Thursday, May 19, 2016

Why is craft beer emulating alcopops?

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Hard sodas get their own display at ABC Fine Wine & Spirits
Last year, two products hit the mainstream craft beer market that were catalysts for sea change: Not Your Father’s Root Beer and Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin. It’s possible neither was actually the first of its kind, but both have had huge ramifications in a relatively short time as they’ve inspired breweries across the country to emulate these products nearly verbatim.

At first glance, it would appear that these types of brews are at opposite ends of the spectrum. After all, hard sodas are intended to taste like regular soft drinks, while citrus-infused IPAs are enhanced versions of a “real” craft beer style. The former is so clearly faux while the latter is genuine beer. But in my opinion, there’s really not much difference between these products because their selling point is the same: alcoholic beverages that doesn’t taste like traditional beer. Or, more precisely: alcoholic beverages that taste sweet, overtly faux, and completely pedestrian. That sounds a lot like another style of adult beverage that’s been around for a while now, namely; Flavored Malt Beverages or “Alcopops.”

You can now find these products at Walmart and other such stores. This is rather ironic if you consider the big picture: craft beer could barely get any shelf space at these venues for decades, but within the last year small and big businesses alike have been making room and even setting up separate displays just to carry so-and-so’s “hard” root beer or ginger ale or whatever. The juicy IPAs aren’t quite as common at the big box stores, but liquor stores and bottle shops definitely are making a fuss about them.
At least Walmart knows to shelve these with the alcopops.
At least Walmart knows to rack these with the alcopops.
Of course it begs the question: are hard sodas and citrus-infused IPAs even [craft] beer in the first place? When it comes to the former, my answer is a resounding no. Just because they’re made with malts and the slightest bit of hops doesn’t qualify them as beer. They should not even be lumped in with the spice/herb/vegetable style, either. They are not marketed as beer, nor do they taste like beer – so why should we consider them such? And if hard sodas are beer, then why aren’t alcopops?

But what about all these juicy IPAs; surely they are “real beer,” no? I suppose that argument can be made, but as is often the case in the American craft beer scene, they’re just a trendy variation of a popular style. In recent years we’ve seen session IPAs, red IPAs, black IPAs, white IPAs, etc. Even the BJCP recognized these off-shoots as established styles with their 2015 guidelines. Will they include these super citrusy IPAs in their next overhaul? Should they? I’d say no, and for several reasons:
So is every Ballast Point infused with fruit juice now?
So is every Ballast Point beer infused with fruit juice now?
First of all, we know that IPAs tend to taste of citrus, melon, tropical and stone fruits from the hops used in their brewing. When you blend the beer with actual fruit juice you’re cheating to achieve the same results. Why even brew the beer with hops at all if the goal is to make a sweet, juicy-tasting brew with only moderate bitterness? I can’t help but wonder if these IPAs were invented so brewers could get rid of old hops and cover up the taste with juice.

Secondly, fruit juice-infused IPAs are just so damn trendy that they seem like they’re marketed for the masses rather than for genuine beer enthusiasts. Fruity beers sometimes blur the line between real, genuine zymurgy and lowest-common-denominator alcopops.
You know a trend has jumped the shark when Sam Adams capitalizes on it.
You know a trend has jumped the shark when Sam Adams capitalizes on it.
Lastly, the fruit character is so prominent that it tends to override the IPA base palette and bastardizes the style. Say what you want about those other IPA sub-styles, but they all still taste like IPAs, whereas juicy IPAs don’t taste all that much different from Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, and their many variants. Those products have been around for years, but they’re considered girly, foo-foo, douchey, unmanly, etc. If I got caught drinking any of those products and admitted I liked them, all my friends would say my man card’s been revoked. Yet, it’s perfectly acceptable for them to drink an IPA with “natural flavors added” and keep their beer snob rep intact. I don’t get it.
mancardrevoked
This is what happens when you admit to actually liking an alcopop, but not a hard soda - why?
I think there’s an unwritten rule on how to react to these products correctly. You’re “allowed” to like them just as long as you do so in small doses, on rare occasions, and acknowledging and appreciating these beers as the novelty products they are. In other words; in order to drink and like these products you have to be a hipster.

Damn.

Related reading:
Is “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” beer?
When is a beer not a beer?