American brewing has a problem, and New Belgium Brewing Co. has put together a 12-pack of it.
I like New Belgium. I like the beers they do, I like the folks from there that I’ve met—hell, some of them I flat out admire—their business model is worthy of emulation and always has been, and their path to their current success is a modern classic. I may even be understating things by saying, “I like New Belgium.” I like company founder Kim Jordan, too, I think she’s been an inspirational figure in the industry.
I’m also an unabashed fan of its breakout beer, Fat Tire Amber Ale. Whenever I’m in Colorado, I feast on the stuff, because it’s so good fresh. It’s a beautiful use of good malt, it never sticks in the throat, and it’s undemanding (which may be the reason it’s now ignored by so many beer partisans). It’s so much more flavorful than industrial lagers, and more than most “American hefeweizens” that were its contemporaries when Fat Tire first started rolling 25 years ago.
New Belgium is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the release of a “Fat Tire & Friends Collabeeration Pack,” or the “Riff Pack,” as the press release calls it. It features Fat Tire, and what five other breweries—Allagash Brewing Co., Avery Brewing Co., Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Hopworks Urban Brewery, and Rhinegeist—were inspired to do with that basic beer.
It is my contention that the Riff Pack illustrates what’s wrong with American brewing today. I say that without having tasted the beers, which may well be delicious. But looking at this box fills me with concerned boredom.
I have nothing against brewery collaboration. I love the idea, especially when it produces something neither brewery would have likely done together. But even when the beer is predictable, the brewers were bound to learn something through their collaboration. I don’t doubt that happened here as well.
No, what’s wrong here is that it’s all so predictable, so expected, so … “craft.” What do we get? Allagash adds a new Belgian yeast and a “touch” of its house Brett culture. Avery: more hops and Brett. From Firestone-Walker, “an assertive hop profile” with lager yeast. HUB is adding apple and Lactobacillus. Rheingeist made a “Belgian XPA” to “please hopheads and wine drinkers alike.”
Well, there’s a shock. Five of the best brewers in the country, the ones we’d expect to give us something different, innovative, something to add to the conversation, as it were, and what do we get? More hops, wild yeast, and bacteria, three of the most common trends in brewing right now. I’m only surprised that no one stuffed Fat Tire in a barrel and fed it grapefruit and habaneros through the bunghole.
None of these “riffs” really pay homage to the original idea of Fat Tire: essentially simple in construction and flavor, and tilted to the sweet side to show off the good malt they were using. Fat Tire was, like Anchor Steam, brewed to be appealing to both the mass-market drinker and the person who wanted something more.
Instead, the variants don’t even say much that’s new. Three out of five boost the hops: most modern brewers would do that in their sleep, it’s their first response. ‘More hop character will fix this puppy right up.’ At least the brewers who added Brettanomyces and bacteria were kind of thinking in a Belgian manner, even if it’s a whole different Belgian paradigm than the one Fat Tire comes from.
I get the idea of what a “riff” is; I’m a musician, it’s a word we use, one musicians came up with. And I get that riffing on a melody can lead you into entirely different genres. But a good musician, a talented improvisational musician, will take that riff places no one has before … while keeping the soul intact.
Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books take detective fiction to Nazi Germany, but he’s still a tough, basically honest shamus in over his head. The Hot 8 Brass Band blows “Sexual Healing” through a tuba, and you still wanna … dance. The Riff Pack feels more like “The Big Sleep” redone as a Marvel superhero epic, or sriracha-basted Dover sole. It’s loud, it’s nothing new, and really? It could have started from any number of beginnings and taste about the same. Fat Tire doesn’t have much to do with it.
What would I have done? I’m no brewer, but I might have tried something like running Fat Tire’s yeast and regimen with a Vienna lager’s malt bill. Maybe a bock-strength Fat Tire, or a Fat Tire with a wisp of smoke, or a Fat Tire that’s bottle-conditioned. Subtle stuff. Like Fat Tire is subtle. To miss that distinction is missing the point.
I know I sound like Clint Eastwood, yelling at the hop-and-bug crowd to get off my lawn. It ain’t so. You wanna drop the hop on Anchor Liberty? BOOM, done! You wanna funk up Consecration? Go wild! But the Riff Pack is a hammer; and Fat Tire’s not a nail.
Lew Bryson’s been drinking non-mainstream beer since 1981 and writing about it since 1994. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.