Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beer Identity

When buying a beer in Canada — so long as you're less than 50% grey and in possession of some of your own teeth — you stand a good chance of being asked for ID. Anyone who's worked at an alcohol retailer will have seen enough "8"s artfully manipulated into "3"s ("7"s into "1"s, etc) on the driver's licenses of the suspiciously-young-looking to know that it is often a good idea to establish the ID of the buyer.

But have you ever asked for the ID of the beer?

I'm not talking about knock-offs. The profit margin on fake ale is hardly Gucci handbag-worthy. Wine fraud might get its own wikipedia page, but beer drinkers are too smart (or cheap) to be tricked into paying out for counterfeit Kolsch.  What I mean is, have you ever asked yourself what it is that makes this beer this beer?

It might have the same name, look basically similar, and can be reliably gotten for $5 a pint at your local pub — but a certain amount of variability is expected, and often accepted. Smaller-volume craft breweries struggle to ensure absolute consistency without the benefits of measured blending afforded to larger beermakers. A lot of craft drinkers take pleasure in observing the variations in seasonal brews. A brewer may also "improve" or otherwise adjust his recipe over time — considering the changes too minor to warrant a rebranding. Or possibly something about the storage, quality control, age, or handling of the beer, or any number of other variables, could make a beer vary from one pint to the next. It is truly a drink as fickle as its drinker.

But pinning down a philosophical definition of the "essence" of a beer is pretty tricky. You'd sensibly suppose it has something to do with
1. How you make it
2. What you make it with
3. What you call it
But I can think of three beers in BC alone that challenge each one of these definitions
1. Phillips Hop Circle is a modified, unfiltered version of their IPA — yet until recently when someone pointed this out, Beer Advocate had it listed as the same beer
2. Driftwood Ale is now produced with substantially more hops than it used to be
3. Phillips Skookum has undergone a name change and at least two bottle-design changes that I'm aware of — but is still brewed to the Black Toque recipe.

OK, beer changes, so what? It doesn't matter really, you know from experience what you can rely on and what you can't, and people are mostly cool with this. That's all true. But it sort of makes you think, when you observe reviewers arguing and pontificating about the merits of certain beers, or internet critics debating the finer points of the flavour of beers that cannot possibly be tasted identically, given the massive geographical, temporal and experiential variability of the universe of beer-sipping!

This philosophical noodling is of course a way for me to extend a (fairly trivial) complaint about Spinnakers' Blue Bridge Double India Pale Ale, which I am currently sipping with utter suspicion. With the help of Eskimodave I figured out that the bottle label has quietly been altered from "double IPA" to "double pale ale" very recently. I even emailed them about it, but no-one has got back to me so far.

Now, this may or may not explain the poor pint of BB I had the other day. The recipe could have changed along with the name. Or perhaps they just changed the name because, as Dave puts it, "they realized it wasn't cutting it as a DIPA".

Either way, "double pale ale" is a much better description of what I'm drinking right now. And perhaps the fit of the title to the taste is what's letting me enjoy this one so much more than the last time. Minimal hops are fine without the Indian expectations, and it's not a bad pint tonight at all. Perfect comfort for an otherwise troubling think about the true loneliness of experience..

Still, I'd love to know where they put the 8.2%. Two bombers in and I do not expect to be able to type straight...

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