I was hanging around on twitter recently, when I got to see a conversation about the difference between bland beer and bad beer. I figured I would take my time to do a little bit of a rant about bad beer and beer I don’t choose to drink.
Due to the way the craft beer is marketed, there are two main things that people look for in their craft beer. First, they look for beer that is strongly flavored such as Imperial Stouts, Double (and even Triple) IPAs, and crazy sour beers. Secondly, they look for beer that is local, because they want to support the little guy, rather than some big conglomerate like A-B/InBev, or MillerCoors. These are both great reasons to drink craft beer, and they are both reasons I drink beer (I am drinking a Fremont Dark Star as I write this), but sometimes they can lead us to drink bad beer.
When I refer to “Bad Beer,” I am referring to beer that is flawed, or has noticeable off flavors. As beer geeks and brewers, it is our responsibility to teach newer beer lovers in off-flavor tasting so we can hold our local breweries to the highest standards. While I am a huge fan of drinking local, we as a beer community also need to demand quality.
When you have a strongly flavored beer, those flavors can often hide flaws in fermentation profile, or even in the ingredients. Its pretty easy to hide a bit of Diacetyl or di-methyl Sulfide (DMS) in a Hop-Bomb IPA, or poorly stored hops in a Bourbon Barrel aged Imperial Stout.
In a light American lager, there is nothing to hide behind. The malt flavor is subdued, and there is only something between 8-15 IBU, with no hop flavor or aroma. There are very few esters or phenols present (the Budweiser yeast strain does produce a small amount of an apple ester, which is commonly mistaken for Acetaldehyde), and any minor flaws in ingredients or fermentation profile can produce a beer which doesn’t taste “right.” To brew millions of barrels of beer that tastes exactly the same in multiple breweries around the country (and sometimes around the world) is a feat of engineering and skill that is frankly amazing.
Now, I don’t drink those beers, because I have a limited amount of calories and alcohol I wish to consume, and I would rather spend them on something that doesn’t taste like water. However, I have seen a lot of people in the beer community decrying beers that are lighter in flavor, such as Pilsners, Kolsches, or Blonde ales as bad beer, when they are simply beer that the speaker doesn’t like to drink. When we speak about beer, we need to make sure we use the same terminology. As I matured in my beer drinking and appreciation, I found a new appreciation for lighter flavored beer. I appreciate the subtlety of a great Kolsch or Pilsner, with a light malt body, and either a subtle grape/wine note (Kolsch) or great spicy/floral hop flavor (Pilsner). In fact, when I go to a new brewery, I often reach for a Kolsch or a Pale Ale, because the lighter flavored beers help me figure out how the brewery takes care of their beer. If I reach directly for the IPA, I usually am not going to get past the hop flavor and bitterness to taste fermentation flaws or stale malt.
If you want to learn more about off-flavors, how to detect them, and how you can fix them (if you are a homebrewer), I recommend the BJCP or Cicerone programs.