Craft Fixation

The New York Times published an article in early April that made me consider the current popularity of cask ale, a specific kind of craft beer.  The article, titled “When Class Meant Brie and Pears” described the fickle nature of luxury consumers of fruit, cheese, and chocolate.  Although the article discussed only high-end foodstuffs, many of the points made apply equally well to craft microbreweries.

The article’s main point – “when there is a profusion of new choices, the allure of earlier choices can begin to dim” – was named “The Brie Syndrome.”  This syndrome was used to explain the difficulty luxury goods manufacturers have in maintaining their product’s popularity.  Or, as The Times cleverly put it, there are “a wide range of food and drinks that have had a challenging time holding onto their Fancy Champion of the World status.”

If popularity is a moving target, then consumers – consumers of beer, in our case – are always looking for The Next Best Thing.  Trailblazing craft breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada were once all the rage.  But today these microbrews are now considered commonplace and ordinary; it seems almost passé to order one when so many other unique and obscure choices are available.  Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada are clearly suffering from the Brie Syndrome.

If, “in this craft-fixated era, what’s ordered in a restaurant, sent as a gift or served at a cocktail party acts as a subtle gesture about one’s level of culinary sophistication,” where does that leave us?  In my opinion, cask ale is the current Fancy Champion for the truly elite beer snobs.

Microbrewers have eagerly produced short-run and “limited time only” cask ale – also known as “real ale” by those elites mentioned earlier – which differs from ordinary beer in several ways: it is neither filtered nor pasteurized; the cask receives secondary conditioning prior to being served; and it is not further carbonated (with either nitrogen or carbon dioxide) when served.

Serving cask ale is also slightly different, requiring the use of a beer engine rather than a standard tap.  Because the cask ale doesn’t receive any additional carbonation, the beer engine uses suction rather than pressure to draw the beer from the cask, not the keg.  Restaurants have been quick to jump on the craft ale craze, with beer engines as status symbols.  And where these special taps are found, beer menus usually follow, which are oftentimes so long as to be easily confused with the wine list.

Whereas once some may have considered Miller High Life to be the crème de la crème, the “Champagne of Beers” if you will, today it is a pull of fresh cask ale that takes the cake.  “We are really evolving toward more of a connoisseur culture,” Pamela Danzinger, author of the book Let Them Eat Cake, asserts.

But does that mean beer snobs – a group I cannot deny being a part of – aren’t able to enjoy a Sam Adams, or perhaps even a High Life, from time to time?  I have to agree with Rob Kaufelt, a New York cheese shop owner, who provided this sage advice to The Times: “Things may go out of fashion, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not popular.  And like all of fashion, if you wait long enough, it’ll come back around again.”

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Published in: on May 1, 2011 at 10:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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One Comment

  1. Yo THF!

    The same applies to whiskies. There is no denying that a Glenlivet 12 or a Glenfiddich 12 is a damn fine whisky, but once you acquire a taste for Single Malts and embark on the endless journey to try it all, the two standards begin to feel pretty ordinary, when in reality, they are anything but.

    Cheers!
    G-LO


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