I remember where I was the first time I heard someone say “that’s not even beer.”
I was in an elevator in a Denver hotel on my way to the Great American Beer Festival, and a guy standing next to me, a beer judge according to his dangling ID, looked like his best friend had just died.
“What’s the matter?” someone else asked him.
“I’m judging malt liquor all morning,” he admitted with a look of deep regret.
“What? That’s not even beer!” the questioner spat out with disbelief.
That was more than 20 years ago, and it still strikes me as a funny exchange. Probably even funnier now, because there are beers being made, and sold, and consumed with gusto, that make malt liquor look downright traditional.
What is beer, then? It has to be fermented from grain—and not distilled—but once you get past that, you get more like...guidelines.
Beer does not have to have hops, despite some laws to the contrary. (For one, gruit uses a blend of other botanicals, and it’s definitely beer.) Beer doesn’t have to be carbonated, it doesn’t have to be boiled, it doesn’t have to be filtered, or chilled, or aged, or bottled.
Stripped down to the very basics, a bowl of thin gruel that fermented would be beer. Building up from there, you can really add almost anything to the mix and use a range of production methods. The beers we’re used to drinking—like pilsner and other light lager, stout, IPA and pale ale—have occupied a fairly narrow range over the past 50 years, one that has only recently begun to broaden significantly.
So let’s have a look at what beer is, and can be.
We all know the familiar beers: central European lagers, British ales, Irish stouts, Belgian ales of various types, and, yes, American light beers and the denigrated and debased malt liquor. You may know some of the traditional beers on the fringes of what’s “normal,” like the spontaneously fermented lambics of Belgium, those gruits I mentioned earlier, various fruit beers and sour beers.
But it goes a long, long way further out than that if you explore the most remote extremes of what’s called “beer.” Dip your attention into the Reddit streams and Facebook groups that discuss beer on the cutting edge, and the extreme homebrewing groups. It’s really kind of crazy out there.
Start with something familiar: IPA. A new sub-category pops up every eight months or so. Sour IPAs and IPAs with a rainbow of added fruit have joined the standard IPA, double IPA, and session IPA. Is IPA too bitter for you? Try the New England IPA, which is hazy, aromatic, and full of hop flavor but without the bitterness, or a brut IPA, bracingly dry from a full fermentation. There are even “Zero-IBU” IPAs, brewed so that they come in at zero when measured for International Bittering Units, despite having pounds and pounds of hops in every barrel. If IPA is too menacing, why not try a milkshake IPA with added lactose, or a pie IPA with yummy fruit?
But that’s just getting started! There are pastry stouts, with flavors like coconut, chocolate, oatmeal, figs, and caramel. There is a full range of coffee beers, from eye-opener espressos to sweet-and-spiced Vietnamese coffee brews. I had a horchata beer that sure did remind me of almonds and sweet rice, with cinnamon.
There are revivals of largely extinct beer types, twists on classics, and juxtapositions of unlikely ingredients. A couple of weeks ago, someone sent me an actual tap list from Denver that had so many unusual options that it sounded like the basis of a Portlandia skit. The place was serving an open-fermented “Norwegian raw ale,” a Czech pilsner brewed with unadjusted Denver tap water (Okay, not that scary), almond milk stout aged on Thin Mints, and a coconut milkshake IPA aged on dragon fruit, vanilla, and coconut milk.
Those last two verge on what I think of as “stunt beer,” like beers made with donuts, or Peeps. There’s a whole sub-category of beers made with additions of breakfast cereals, like Lucky Charms and Fruity Pebbles. I have to put glitter beer in here as well, brewed with a big dose of food grade glitter, so it looks like My Little Pony’s Beer.
There’s also a range of gose beers, and gose is weird enough on its own. Gose is a relic from Leipzig, Germany, a tart wheat beer made with coriander (or cilantro) and salt. Gose almost died out in 1945, was revived and then almost died out again in 1966, but apparently someone forgot to put the stake back in its heart, and it revived. I don’t get the demand for a sour beer with coriander and salt. Maybe it isn’t to drink? Dogfish Head just released a Super Eight Super Gose that you can use to develop film. Not kidding, they worked on it with help from Kodak.
Gose’s natural character made it easy to add things to it, because it was crying out for a better flavor. (Okay, yes, that’s my personal prejudice speaking; gose is perhaps the only style of beer I just don’t care for.) So you can now find gose with the following added flavorings: cherry, cucumber, melon, blood orange (there are a lot of blood orange beers out there right now), hibiscus, key lime, mango, guava, passionfruit, peach, blackberry, raspberry, cranberry, spruce, agave, pineapple, plum...There are more, a lot more. You get the idea.
Want a cocktail? Why not have a beer that tastes like one instead? No, I don’t know why you’d want that either, though I did find it hard to resist a Negroni-inspired beer that was served in a quart jug, called a “Negrowler.” Get a pint of Old-Fashioned (beer), Mojito (beer), Paloma (beer), Long Island Iced Tea (beer), or Sex on the Beach (beer), you knew it was coming.
I could go on and on, just with crazy ingredients—I saw a dill pickle lager this morning—but let’s wind this part up with a quick nod to the beers made with meat. Yes, meat, because there are beers made with brisket, and bull testicles, and an Icelandic beer that is made with whale testicles...that are smoked over a sheep dung fire. Check the date: it is not April 1. Dung-smoked whale testicle beer.
I’ll try any one of these. And in fact, I have tried quite a few of them already. It’s my job, after all. But these are the beers that get some people shouting, “that’s not even beer!” As a result, there are frequent calls for “beer-flavored beer” (there are even a few beers named that), a good old-fashioned beer, like dad used to make.
But when people say that, they mean a fairly narrow range that doesn’t include a lot of historic types of beer. After all, gose is a traditional beer, but hardly anyone in America had ever heard of it until about fifteen years ago. Go further back to the early years of beer, and let me know what you think of Mumme, made with wheat malt, oats and beans, spiked with fir bark and tips, handfuls of seeds and herbs, “bruised bayberries,” and whole eggs. All of that was brewed and then bunged into a barrel for two full years. Mmmm, boy! Beer-flavored beer!
It seems like every generation faces a beer that some say “isn’t beer.” The first batch of Guinness Stout made with raw roasted barley seems likely to have faced resistance. Japanese brewers met a stiff increase in malt taxes by brewing low-malt beers, happoshu (“sparkling wine”). When the government responded by taxing happoshu, the brewers made daisan no biru (“the third beer”), with little or no malt at all.
There were a whole set of über-beers, starting with the well-established German EKU 28 and the Swiss Samichlaus, both lagers that pushed north of 12 percent alcohol by volume. Samuel Adams laid a path upwards with Triple Bock, Millennium, and then Utopias, topping out around 28 percent. BrewDog responded with Tokyo* (18 percent), Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32 percent) and Sink the Bismarck! (41 percent), the last two done with the assistance of freezing to concentrate the alcohol. Some people reacted badly. “That can’t be beer, it’s too strong!” Poppycock. And please hand me another, I can still feel my lips.
I’d love to use my years of beery experience to make a ruling, saying this is beer, but this is not because it’s just a joke. People who heard I was writing this story asked me to “lay down the law,” but...it’s not that way.
If it’s fermented from grain, it’s more than likely beer. Anything else you do to it, with the exception of distillation, isn’t going to change that. If it’s good, people will drink it. If it’s good enough, they’ll drink it more than once. I don’t have to like it for it to be beer; neither do you.
That said, I’m likely going to have a nice cold, crisp pilsner with lunch. It tastes like beer.