Sunday, October 10, 2010

Are we importing the wrong beers? - IPA not really a traveller

With the current big thing in the NZ craft beer scene being heavy use of hops it’s hardly surprising that imports of big hopped craft beers from overseas are on the rise. Big hopped IPA’s and Double IPA’s from America, England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway and Japan are increasingly popping up around Wellington. I’m as involved as anyone in the import of these beers through my position at Regional where I range these sorts of beers and direct importers to source them. However recently in private I have started to wonder if these sorts of beers are really the best ones to ship the length of the earth.

What’s that I hear you say? But IPA is historically a travelling beer style?

Well there are two issues here. Firstly while the IPA’s of the India trade used to make the arduous journey to India they most likely bear precious little resemblance to the beers we call IPA today. While Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson are better qualified to talk about what historic IPA’s were like, I think I can safely say that the beers we call IPA today, heavily late hopped with modern resinous hop varieties, are a far cry from the IPA’s of the colonial era.
Late hop characters (i.e. flameout, whirlpool, and dry hopping) create striking aromas and flavours which are wonderful when experienced fresh, however these un-isomerised hop characters are moments in time. These beers fade really fast, they fall out of balance quickly as the stabilised hop compounds fall away and the considerable malt that was required to balance the hops is left sitting bold and prominent, the hop compounds oxidise and turn minerally leaving acrid unpleasant flavours.
The second consideration when thinking about IPA’s being a travelling style is that once the beers of old reached their harsh tropical destination the expectations were probably significantly low, any ale that didn’t resemble vinegar was probably hailed as a success and worthy of fetching a premium price. Today in an environment where we have some very good fresh locally produced options and are paying a premium price for these beers our standards are and should be higher than the ‘doesnt resemble vinegar’ threshold.
So often when I taste these modern imported IPA’s they are either heavily oxidised, or pleasant enough but obviously shadows of their former selves when compared with reports of them from their countries of origin.

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I’m not suggesting we stop bringing these beers into the country, there is a market and it will be supplied one way or another. There are brewers who attempt to prevent their beers from being exported, Stones Greg Koch for example but to little effect considering despite his best efforts I could buy 7 of his beer brands right now if I wanted to. Small scale imports that will move through quickly are also a good idea but this often prevents the economy of scale that helps these imports work financially.



Greig McGill said...

I couldn't agree more Kieran. I think there's a little more to it though.

Firstly, those "new" to craft beer often become hopheads immediately, because it's the simplest path to lots of flavour, and they have just discovered they like flavour. There's also the US more-IBUs-than-thou arms race bearing down on the fresh and open minds of these newly thirsty ones. They google to feed their passion, and they pick up on the marketing and the community buzz around the latest and hoppiest. So that's where the demand comes from. The next part is just the other half of the equation. As you said, there is a market and it will be supplied. If you were an importer, and you know you had a ready market for the hoppiest ales on the planet, even though you knew they wouldn't be tasting their best, I'm sure you'd make your customers happy too. Well, maybe you wouldn't. Bad example there! ;)

The irony is that I feel Greg Koch's beers travel comparitively well, with Stone Ruination being a favourite of Alex and myself. I tasted it on tap at SFO not long ago, and it wasn't that much more fresh really. A remarkable achievement!

I think some of the craft beer bars need to step up here. It's no good having an amazing selection of hoppy but fragile beers available when one ends up paying a premium price for sugary oxidised toffee-juice.

There's an aspect of "emperor's new clothes" here too. While down for Beervana, I was on the receiving end of several quite expensive, yet poorly preserved beers. They were clearly not right, but those with whom I was sharing them proclaimed their wonders with great gusto. Perhaps it was not wanting to admit that the beer they had just spend $40 on wasn't up to much? There was almost an element of wine snobbery about the behaviour, with nobody wanting to call a spade a shovel. I feel that part of being a knowledgeable craft beer bar is to ensure the stock is fresh and has travelled well. If this means taking less risks on some of the more exotic beers, so be it. From the consumer side of the equation, I think we need to be bolder about returning bad beer. This is where I always fall down, as I have a ton of love and respect for any bar which has put its nuts on the block by stocking rare and expensive beer. I hate knowing that my sending a beer back might send the message "you should play it safe". The solution is to speak to the owner or knowledgeable staff member, but as an out-of-towner or newbie, one might not know who that is.

Anyway, this is longer than I intended. More grist for the mill I guess.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Yeah agreed. There was a time when everyone fell in love with big alc Belgians to start with, I did. At least they travelled well.

Some of it is emperors clothes but alot of punters have no idea that they are drinking poked beer. I guess ignorance is bliss!

Dominic said...

I won't rise to Kieran's bait but I will say that I'm with Greg Koch when it comes to the condition of the Oaked Arrogant Bastard that turned up here last year. It's a much nicer beer than what we got.

Maybe revisit this discussion when you've had your first west coast beer shipped by reefer. Meanwhile go easy on the "ignorant punters" seeing past the flaws and keeping us all in business.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

I actually wasnt trying to bait you Dominic. In fact I think I am just as responsible for beers like this coming in as you along with others.

Also I think there is anouther discussion to be had about increasing the level of knowledge the punters have. If going easy on them means leaving them uninformed then no I dont think that is a good idea. The wine world trys to inform about cork taint and oxidation we should to. Quality and knowledge should be the end goal.

I agree it will be very interesting to see how the refridgerated transport goes, hopefully the pricing doesnt slow the beers turn over once they land.

Dominic said...

I think the knowledge of customers is increasing at breakneck speed and we should be glad. I look forward to the day when they start asking questions about the practices of the importers.

Sean G said...

It seems a bit patronising assuming that customers need to be educated in their consumption of imported IPA. As Dominic said, their knowledge of the beers they are drinking is growing rapidly and some drink their slightly oxidised beer with huge enthusiasm but well aware of its flaws. Imported craft beer in this country is still in its infancy and if people are occasionally drinking flawed imported beer brewed with good intentions and not mass produced and profit in mind, it must be better than them drinking Lion or DB products with complete ignorance.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

I dont think it's any more patronising than telling the guy drinking Tui that its not an IPA. My point isnt that Punters need to be educated specificaly in regards to IPA, I think they need to be educated in regards to all beer, and all flaws.
I think its great that knowledge is increasing long may it continue to do so.

Dominic said...

It's just such a complex, gray issue. We've had such mixed and unpredictable results importing hoppy beers. A bit of bottle conditioning helps a lot. And in spite of what you say, I find most IPAs are nicer at the 3-6 month mark, as long as they haven't actually be damaged. Our order of Jamieson's Beast (Australia) is tasting nicer with each keg. And the Nøgne Ø kegs (Norway), in spite of a delay in Singapore, have been lovely.

Tandleman said...

"There's an aspect of "emperor's new clothes" here too."

Too bloody true.