Wine can be looked at as beer’s more mature younger brother. While evidence suggests that beer may have been invented earlier, wine has experienced years of refined interest with little of the stigma and lulls that have affected beer such as the poor quality beer that dominated America in the last century. Wine’s perceived superiority may not seem that way to the craft beer aficionado, but if two people talked about what they drank the night before, one a Chateau Lafite Rothschild, the other a Hair of the Dog’s Dave, it would be assumed that the person who drank the fine wine was more affluent and mature. This would be in spite of the fact that in this example the beer is not only the rarer of the two, but equally expensive per volume. Beer still has a ways to go in leveling the playing field. In this series we will offer some ideas brewers could use in that regard.
Wine is fermented grapes at its simplest form. There are only a single variety of grape and yeast in most wine. Beer on the other hand is far more complex, often containing several varieties of both malt and hops, and many times from crops grown in several locations. Some beers even use multiple strains of yeast in addition to the other ingredients. The benefits of using several types of each ingredient are control and consistency. Any variation in the quality of one ingredient is less pronounced due to the fact that it simply makes up a smaller portion of the recipe as a whole, therefore creating a consistent product over time. Also, the use of several ingredients allows the brewer to gain the control to utilize the best qualities of each ingredient.
Now what if a brewer used only one malt from a single piece of land, one yeast strain, and one variety of hop, also from a specific local? It may seem as though the beer would be lack luster, but there would be many benefits, especially when applied to full body styles such as barley wines because of the massive amount of flavor inherent in the style.
The first of these benefits is transparency and, by result, the application of the vintage to beer. More often you might hear the term “vintage” used for beer that has been aged. In this context we are using “vintage” to describe a beer that varies from year to year. A minimalist beer would allow variations from year to year to be more noticeable. Things like drought and temperature could vary the quality of the malt or, more likely, the hops in such a way as to give the consumer sense of terroir (the flavor imparted to a beverage by the environmental conditions its ingredients were exposed to) that connects them on a deeper level to their drink. We not only see this practiced with fine wines, but also with single malt scotch, where each region has different qualities found in the finished product due to the environment and other factors surrounding where the scotch was distilled or the wine was made.
Another benefit would be a better understanding of beer ingredients for consumers. When a beer is minimal, each ingredient can be more easily identified. Subtleties of different malt and hop varieties would be more pronounced and therefore more easily appreciated. This can be seen in some of the traditional German styles, such as Pilsner.
Brewers can use minimalist beers to showcase their talent, as it takes far more technique and skill to make a complex beer from few ingredients than from several. Also, beer that is minimal enough to showcase variations of vintages could be used to sell contracts for specific amounts of beer before the beer is ready, known as futures. While futures contracts could be used for any beer, successful use of them comes when tied to a product where yield and/ or quality are variable. Look for a more in depth article on beer futures in the future, pun intended.