Does Size Matter? The American Obsession with Big Beers.

Shawn Kerr/ Head Brewer, Beer Geek, and closet Spice Girls fan
As a young Irishman I grew up trying to convince myself size doesn’t matter.  It’s about spirit right?  Back up, get your mind out of the gutter; I’m talking about my slight frame, short stature, and a heart of an Irishman.  While, it may be true that size doesn’t matter, this notion of the biggest, the best, and the boldest permeates American culture.  We want the biggest burger, the largest truck, the most exotic foods, and the most extreme beers.  We are a culture, generally speaking, that is obsessed with “the biggest” and beer is no exception.

 If you don’t believe me take a peak at the “Top 250” on Beer Advocate, or similar on Rate Beer.  On Beer Advocate’s “Top 250” we find three beers in the top 30 that I could even begin to classify as a “normal” beer, Zombie Dust from 3 Floyd’s, PseudoSue from Topping Goliath Brewing, and Julius from Treehouse Brewing.  And, let’s be honest, Zombie Dust is an extreme American Pale Ale at 6.2% and aggressively hopped with copious amounts of Citra hops – enough that I would run out of Citra hops for the year on two 30-BBL batches.   The remainder of this list is littered with imperial stouts, imperial/double IPAs, some barleywines, and sour/wild beers (Cantillion dominates this list as they should). 

 I can’t comment on the obsession, as that is beyond my meager understanding of societal pervasions, but I can comment on the trends I observe in the beer scene and the market in general.  Higher alcohol, hoppier, and flavor-bomb IPAs, using massive late addition and dry hop schedules are dominating the market in sales.  The norm of a 6% IPA has receded with the standard being pushed towards 7% and higher.  IBUs are being pushed into and beyond 100 IBUs as standard as well. 

 Sour beers, barrel-aged imperial beers, and to some degree barleywines, are dominating as well.  When was the last time every beer geek in your city crawled out of their beer cave to stand in line for hours in wait of the new American brown ale from Goose Island?    

With that said, I also see a slight trend shifting towards a little more balance in the American craft beer culture.  We are seeing more “sessionable” beers.  Again, another American bastardized term that points to a beer that isn’t going to get you black-out if you have more than one.  I think most other cultures just call this a beer.  Call it what you want, but as a brewer I welcome this balance, and accept this challenge.  Let’s make some delicious beers that we can have a few of, and not fall off the barstool. 

Locally, to give a quick shout-out, my friends over at Community Beer Works have been doing just this, especially with their new IPA, That IPA, weighing in at 5% ABV, but still packing a flavor bomb of citrusy hops without leaving your head spinning.  Not only is it a delicious beer, it is also a beer that can be sustained in the small, local brewing market with the rising costs of both hops and grain. 

 As much as I love the extreme beers, and we plan to have our fair share of these big beers at 12 Gates Brewing in the future, I look forward to the American beer culture finding a little more balance, and appreciation for the “sessionable” beers. 

Remember, it doesn’t always matter how big it is, but quality always matters. 


Cheers!  
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