If the gadgets popping up in the beer world are representative of some growing trend, drinkers harbor a strange desire to “change” the beer they’re drinking. “Change” is usually couched cozily in “enhance” but this time around, I can’t help but read it as “mess with a good thing.”
I suppose modifying already brewed beer started with Dogfish Head’s Randall, a device you pass your beer through to infuse it with the matter you’ve managed to mash into the plastic chamber – coffee beans, fresh herbs, Fruit Loops, Oreos – whatever your depraved, drunken mind can think of. Although some might argue it’s just a product of American cross cultural contamination, the Randall (and it’s home-based Jr. version) might have been the lead catalysts in spawning the “dump random crap in your casks” craze that plagues perfectly good beer engines across the country. Thanks, Sam.
And then came Synek, the “beer Keurig” wanting to change how growlers worked, and how you drink beer at home. Then that baffling OnTap flavor enhancing goo, which we’d all do our best to forget. Then, as if we hadn’t had enough, came Fizzics, a bizarre device with a micro-filter that’s supposed to provide a much better head on your beer. And now we’ve got Hop Theory Sachets, basically tea bags full of hops and other dried ingredients, meant to “improve” your drinking experience with some post-brew modification.
Like, it’s cool we have options and can spend a bunch of money and wile away out leisure hours spiking beer with random stuff. Variety is the spice of life, and we’ve certainly got some potent spices to work with these days. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve quite enjoyed some augmented cask beers, even some totally not beer-ish ones like gold ale with orange peel and vanilla. I’d be hypocritical to not agree that the novelty of these gadgets makes for a fun little Saturday after you’re done at Home Depot.
I do get the appeal; brewing is a remote mountain many can’t or won’t climb, and these devices put some control back into the hands of the consumer. But, cultural industry announcement! The consumer is not the brewmaster. No matter how many Reddit articles they’ve read, or how many unique check-ins on UnTappd. I don’t want the norm to slowly be ok with changing beer that’s already finished. Therein lies the less favorable rub of gadgetry; every single one of these devices, despite a positive message of gustatory freedom, carries with it a secret. An encrypted code deeper and more important than just, “change your beer!”
All of these devices suggest that beer fundamentally should be changed – and by the consumer no less! – a concept I find insulting to brewers, and disconnecting for drinkers.
Beer isn’t always perfect. Any homebrewer can tell you some diacetyl laced horror stories. The problems aren’t automatically fixed when scaled up to multiple BBLs either. We’ve got quality assurance and consistency issues in a lot of start-up breweries. A lot of beer coming out of the fledgling “craft” movement sings a song of avoidable defects. There are some beers that downright lack, that need all the help they can get to not scorch or sting the palate.
Acknowledged, appreciated, archived.
That still doesn’t mean we, as consumers, should be willing to or responsible for somehow righting brewhouse wrongs.
Brewing is science wrapped in art. The equipment must be cleaned and the temperatures must be monitored, but the amount and type of malts and hops, and ultimately the flavor of the beers, are up to the brewer’s discretion. Like a chef, the oven and the pans are standard; the ingredients and processes where they create signature tastes. Even the worst production beer is the result of a planned recipe, an entire brew cycle, someone’s missed vision. To brew beer is a difficult labor of love; failures in the brewhouse mean missed intentions, not opportunities to perform first aid.
And that presumes these devices are intentionally marketed at poorly made beer, which I’ll argue they’re not. They’re marketed at all beer, including world class examples of styles. Some of these will be used in or on beer that is already delicious and on-point, already a manifestation of the brewer’s will and skill. To pass even a mainline, year-round beer from an award winning brewery through some random device is to suggest you know better than the brewer when it comes to the flavor of the beer. Unless of course you are a trained brewmaster. Then I guess by all means you crazy bastard.
I know, I know, I sound like a purist beer regressivist, decrying innovation because it’s scary and new. But you don’t take your own sauces and spices to a restaurant, ready to add them to a chef’s dish just because you think you can make it better. Part of paying for a product is accepting that it is packaged how the manufacturer intended it should be. When you pay for a beer, you’re paying for the expertise, training, and creativity of the brewer, not just the liquid itself. Many brewers have formal educations or have spent years apprenticing to be able to bring you delectable decoctions of fermented flavor, and you should appreciate that every time your pop a top or slip a sip.
If you really must channel your inner Warhol by trying to elevate the existing, I’m not one to stop you. Just make sure you’ve tasted the beer as it is supposed to be, as the brewer wanted you to taste it, well before you introduce it to any gadget de l’amélioration. Drink beer as beer is, as it has evolved from years of trial and error, as the yeast made it through vigorous bubbly labor. You’ll be a better beer citizen, and brewers will thank you for taking the time to appreciate their art.