Same As It Ever Was: A Case for Variation in Beer

There’s a joke that gets tossed around the beer geek scene a lot. You take a pretty well renowned beer, one people always look forward to the release of, and you say, “It was better last year.” Every year, you say that. That’s the joke. Because, in a lot of cases, it should taste the same, right? That’s the point of beer—that it tastes the same, over and over again. An old familiar friend who never changes, that same old guy you’ve always known who’s always just as bitter and fruity as he’s always been.

That metaphor went a little haywire. Sorry.

Anyway, the joke is that annual beer releases—or beer in general, really—is supposed to taste the same, year after year. But there’s always some drift, hence why it was better last year. Or last month. Or the last batch.

All of this made me wonder: isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t it make sense that the flavor shifts year to year? Or batch to batch? Sure, some of the larger, more technically advanced breweries with higher brewing capabilities (read: more money) have the abilities to produce the same beer in nearly every parameter that exists.

But brewing on a smaller scale, or better yet as a home brewer, means that a lot of that consistency can be hard to reach. If you don’t have a means for controlling the temperature of a mash, the beer will be different. Same with fermentation temperature. (Of course, I don’t personally know a lot of home brewers who often brew the same recipes annually expecting the same beer, but I’m sure there are some.)

Let me put it like this. It’s pretty damn difficult to brew the same beer with 100% consistency, especially on a large scale. That’s one reason why you hear so many professional brewers give props to the big three for being able to brew the same beer on an unthinkably massive scale all the time. Unfortunately, impressive as that is, it may also have set the tone that all beer should taste the same, year to year, batch to batch.

Personally, I like the idea of flavor drift. And I’m not even talking about beers that are blended: traditional lambic and gueuze or American wild ales. For beers like that, especially anything aged in barrels, it’s almost a necessity that the beer be blended to create a consistent flavor. Not all barrels are equal, and the amount of oxygen they let in can have a huge impact on the flavor. In fact, many traditional Belgian brewers keep a few barrels of extremely lactic beer—usually called “sour beer,” over there—to blend with their maltier, less acidic beer to get the flavors you taste. But I’m talking about standard saisons, farmhouses, stouts, even IPAs to an extent.

Let’s consider wine for a second. It’s obvious that beer is trending in the direction of wine (a lot of producers, similar products, lots of barrel aging). A big difference between wine and beer, though, is that wine is expected to taste different year to year: “Oh, 2013 was just a fabulous year for the Cabernet, wasn’t it? Much, much better than 2011, wouldn’t you say?” (I wrote that in a snooty accent.) Terroir—the flavor of the land—drives the differences in the grape crop every year, which affects taste and quality. And wine is simply that: grapes and yeast. Compare that to beer, where you’re using malt, hops, water, yeast, and any number of other adjuncts to complete the flavor. Malts can vary wildly year to year, sugar content can fluctuate, and that can all change the flavor of the final product. Hops are as finicky as grapes—the alpha acids that occur in hop oils can vary drastically depending on the growing season. Water profiles have a profound effect on brewing, and brewers don’t always use regular city water. Odds are, they’re adding different salts and minerals to change the water profile. (In a talk I once heard homebrew guru John Palmer give about water, he said, “Of course we change our water. We’re brewers. We fuck with everything.”) And I can’t even begin to count the various different strains and species of yeast that brewers have at their disposal—and the different ways they ferment at different temperatures.

Given all of that potential for variation based simply on agriculture, there are two options. First: fix it with science. Josh recently showed me a malt analysis report (something I didn’t know existed). There are numbers on there that confound me, that I would have no idea what to do with. But in the right hands, they can be used to tweak a recipe to ensure the same gravity is hit, and the same flavor profiles are developed. And hop oils can be adjusted with math, but combine the two and it’s not a simple task to take the same beer you made last time with specific malts and hops and remake it with different malts and hops. However, you can reorder the same yeast strain, you can hold that yeast at a very specific temperature, and you can science your way to a very similar beer.

The second option is to embrace the flux that nature gives us and use it to our advantage. Let that natural shift in the beer happen. Let the ABV swing some one way or another. Let it be a little bitterer, or shift the recipe to showcase a new hop variety. Let the yeast run free sometimes, ferment hot.

More breweries these days are starting to embrace variance in their beer, and that makes me happy. Those small, subtle differences you probably won’t notice without drinking the beer side by side allow a beer to be unique without a dramatic difference.

Central State is one of those breweries embracing drift. And for good reason: wild yeast shouldn’t be tamed—at least how I see it. Central State’s house yeast is a former homebrew pitch of White Labs WLP650 Brettanomyces Bruxellensis—a yeast traditionally meant to be added after primary fermentation to lend some funk—which has been nurtured, propped up, repitched, and on and on to become the expressive, attenuative, and flocculating yeast it is today. With Chris Bly’s science background, he qualitatively analyzed every batch that used these latter pitches (that is, he tasted them and decided if he thought they tasted good or not-so-good) to determine whether the yeast was trending in a good direction. If so, why not use it in a future batch? Why not let the yeast continue to express itself and transform the beer?

Brettanomyces and variance go hand in hand. For example, Central State’s flagship beer. If you tasted it in 2015, it tasted differently than it will in 2016. The goal is not uniformity or rigidity; it’s taste and flavor and deliciousness. That means the hops may change some—but not drastically. It may mean the yeast gets a chance to run a little wild, ferment at a higher temp. While the impact of a yeast strain isn’t always overt, I like the idea that a beer can express itself in different ways from batch to batch without it being seen as a negative quality.

Please note: I’m not talking about drastically changing a recipe, or the standards and qualities of a beer you love, or being lazy. This is about embracing the nature of wild beer, allowing it to play and create flavors with the mix of fruits and hops and yeast and malts. It’s about letting beer embrace the terroir that is an inherent part of what it is—arguably more so than it is to wine.