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.