I often hear comments from those who have been in the beer industry a long time, or people who keep up with Beer Advocate and Rate Beer rankings about the dominance of so-called “extreme” beers. It goes a little something like this – “Gee, there are a lot of high ABV or high IBU or extreme beers out there lately. Why doesn’t anyone appreciate the great session beers anymore?”

Perhaps you’ve heard yourself thinking this very thought. Perhaps the thought continues. “If only beer writers/distributers/bar owners would focus on the session (6% ABV or under) or “regular” beers – there would be more great beers out there to drink instead of just an arms race of extremes.” Or perhaps it goes something like, “Brewers should only brew great session brews and stop trying to cater to the extreme tastes, etc. of the craft beer enthusiast/rater.”

This refrain has been echoed by brewers, too.

“Consumers’ and retailers’ lust for the latest and greatest undermines established brands and trivializes the category as a whole, sacrificing quality on the altar of novelty. One could argue that this is the direction the music industry, which is in deep trouble, has been going for years.” –Peter Egleston, from this article on The Full Pint

So, I pose several questions for you to examine:

What is the cause of this situation? Sure, there will likely be an ever-growing variety of beer to choose from, but there does seem to be a focus on one-offs, rarities, extreme beers with strong flavors, bizzare or high ABV. Some have even posed that it is that because of the writers that write about these beers.

“By doing little more than parroting the marketing-speak of advertising companies, Dan believes American beer writers are largely to blame for an industry and drinking public that’s more taken with gimmickry than artistry.” –Valley Advocate story interviewing Dan Shelton (Shelton Bros.)

All of this buzz got me thinking about my own habits, and the habits of consumers in general. When I go out to look for beer to review, like many the first thing I do is to scan the shelves for what I have not yet tried. And, in a limited market like Maine, I leap on what I can get. Sometimes, these are great regular releases, and sometimes I make a mixed six pack with the latest local seasonals. But, more often than not, a new shiny bottle of someone’s “imperial” this or “double” that catches my eye. It is human nature to seek out the rare, the new and the novel and I am certainly no exception. Marketers and product producers count on this type of behavior – and it’s no more common in beer than it is in clothing, video games or other optional (non-commodity) purchases. The argument, then, is whether or not these brews are less artfully crafted than their session counterparts and get by on their novelty alone.

So, then, are all of us craft beer consumers (regardless of whether they blog, rate or review or not) responsible for a drift towards the more extreme and rare? Of course they are! It is by nature that these are what is attractive – there is a certain thrill to finding a “treasure” at your local beer store. I really do think it’s inevitable that this will always be the case – you can’t make the same product these days and just keep going on and on forever without change. If anything, our attention spans are shorter and shorter every generation – the pace of information has kept up with our desires. And the craft beer industry produces enough variety that no one person could ever try it all – which is part of the allure, draw and challenge of being a craft beer reviewer. The difference, perhaps, between some of the people who see this perspective and myself is that I do have faith that the palates of the consumers writing about or reviewing beer can tell the difference between novelty for the sake of novelty and the artistry and creativity brought about by craft brewers.

But back to the original thought….Is the dominance of high ABV, rare, and “extreme” things a negative influence on the beer industry? or will it all shake out in the end?

“Someone commented to me that the beer culture there was going through a “teenage” phase, where the obsession was with big, badass, high-octane beers, and he was personally looking forward to a time when people began to rediscover all good beer, regardless of its ABV. Personally, I look forward to the day when the BA’s top twenty-five list contains more than two dozen Imperial this and thats and represents a broader spectrum of great beers. I think that day is coming.” –Peter Egleston interviewed on The Full Pint

I think honestly there’s a healthy dose of both going on here. If we consider the extreme brews to be gourmet food, and the session beers to be comfort food, we can see a space for both to exist. Comfort food is simple, delicious and when made well, can be the perfect meal that’s just exactly what you needed. It also takes some skill to get it just right. But will the existence of a new high-priced gourmet restaurant next to the diner that makes the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever consumed really have that much of an overall effect? I, for one, would hope that consumers should be smart enough to know where to go to get their desires met – whether that is at the counter of the diner down the street or at a private booth in the place with at 2-week wait for reservations.