—by Michael Kiser
Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune published a piece today that nicely exposes an inflection point in craft beer: the rise of the Pastry Stout. Or, rather, the comeback. I think he's right to say "craft beer is betraying itself" and "forgetting what beer tastes like." Here's why.
These beers featuring copious adjuncts that obscure the beverages they promise to be aren't new. But they are surprisingly surging at a time when many of us hoped we'd finally see the mainstream consumer drinking Saison. Of course, both can be true at once. And it's happening at a time when the entire industry—now made up of 6,000 breweries—is dealing with a much larger issue that these Pastry Stouts fit into like the cream in an éclair: do brewers still make beers they want to drink? Did they ever? Or do they make beers their customers want to drink? Prior to the rise of the Pastry Stout, we had the quick sour, the hazy IPA, even the Hoppy Pilsner—all legitimate styles vulnerable to the hype train. And most of craft beer in the U.S. was built on the moment of surprise when the drinkers asks "this is beer?!"
I've long suspected that the notion of brewers making beers for themselves first was largely hyperbole. Like all good business people, they're certainly making beers they know will sell. But a balance between commercial viability and artistic intent can, and usually is, struck. These days, I'm starting to see a different approach—basically whatever works. There's a growing anxiety that the window is closing soon, and you might as well get what you can now. The truth is, there's just more of every kind of brewer. It's not a takeover.
Meanwhile, we're watching as Not Your Father's Root Beer and other flavored malt beverages compete directly in the beer aisle. That's only possible because craft brewers started making beers that taste more like FMBs.
I've heard smart brewers like Paul Jones of Cloudwater articulate why he's open to being consumer-driven. And I've heard Sam Richardson of Other Half tell another brewer that his opinion is irrelevant because "people like it" when discussing the technical aspects of hazy IPA. But none of that bothers me as much as watching a brewer neglect their responsibility for leading the consumer into new and interesting places. Offer a Pastry Stout if you feel you must, or simply enjoy it, and especially if you can make a superb one. But the brewers I admire most use it as a gateway into something edifying, educational, and evolutionary for your customer. Not just as a stepping stone to another pastry purchase. The latter only creates a revolving door of customers looking for one thing, not a customer interested in why you're doing what you're doing, and where you're heading next. You can design your own dead-end that way.
So while I don't entirely believe most brewers when they say "I make beers I want to drink," I also don't think pandering to the ignorance of your customers is the appropriate response. That's too cynical. So much of what makes craft beer or any other craft-oriented food and beverage niche work is that there's a helpful tension between what's familiar and hype-worthy in the customer's view, and where the artisan ultimately wants to lead you with their vision. I personally like to see what someone's aiming at, even if everything they offer isn't exactly mission-driven.
When you have a highly traveled trade route like you do with craft beer in 2017, you're going to attract a lot of different merchants for different reasons. Those brewers who ready you for a journey are doing the lord's work for the rest of the industry, creating curious, well-traveled customers with discerning palates. The rest, who pander and pitch their gimmicky wares along the side of the road, are just there to separate fools from their money like a vendor selling fake Rolex watches to tourists. And either way, if you get a watch out of the deal, you can still tell time, I suppose.