Editors Note: After a discussion with a common drinking partner of mine we came to the decision that he should do a guest post on here. Below is the results, I would like to emphasize here that the views expressed here are not my own (and nor do I agree with them hugely either).
This entry was inspired by a very pleasant chat with the regular contributor to this blog with whom I frequently discuss topics ranging from beer to politics and invariably end up in a heated antagonism. Therefore, as we sat in the sun outside the White Horse in Fulham, I was not surprised to find myself involved in a lengthy debate about a subject on which I had never considered myself to be a proud and principled champion. The crux of the problem lay in the concept of additions to beer - fruit, chocolate, honey, twigs, leaves and mud.
'Ale drinker', as you will no doubt be aware, is a keen brewer as well as enjoying his beer and was outlining his plans for the next brew. His next project, following a Scotch style ale which I considered to be fairly unpleasant but which he claimed rave reviews for, is destined to be a trio of stouts. So far so good, I am a keen fan of the darker beers and feel that they are a brilliant area for brewers to capitalise upon a dearth in the market. As regular readers will be aware, it is also an area about which Ale drinker has been keen to contribute to and so I was encouraged by the prospect of some experimental brews and the opportunity to sample and hone a fine stout or porter from scratch. It is worth noting at this stage that Ale drinker has not brewed a drop of stout before and, though I have enjoyed and commended a number of his previous projects, I am very apprehensive about the way he is approaching the trio of stouts.
The trio will consist of a chocolate orange, a coffee and a chilli-chocolate stout. The vast majority of these delectable flavours are not created by the hops, malt, liquor or yeasts which make up beer and so are additives. This is not necessarily a problem, many fine brewers have added fruits, minerals and other items to their beer to add flavour. I had enjoyed a chilli-chocolate stout with Ale drinker a few weeks ago and so am not averse to the concept, the stout in particular is a style of beer which can be really enhanced by the intelligent and calculated addition of a rich fruit or other deep flavours.
My opposition lies in the philosophy here. Ale drinker's rationale was that these novelty additions to beer make it 'interesting' and while I am aware that I may appear to be a purist, I feel that the real work should be done on the beer. Good beer lies in the malt and hop combinations rather than throwing in a cheap novelty flavour, it would be a real philistine to throw cassis into a fine vintage champagne because it shouldn't need to be called a kir royale to be enjoyable - hence my opposition to these 'beertails'. I feel this lack of effort is reflected by some larger brewers; in the same way that a gimmicky name or a themed beer can bump up sales, throwing in a novelty item can disguise bad beer and enables it to be sold as 'interesting'. These fruit salads remove some of the impetus behind creative and exciting beer generation.
Heaving a plum into a brew disguises many of the flavours of the actual beer which means that it is hard to learn from, refine and perfect a beer. Because Ale drinker has not brewed a stout before he has not identified the need for a coffee bean in the beer and has no idea of how such a strong flavour would fit in with his malt or hops mix. It is, in essence, a cheap and lazy option to create a novelty beer.
While these beers may tempt a few new drinkers to experiment with an ale they are, in fact, being sold a beertail in which the flavours of the beer are masked. Good quality, interesting and exciting beers can be created from malts and hops and this is an area with a wealth of opportunity for innovation and creativity. This is part of the value of ales and is where the real work should go in.