Does beer hear what wine says?

David | Blog | December, 08 2011 | No Comment

A couple of days ago a beer colleague left for me a copy of an October article from the Chicago Tribune on overrated, overpriced wines.  I’m sure he was hoping to provoke a similar conversation about beer. The relative price and value of beer has long been a popular topic in the beer blogosphere.

Normally I trend on the liberal side of this argument—I rarely begrudge a brewer or retailer the price of a good beer if there is some logic behind it. Mass-produced beer by definition costs less to make because there are efficiencies achieved. The last thing I want from the craft brewer is a reluctance to create something outstanding due to price point considerations.

Is it wrong for a beer (or a wine) to list for $599 on E-Bay?

On the other hand, I have little interest in overhyped, overpriced, artificially “rare” beers, and yet I can understand their appeal for certain beer enthusiasts and for the brewing companies who sell them. The wine article really speaks to the ideas of value, vs. hype, and finesse vs. boldness, themes that certainly have a familiar ring these days for craft beer fans.

Author Bill St. John notes that the 1982 red Bordeaux wines spawned an array of big fat, boozy reds that continue to hog the attention of the wine world.  While they should have their place, he argues, these brutes should not have crowded out so many other kinds of wine. But that is exactly what they have done. It might be argued that big, fat, hoppy, extreme beers cause similar migraines among some beer geeks.

But the pendulum swings.

Throughout the emergence of the extreme beer, there has been a small but steady interest in session beers, and regular beers. For wine?

“It is primarily a set of younger wine drinkers seeking lower-alcohol reds with greater finesse. But they are just coming into their own.”

Hmm… session wine?

About those big wines, St. John says:

“They are not what I believe better wine should be – about place, the very earth from which it comes.”

This illustrates one of the fundamental differences between wine and beer. Wine is all about agriculture, while beer is more like cooking. But recently, thanks to the expanded interest in (and understanding of) hops by beer consumers, there is an agricultural aspect to beer too. I see this in single hop pale ales and other beers with ingredients of specific origin.

Another continuing topic of debate in beer is whether or not brewers are too slavishly devoted to brewing along traditional style lines. I take a moderate view here—I love classics and weirdoes. Not sure if there is a wine correlation for this discussion.

For so long, especially in the U.S., beer was a lowest-common-denominator drink, while wine was prestigious and complicated. It is great to see the two moving closer to the center.  In the end, the best examples of both beer and wine, no matter how assertive or how subtle, should do two things. They should offer balanced, interesting flavors and stimulate sharing, conversation and camaraderie.

If an artificially-high price prevents casual enjoyment, everyone loses. But if overbearing price concerns keep a winemaker or a brewer from producing something truly spectacular, I would say we lose too.

Oh, and the cheese? Well if you want to pair a really nice moderately-priced cheese with an equally affordable wine or beer, you have plenty of options, especially from small Wisconsin cheesemakers, some of whom paid off their mortgages decades ago. How about a Carr Valley Creamery cheese with a beer from Stevens Point Brewery. You could just as easily match a really nice, barrel-aged American beer, (say something from The Lost Abbey),  with a special seasonally-released cheese that fetches a premium price. I’m thinking Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery.

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