Sunday, June 7, 2009

Oak aged Beer - Is it a fad?

In a recent edition of Beeradvocate magazine the question was posed - is oaking beer a fad? The article included quotes from folks like Jim Koch of Sam Adams, officially declaring oak aged beer a fad. Jim Koch is no stranger to oaked beers. Samuel Adams produced what was one of the first commercially viable Oaked American beers with his Utopias - a beer that would probably be undrinkable without the oak that balances out the scorching 27% alcohol. It is also worth mentioning that Utopias has only been produced for 6 - 7 years and is produced in extremely limited quantities. 

Many others have followed suit and released oaked versions of their biggest beers which sometimes even eclipse their parent in popularity and sales. So I suppose ultimately the question is - is this a fad or is it the natural outcome of an evolving American palate that is constantly looking for something new and more extreme or just something different? Is adding chocolate to beer a fad? Are fruit beers a fad? What about adding maple syrup to beer? I would speculate that the first Belgians who made bigger beers with candy sugar took some heat for not respecting the German Purity Act. It probably was dismissed at the time as 'faddish'. 
It looks like there are two components to this definition that are key: 1). That the practice or interest is short-lived. 2). That the practice or interest is followed with extreme zeal. It would be difficult to comment on the first point until sufficient time has passed. The second point could definitely be explored in the present. If we think back to fads we knew well growing up, one that comes to mind right off is the Swatch Watch. For those of you who don't remember, the Swatch Watch was a colorful, low quality watch made from rubber and plastic that every kid had to have if he was to avoid all of the stigmas that come from possessing bad fashion sense. Inside of a couple of years Swatch had sold hundreds of thousands of these garish and impractical timepieces (most did not have any hour markers and were very difficult to actually tell time with). Only a few years later, any cool kid wouldn't have been caught dead with a Swatch. The 'exaggerated zeal' aspect of a fad has to do with folks blindly following a convention in the interest of not feeling like the odd man out. Isn't that why we call it a fad- because we all recognize the ephemeral nature of it and the silly 'me too' zeal behind it? 
For my part I would hesitate to put oaked beers into this bucket. There is a very practical aspect to oaking beer that is likely to have it hanging around for a long time. That is, the fact that oak beers really taste good to a lot of craft beer drinkers and that oaking big beers helps to bring into balance big hop profiles, massive malty sweetness and alcohol heat. Some beer drinkers don't mind any of those flavors being out of balance and prefer the non-oak version. I've found though, that plenty of people are excited to try their favorite beers with the added toasty, smoky, vanilla oak goodness in it - and actually prefer it. I might be going out too far on this limb, but maybe it's like putting Ketchup on fries. French fries taste pretty dang good on their own and we've all eaten them without Ketchup and enjoyed them but it takes them to a whole new level when they are dipped into a fresh dollop of Ketchup. It's a new way of experiencing the fries that, for many, adds greatly to the experience. 
Ultimately only time will tell if oaking beer ends up going down in history as a fad. There are allot of brewers putting their beers on oak in response to a market that is developing a palate for oaky beers. It's still on the fringe but is growing. My money is on it sticking and becoming another one of the many options presented to customers when they visit their favorite pubs or bottle shops. What are the 'fad criers' really saying? That people shouldn't oak beer? That it is no longer cool to oak beer? That oaking beer is passe because they have already been doing it for years? Does anyone who is still reading this rant even care? 

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