More on Innovation

When I wrote my semi-tongue-in-cheek “In Defence of Innovation” earlier this week, I had no idea the kind of reaction I was about to kick off. Hits climbed, the comments count soared, Stan weighed in, and, of course, everything deviated well off-topic.

All of which prompted me to wake up this morning thinking that I needed to offer some clarification. This is it.

In general, I think talk of innovation in brewing needs be separated into three categories: real innovation, contextual innovation and “innovation.” First, the real deal.

I believe there is still plenty of truly innovative brewing going on out there, just not nearly as much as people seem to think. Theo Musso of Baladin intentionally oxidizing his Xyauyù is, I think, an innovative move. (Sure the result is far from a quaffing beer, but so what? It’s delicious.) Van Roy père et fils creating the lambic-style Iris with 100% malted grain is, I think, innovative. (Jean-Pierre won’t call Iris a true lambic because it lacks unmalted wheat, so neither will I.) Sam Calagione building a maturation vessel of Brazilian hardwood for Palo Santo Maron is, I think, a pretty bold and innovative move. (Not the wood-aging per se, of course, but the aging in that particular wood.) And the year-and-a-half méthode champenoise treatment of DeuS by Brouwerij Bosteels is, again, something I think is pretty innovative. (Some would award that particular innovation to Malheur, but since I have never yet been served an uncloudy glass of that brewery’s Brut, I have to question the dégorgement part of the practice.)

To say there is no space still left for innovation is like saying that there is nothing new remaining in art. So long as there is imagination, there will be innovative advances and new works of original art. It may not all be to your taste of mine, but it will be there.

Contextual innovation, I believe, is just as legitimate because it advances a particular market. The rise of the co-called Belgian IPA, for example, is a definite innovation when taken within the context of that country, and since I can claim on only a handful of visits to have supped several ales of that style within the Belgian borders, I can say with a certain amount of conviction that its small-scale popularization has broadened the selection of beers available there. Ditto the blonde best bitter in the U.K., and even the chestnut beer in Italy.

Finally, we have “innovation,” which is my way of pointing to those beers that are often classed as such, but are not in reality terribly innovative. Is the aging of beer in whiskey barrels innovative? Not since Goose Island first did it with their Bourbon County Stout. Blending beers à la Firestone Walker Anniversary series? Hardly, although the argument could be made that it is a contextual innovation, as the practice was and remains rare in the United States. The recreation of historic or obscure styles? By simple definition, no.

This does not, however, suggest in any way, shape or form that the beers created through the practices listed above, or any of the myriad other similarly non-innovative practices, are somehow inferior to truly innovative beers, or even traditionally styled beers, for that matter. Some of them I have found to be quite excellent, and if being tagged with the term “innovation” helps their brewers sell a few more cases, or command a dollar more per bottle, well, I’m okay with that.

10 Replies to “More on Innovation”

  1. I think you’ve come up with some reasonable examples. Don’t totally agree with all of them being totally new, but I’m picky. I’d have given Dogfish Head continuous hopping. In fact, that would have been top of my list.

    Belgian IPA is an annoying name, but Houblon Chouffe is still an interesting beer. We could quibble about whether it’s something totally new. I’d prefer to say, it’s a welcome addition.

    I’m no Ned.

    1. I thought about giving Sam continuous hopping, in addition or instead, but opted for the Palo Santo because: a) I’m inordinately fond of it; and b) it necessitated a massive expenditure of capital on what was, at the end of the day, pretty much just a very lucky guess.

      Agreed on the annoying nature of the Belgian IPA. And double and triple IPA, for that matter.

  2. Well, I would divide the subject into two parts: brewing and enjoying. There may have been brewing innovations recently, however, if they don’t affect the other part (enjoying), then they are only of interest to the industry and not to the consumers of beer.

    There is a lot of press about, for example, European breweries cooperating with US breweries to make a special beer. Brooklyn and Schneider, for example. From what I can see in Europe, these cooperations are primarily, if not exclusively, for the US market.

    In those circumstances, it is hard to consider these as innovations.

    However, at the end of the day: innovation, experimentation and marketing are a ménage à trois for the sake of sales. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but the number of true innovations affecting the enjoyment of beer are very, very, very few.

    And, at the end of that same day, that’s fine with me.

    1. I don’t know who “Mike” is, but he must be my twin thousands of miles away (and a genius, no doubt). He is absolutely correct, there is excitement in brewing (thus, marketing/sales) and there is excitement in enjoyment.

      While Stephen is correct in that innovation has, at least in the US, improved the quality and selection of beer from say the ’70s, unfortunately, also there’s the unwritten rule of enterprise in the US that anything worth doing, is worth beating to death. And craft brewers are merrily on their way. Within the last few years, the tide has shifted from producing for consumers’ enjoyment to racing to release the next “new and improved” exciting beer.

      Consumers who love beer have a stake in this. Despite the craft beer industry’s current market share upward mobility, and I mean current, industries here love to crash and burn. The craft beer industry needs to pull back and look at producing sustainable, enjoyable beers, not just the next innovative, exciting undrinkable (or 20 bottle special release) brew. Of course, this is just my opinion.

  3. You never really know what will be the next big thing. Someone took a chance on something new in 1842, as Steve said, and Pilsner-style beer took the world by storm. The same thing happened – not quite of the same scope, but still – with strongly hopped bitter beer, felt initially at most to be of interest only to a distant export market.

    What were the chances that, say, Bailey’s Irish Cream, or Grey Goose vodka, would become massive world sellers (or London porter)? Pretty long odds, I’d say. Yet they did and justified the faith and money of the people who bet on these products. I think the brewers trying something new (although new is relative, but never mind) hope to make a splash whether it is dry beer, ice beer, continuously-hopped beer, chile beer, whatever.

    A last point I would like to make is that while I, no less than many who have made the point, appreciate well-made beers of balance and reasonable gravity, the craft beer scene in North America is different than in Europe. Europe always had well-made daily beers of high quality (very high in England with its cask ales). That was not true here necessarily, and therefore people in the craft brewing community got the taste for wild and wooly beers. You might say many of them went from one extreme to the other. People get excited about heavily C-hopped beers, for example – I meet people like that at beer festivals and I can see they are not feigning the interest. They love Russian stout aged in a bourbon barrel. Or very sour wild ales.

    So the extreme beer phenomenon, which I agree seems mostly North American-based (perhaps even only U.S.-based, essentially) gets its impetus from a different background to brewing and beer appreciation here.


  4. Excellent points by one and all, and at the risk of coming off sounding all wishy-washy, I’d have to support the notion that the proverbial “way forward” likely resides somewhere in the middle.

    If a so-called “extreme” beer is released for the purposes of elevating interest in a brewery as a whole — and let’s face it, ultimately that’s what it’s all about — while also just happening to be an excellent beer, then it’s win-win all around. The existence of said beer does not threaten the sustainability of the brewery’s more conventional, dare I say, traditional brands, but rather elevates awareness of them, and presumably sales, too. Thus both expanding the market of available beer styles and continuing the growth of the craft beer market as a whole.

    And as a final thought before I abandon this topic for good, or at least for the time being, I need add that each and every one of the innovations I refer to in this post, and many others beside, I would class as positively affecting both brewing and enjoyment.

  5. Beer geeks have a tendency to get themselves all in a bunch about things. Basically it comes down to this; Is the beer good? (Naturally this is a subjective determination.) If the beer is good then it is worth producing. If the beer is not good then it is not.

  6. An Interesting argument, Would Anchor be classified as innovative or just as far as holding on to a smaller brewery when the market was dominated by conglomerates, (although not nearly as bad as they are today). Sierra Nevada and Red Hook might be in the same circumstance.

    In agreeing with aperfectpint I find that many beer geeks, after getting certified will only judge a beer by how well it falls into it’s particular category. If it is a finely crafted brew and is good then I will enjoy it whether or not it has the correct color hue.

  7. Bailey’s Irish Cream is a particularly apt cite, since in its original consumer panel tests it failed miserably, and it was only because the people who were behind it were convinced they really did have a winner that it went into production.

    Trivia: most opf the alcohol in Bailey’s comes from fermented whey …

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