed as is, no additions needed. To many beer nerds, even garnishing with a wedge of lime is slander. Stirring in simple syrup and a jigger of triple sec is tantamount to sacrilege… [but there are] new parameters for what brewers can accomplish when they throw Reinheitsgebot to the cocktalian winds.”

Response: I don’t want to be colored as some zealot. I am not going to preach about the Reinheitsgebot, and the consumer can do whatever the heck they like with their beer. They can drink it out of a boot or a bowl or upside-down from the keg itself. But for brewers to give in and help guide consumers straight to cocktails and wine via mixing and blending?

I’m sorry. That’s not introducing new drinkers to a complex, unique beverage with history and endless potential for experimentation. That’s pointing them straight toward rum & cokes, G&Ts, merlots and pinots. And we might not get them back.

Quote: “Craft beer in the U.S. is making the statement that we don’t have a culture to adhere to… At the end of the day, if you can make a cocktail with beer in it, and it tastes good, then damn it, you gotta make it.”

Response: Maybe Klages-Mundt is right. Maybe the 6,500 craft brewers in this country are collectively standing up and saying, “The hell with beer culture. Beer is old news and the consumer wants something new.”

But, if that’s the case, I don’t want to be like everyone else, and I’m proud to work for an independent brewery that doesn’t want to brew the same way as everyone else. I’m going to stand up and defend beer, damn it. “If you can make a cocktail with beer in it, and it tastes good, then damn it,” YOU DON’T GOTTA MAKE IT.

You can choose to do the unpopular thing, the risky thing, and brew honest-to-god beer for beer lovers. Even if it seems like you’re the last one doing it, you can still choose to do so.

Quote: “With all these breweries and all the wild and crazy things they’re doing getting accepted, now’s the time for beer cocktails.”

Response: Or… with all the chaos and confusion, maybe now’s the time to get reacquainted with the roots of all the wild styles floating around out there. Maybe now’s the time to trace history back a little ways and discover not how beer should taste, but how it used to taste. Not because one option is better than another, not because progress and change are bad, but because history is interesting, variety is to be valued, and there’s always more to learn.