Don’t believe the hype: Why mainstay beers are better than the flavour of the week

Illustration by Juliana Sauvé.

In this crowded beer market, brewers are under pressure to grab your attention. But the year-round staples are often their best work.

There used to be nothing more exciting to me than a beer release. Something new, something exciting, something I’d never tasted before was coming from a local brewer. I couldn’t wait to try it! All my hopes and dreams were wound up in that moment. Could this be the magical beer that would finally complete me?

“Meh. It’s okay. The marjoram is super prominent, but I can barely taste the kopi luwak. As for the jelly doughnuts they put in the mash, I guess I can taste the raspberry filling, but I’m not sure it adds anything.”

Chalk that one up to experience and move on to the next beer.

And yet I’d do it again. I’d be at my local beer store and I’d see a beer I’d never had before sitting next to a beer I knew I loved, and nine times out of ten, I’d grab that unfamiliar beer because what if that was the one that would finally complete me?

I do a lot less of that these days. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be complete, that I’ll spend the rest of my life wandering the earth with a beer-shaped hole in my soul that will never be filled.

Instead, I spend a lot more time drinking beers that I like. Mostly I drink beer from breweries that I know I like, and mostly I drink beers that they make all the time.

There’s a reason why that marjoram-kopi-luwak-jelly-doughnut kolsch was a super limited release: because it sucked. It was a shitty idea for a beer. If it was an awesome beer that people wanted to drink every day, the brewery would still be making it. But it wasn’t an awesome beer, and nobody drank it twice.

Even when they taste good, most of these hyped-up, one-off beers lack staying power. They might be interesting to have one glass of, but they’re usually not the kind of thing you’d sit down and drink three pints of in a row. They’re often overpowering and cloying after about half a glass. There’s a reason for that, too.

The brewer didn’t design that beer to have staying power. He or she might have been yearning to brew an incredible new traditional kolsch, but in this crowded beer market it’s hard to grab attention with anything subtle. The brewery’s social media manager would have had a hell of a time building hype with, “floor-malted bohemian pilsner malt perfectly balanced with subtly floral hops and the soft esters of a cool ale fermentation.” So instead, they dumped in a bunch of crazy ingredients and got the Internet buzzing with, “we stuffed the mash tun with handmade jelly doughnuts and filled the fermenter with coffee beans that have been eaten and shit out by a fucking civet cat! While we’re at it, here’s a picture of a civet cat taking a shit!”

There almost certainly wasn’t time to brew a test batch, and the brewers had probably never used marjoram, kopi luwak or jelly doughnuts before, so they had no idea how much to use. Anything they learned about the beer in brewing that one batch is basically lost, because they’ll never make it again.

Dageraad’s Ben Coli with his gold medal-winning Burnabarian table saison. Cornelia Naylor/Burnaby Now photo

On the other hand, that same brewery’s pale ale might be a work of art. You can barely find mention of it on Instagram, but that pale ale is designed to be a daily go-to beer. It never gets cloying and it never fatigues your palate. It’s the kind of beer that you can drink three of in a row and still be thirsty for more. The brewery has been brewing that beer since the day they opened and after many recipe tweaks and process adjustments, they have it totally dialed in. The brewers have every feature of that beer etched into their palates, and when anything in the ingredients changes or when anything goes wrong with the fermentation, everyone in the brewery knows immediately.

Because at the end of a long day of work, those thirsty brewers aren’t reaching for a glass of marjoram-kopi-luwak-jelly-doughnut kolsch, they’re reaching for their brewery’s trusty pale ale. Or its pilsner. Or its craft lager. (Or, ahem, its Belgian-style table beer brewed with oats and coriander, which, despite its flavourful complexity, is actually quite a refreshing and crushable beer.)

I’m not saying you should stop buying breweries’ seasonals and one-offs. (Please don’t stop buying my brewery’s seasonals and one-offs! Think of my kids!) Novelty and exploration are a huge part of what makes craft beer fun. I don’t ever want to stop growing and experimenting as a brewer, and I don’t ever want to stop trying new things as a drinker.

But please understand that those one-offs aren’t the best beers. The best beers are the ones that the brewers are working on constantly, the ones that are designed with balance and drinkability in mind. Those hyped-up one-off beers can be super fun, but if you miss out on one, don’t stress.

It almost definitely wasn’t the beer that would finally complete you.

Ben Coli is the owner and head brewer of Burnaby’s Dageraad Brewing, the Canadian Brewing Awards’ 2018 Brewery of the Year.


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