Beer 101: New Vs. Old: The False Dichotomy
With the new brewery explosion occurring across the prairie provinces (heck, across Canada) these days, there is no shortage of new and interesting beer for consumers to try. New breweries are popping up offering their fresh take on our favourite styles.
It is all great.
But it is also creating a tendency among many (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 10 or 20 years.
The argument goes something like this: new brewery X has all of these interesting beer, 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 underlying premise of the argument is that the newer brewery is “better” because it is offering up 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 is 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 are trying some things we don’t see from the more established breweries, whose brands are longstanding. (I am 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 pre-disposed to be drawn to a beer we haven’t tried before. It is why we embrace seasonals and rush to the store to pick up a new arrival in town. So it fits that we will be quick to try the brewery that just opened up. And that is completely fair. However, the hidden aspect of that tendency is to sub-consciously downgrade that which we have had many times over. It simply isn’t as exciting. But not as exciting is not the same as poorer quality. It is still the beer it always was – it is us that has 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 brewery also has a blonde ale, pale lager, or session ale as part of their line-up – and often that is their best-selling beer.
In that regard are they all that different than the older brewery, who also is likely to be offering up some interesting seasonals and one-offs in addition to their mainstays? My point is that there is a tendency to cherry-pick the new brewery’s most interesting beer and compare it to the older brewery’s most mainstream/accessible beer, which is an unfair comparison.
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 relatively 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 brewing such a “boring” beer. This criticism forgets two key things. First, it forgets that customers – not breweries – decide what is the most popular beer. Why should/would a brewery eschew a beer that people clearly like especially if that beer creates space for them to play around with more adventurous beer? They are not homebrewers. They don’t get to only brew what they like; a brewery has to be viable financially.
Second, and maybe more importantly, the comments reveal a degree of snobbery. Sure fruit beer are not 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 is fine – but don’t criticize a brewery for making a decently made 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, which is no easy task.
Jason Foster is an Alberta-based beer writer, educator and certified beer judge. He is the beer columnist for CBC Radio’s Radioactive, Edmonton’s Vue Weekly, Saskatoon’s Planet S Magazine and writes regularly for a variety of magazines. He is also the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to craft beer on the prairies and beyond.