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Shiny New Beer

Let’s not beat up on old faves because we like something new

Pints | by Jason Foster

With the brewery explosion across the prairie provinces (heck, across Canada) these days, there’s no shortage of new and interesting beer for consumers to try. New breweries are popping up everywhere — the number in Saskatchewan has tripled in the past couple years — and many of them deliver fresh takes on our favourite styles.

It is all great, but it’s also creating a tendency among some beer fans (not all by any stretch) to combine their embrace of the new up-and-comers with a casual disparaging of the craft breweries that have been around for awhile.

The argument goes something like this: new brewery X has all of these interesting beers. They try new things and create flavours people aren’t used to. By comparison, older brewery Y’s beer is boring, unimaginative and conservative.

Thus, brewery X must be better and more worthy of our attention and dollars.

I want to break this logic down a little bit.

The argument’s underlying premise is that the newer brewery is “better”, because it’s making beer with flavours, interpretations and such that the consumer hasn’t seen much before — at least not locally. In contrast, the older brewery has been brewing the same beer for years — setting aside seasonals and experimental one-offs — and that beer is more “pedestrian” and therefore not as good.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. Partly it’s an argument based in fact — to a degree. If I look around at some of the newer breweries opening up, certainly many of them are experimenting with new styles, processes, flavours and aromas. They’re trying some things we don’t see from the more established breweries, whose brands are longstanding. (I’m being careful not to name names here as my point is a general one and not directed at any specific breweries.)

But I also think the argument falls prey somewhat to Shiny New Thing Syndrome (SNTS). We in the beer world are often predisposed to like a beer we haven’t tried before. It’s why we embrace seasonals and rush to the store to pick up a new arrival. So it fits that we’ll be quick to try the brewery that just opened up. And that’s completely fair.

Unfortunately, the flip side of that tendency is to sub-consciously downgrade that which we’ve had many times over. It simply isn’t as exciting. But not as exciting is not the same as poorer quality. It’s still the beer it always was — it is us that have shifted.

Second, I think the argument falls victim to selective vision. We are likely to ooh and aah over that new brewery’s sour beer, aromatic IPA, DIPA or big stout. It can be easy to forget that same new brewery also has a blonde ale, pale lager, or session ale as part of their line-up — and those are often their best-selling beer. So, are they all that different than the older brewery, which is also likely to have some interesting seasonals and one-offs in addition to their mainstays?

My point is: there’s a tendency to cherry-pick the new brewery’s most interesting beer and compare it to the older brewery’s most mainstream beer, which is unfair.

To extend that point further, the argument also discounts a basic reality about selling beer in Western Canada. No matter how creative you are, no matter how interested you are in pushing boundaries, if you want to operate a brewery that produces a decent volume (there are different rules for very, very small nano-breweries), you must have at least one beer in your line-up that has a broader reach to consumers who are new to craft beer.

I often hear negative comments about older breweries’ reliance on fruit beer or a light-bodied ale/lager. The commenters seem to blame the brewery for making such a “boring” beer. This criticism forgets two key things. First, it forgets that customers — not breweries — decide what the most popular beers are. Why should/would a brewery ditch a beer that people clearly like, especially if its success creates space for them to play around with more adventurous beer? They’re not homebrewers. They can’t just brew what they like; a brewery has to be viable financially.

Second and maybe more important: the comments reveal snobbery. Sure, fruit beer isn’t my go-to style by any stretch, but as a beer judge and experienced beer drinker, I am well aware my preferences are not the point — at least in terms of evaluation. The only question that matters is: how well made is that fruit beer? You might like IPAs — and that’s fine — but don’t criticize a brewery for making a decent blonde ale.

Much of the discussion of new breweries versus old breweries is a false dichotomy, in my mind. They actually have more in common than you might think. Both are trying to appeal to a wide range of beer drinkers, and that’s not easy.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s time give the old standards a bit of a break.