There are no shortcuts to good beer: separating innovation and gimmickry

Today I was targeted on facebook with an ad for a product called “Mad Hops.” Mad Hops are “Flavored Brew Drops.” The idea is that you squirt a few drops of a concentrated liquid into your shitty beer, and the “brew drops” alchemically turn the flavor and color of the cheap beer into something satisfying and not-shitty.

A testimonial from the product’s Kickstarter site (which has already raised around $5k of its $25k goal): "Yep, you’ve turned Coors Banquet into a pale ale. Pat yourselves on the back. It adds hop bitterness, but also a malty balance as well. …” This would be all well in good, if it wasn’t complete horseshit. For starters Coors Banquet is a lager. Pale ale is (wait for it ...) an ale. Lager ferments for a longer period of time at a lower temperature than ale, and turning a lager into an ale is much like turning a pair of headphones into a hot dog, you can’t, and it’s stunningly stupid to suggest you can.

Another that recently popped up was The Oak Bottle, a startup project that is exactly what it sounds like: a small bottle, constructed of oak, with a charred interior. The product purports to allow one to “infuse extravagant aromas and flavors of oak” into wine, beer, or liquor. Most importantly, it supposedly can accomplish this in just “2 to 48 hours.” The audacity of the claim is equal parts brazen and hilarious. Any brewer who has aged her beer in oak will tell you that it takes months and sometimes even years for an oak barrel, puncheon or foudre to do the work of infusing a clean beer with oak character.

Take Allagash Curieux as a close-to-home example. To make Curieux, Allagash ages its Tripel in used bourbon barrels for eight weeks. Brewmaster Jason Perkins has been known to credit barrels as “another ingredient” in the production of his beers, and a product like the Oak Bottle is a transparently ineffective facsimile of a time-honored brewing tradition.

Then there are Pico and Art Brew, the former is a Keurig-style system that uses pods of ingredients to brew 5-liter batches of beer. You simply insert one of the pods into the machine, give it some water, set your brew for things like “bitterness” and ABV, and after a given period of time (interestingly their super slick website doesn’t indicate how long the beer actually takes to be ready) you have your own “fully custom brew.” The machine is in pre-order stage now making it a steal at $700 against what will be its eventual price of $1,000 (note: you could buy a kegerator and your first five kegs of beer for around $1,000).

ArtBrew, which raised a stupefying $701k on Kickstarter after an initial goal of $100k, is similar minus the pods. With ArtBrew (they seem now to be trying to rebrand themselves simply “AB,” due to a copyright dispute, which is hysterical) you choose which style you want to brew, then the machine instructs you on the ingredients to put in, then you press a button and “you'll have perfect beer in as little as one week.” There’s no such thing as perfect beer, and if there was it would damn sure take more than a week to make. The MSRP of the “AB” will be $989.

There is nothing wrong with technological progress, but there are certain things that don’t need to be streamlined. It’s the reason you wouldn’t open a restaurant where all the food is cooked exclusively in microwaves. It’s the reason there are still umpires in professional baseball, despite the existent technology to eliminate them. In each of those cases something fundamental about the nature of the thing would be lost. Brewing is no different. For time immemorial human beings have been brewing beer by combining water, malt, hops and yeast, and letting it ferment.

To suggest the brewing process could adequately be done soup-to-nuts in less than a week, or that two to 48 hours in a little wooden bottle will turn your alcohol into something new and wonderful, or that a couple drops of liquid in a beer will fundamentally alter its quality and enjoyability flies in the face of centuries of tradition and is an insult to brewers everywhere. Rather than spending a thousand dollars on an appliance, spend $150 on a nice homebrew kit. You’ll learn a lot more, and likely make much better beer.

Last modified onTuesday, 10 May 2016 16:56