The Session #68 Round-Up: Novelty Beers
All craft beer is novel to the dedicated fizzy yellow beer drinker. Today a fellow and his wife entered the store, standing in front of Cooler Door #8, he exclaimed, “$25 for a beer?! What makes this so special?” And I found myself explaining to him what makes a Gypsy Brewer’s beers more expensive than the average craft brewer.
This fella had never stepped inside a specialty beer store before. It was his first visit. To him, having over 1,200 choices was novelty. And most of the beers in this bottle shop, to him, also novelty.
To my craft beer afficianados, price may put a beer into the novelty category, but that’s rare. What they generally consider novelty is bizarre ingredients. To some this is anything straying beyond the Reinheitsgebot (barley, hops, water); to others, it is anything that acts as a “gimmick” to intrigue a purchase: Funny names and labels, strange recipes and concoctions.
As “I want the strangest beer in here.” is a common request to those working at a beer shop, the concept of the “Novelty Beer” is something I often ponder. In fact, today I found myself wandering around the store and taking photos of beers that I may point out to folks asking for “novelty beers”…
As I ponder, “What is a novelty beer?” (mouseover images above to see what traits could make it “novelty”), it also makes me wonder if other beer lovers think about them, and what they think about them. This lead me to hosting The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, #68: Novelty Beers.
In my call to fellow beer bloggers, I wrote:
With the onslaught of even weirder beards…erm…beers…than before, I can’t help but wonder if novelty beers are going too far. Or maybe not far enough? LOL! As a merchant of beer, I can see the place for novelty beers, as I am choosing for some customers who say, “I want the strangest beer you have.” We’ve even seen some novelty beers in our top-sellers. But beer traditionalists sometimes frown on these new and bizarre concoctions. And I can’t help but wonder if Martyn Cornell will participate, sharing bizarre but notable historic brews.
Though Martin didn’t participate in The Session #68, bloggers from around the world did, sharing their thoughts about Novelty Beer from Australia, England, Ireland, and across the United States of America. The participants:
…that’s twenty-five blogs on Novelty Beers, if you’re counting. (I didn’t count myself as I only started with the call and am ending with the round-up.) Out of these blogs, I took eleven pages of notes. Oy vey. And here I am, to condense it for you. Sorry it’s being published a day later than expected. This was a spectacular turnout for The Session! Yay!
What is a Novelty Beer?
Several pondered this question. Most agreed that weird ingredients and marketing gimmicks initially cause a beer to act as “Novelty,” but once accepted by the public on a regular drinking basis, the beer is no longer novel.
10th Day Brewing shared historical perspective on the transition from novelty to commonplace, saying:
“The effects of Prohibition (…) on what we view as traditional now, has skewed our view point. In the U.S. we became so accustomed to the big three and their bland lagers that any change from that was viewed as radical and novelty.
In the founding of the country breweries and home breweries were not a luxury, they were a necessity. At that time hops were not easily obtained, heck, even grain was a rare commodity. They brewed with what they had available. Imagine beer brewed from sugar cane or from pumpkins. Even in Europe all manner of odd thing was added to beer. There are reasons why laws like the Reinheitsgebot were created. In the U.S. there were laws referred to as the Duke’s Laws, they were enacted to try and limit the random additives that brewers were adding to beer.”
But, really, what is a novelty beer? What’s novelty to one may not be to another. What is novelty all depends on your background.
Daily I see beer connoisseurs, those I lovingly refer to as “beer geeks,” enter the store seeking out novel in the form of rarity. And what’s the rarest, most sought after beer? Reuben of Tale of an Ale says: Westvletern. So rare that you have to go to Belgium to buy it… unless you’re lucky enough to pick up one of the “Westvletern 12 Bricks” that they’ve shipped to various countries. The brick, a limited release package. Reuben reports, “The monks needed a new roof, so rather than just ask for donations, they simply made up these novelty gift boxes and sold them for a reasonable profit.”
We beer drinkers in Washington State weren’t fortunate enough to receive any “bricks” to purchase, to help the monks. To add to our list of rare, yet consumed, beers.
I think of the fella who just came in. His fizzy yellow beer. The same thing. Over. And over. And over.
Pints and Pubs referred us to a quote,
THERE IS AN INCESSANT INFLUX OF NOVELTY INTO THE WORLD, AND YET WE TOLERATE INCREDIBLE DULLNESS.
—Henry David Thoreau
…then continued: “If novelty beers counter dull beers, then I’m all for them. Brewing beer with hops was once a novelty. If novelty now drives the cultivation of new hop varieties, it must be a good thing. I can’t imagine a summer without a Citra hopped beer now, yet this was a novelty beer to me just a few years ago. Similarly, I viewed Black IPAs with suspicion when I first came across them, but now some rank among my favorite beers. Novelty beers at least offer variety…”
Like me, and so many others out there, he is clearly a drinker of many beers.
A person who appreciates the variety of life.
The variety in craft beer.
Novelty Beer for Marketing Sake
The Scottish Craft Beer Company, BrewDog, came up again and again in the blogs about Novelty Beers. No surprise. BrewDog is all about the marketing. Eoin Magrath commented on The Beer Nut’s post saying, “I think Brewdog are in danger of falling into the trap of all style and no substance. They cloud their victories with nonsense and mediocrity…oh and squirrels.” (The Beer Nut disagrees.)
“This is it. This is the end of novelty beers. A liquor-strength beer bottled inside the carcass of a dead rodent dressed in a tuxedo. With a top hat. We have reached maximum overload.”
—Bryan D. Roth, This is Why I’m Drunk
But just when we thought things couldn’t get any weirder, they did.
And it out-ballsed Stan Hieronymus’s post on Novelty Beer.
Stan speaks of Danziger Joppenbier, which was around since at least the 1700s. It was like Mumme, but even weirder. This all leaves me wondering, “What the heck is Mumme?”
But we’re on the topic of novelty for marketing sake here, which can be rather offensive.
So let’s get back to it:
Beers for birthday gifts and Christmas stocking stuffers. Because we adults still want our stockings stuffed. Who deserves a Lump of Coal, Cat’s Pee, Piss, Bullshit Bitter, Good Head, Tiger Would, or a Sexy Lager?
Is the marketing good? Yes.
Is the beer good?
Well, that’s to be decided. “This is what defines my concept of novelty: a quirky concept that I won’t revisit once experienced. It will remain novel because it is a one-off experience,” says James of Beer Bar Band. “More often than not, a novelty beer is a shit beer. You don’t buy/drink it for the beer, you buy it for the concept emitted by just part of beer, such as the name or packaging, rather than the whole beer experience. Novelty does not respect the beer, it is produced for a reason other than the combined science and art of brewing. Not surprisingly they are all contract brewed for non-brewing companies that have a single beer brand that capitalize on the marketing dollar. Do they serve a purpose? I don’t think so, that’s why they are novelty beers.”
Novelty for the sake of novelty does not good beer make.
Novelty is a Matter of Perspective
Already said here, and again expressed by Eric Sheppy, an avid homebrewer who experiments with ingredients. When offering visiting guests beers, he often gets “that look.” If you’re a craft beer drinker and have offered to share beer with friends, it’s likely that you’ve seen this look.
“What the fuck? That’s weird.” is the look. And it’s a response that is commonly received by Nathaniel of Booze, Beats & Bites. I know that reaction. I’ve seen the look in their eyes, the disbelief that you would drink a beer with that ingredient.
It may be something as simple as fruit. Raspberries in a beer? Preposterous!
But, really, “Is any beer ‘weird’ or a ‘novelty’ anymore? Brewers are putting all kinds of shit in beer. Bacon, weasel poo coffee, steroids…” These unusual ingredients, they “get people interested.”
“In the 50s, Elvis Presley introduced novel innovations in music to the world. About the same time, Alvin and the Chipmunks released records using novel recording techniques. Both Elvis Presley and Alvin and the Chipmunks won multiple Grammy Awards. Elvis is still Elvis. Alvin and the Chipmunks are still unlistenable to anyone over the age of seven. Somewhere between Elvis Presley and Alvin and the Chipmunks lies the interface of timeless innovation and perpetual novelty,” says Derrick of Ramblings of a Beer Runner. His point: “Beer is no different. Seems like as long as beer is continually reinvented, there will always be novelty beers. They just may be standard beers from our past, or of the future.”
Is There a Place for Novelty Beer?
People overwhelmingly love novelty. They seek out new flavors, new products. Beers they love they will revisit again and again. With steady attention, the product will have the demand and the brewery will do their best to create the supply.
Brewers are able to “let their hair down, go out on a limb and try something new,” says John of Home Brew Manual, who recently brewed a Cock Ale. “Although novelty now, this was apparently a common drink in the past.”
And it goes full circle: What was commonplace then, is now novelty now.
Things reach point of extinction and are revived. If there’s interest.
“Why would brewers choose ingredients most beer drinkers have never heard of?” asks Alan of Growler Fills. “Setting aside the cynical answer — that it’s a marketing thing — it’s because craft beer drinkers are inherently curious and adventurous with their beers.”
As for novelty craft beer, Ryan of Montana Beer Finder hits it on the head when he says, “…we have 2,126 breweries in the United States, and they are all trying to do something a little different… Without the mega advertising dollars at their disposal like the “kings of beer” have, craft brewers rely heavily on word-of-mouth, and … sometimes a gimmick or two to catch the audience’s attention, so maybe brewing up a batch of “Peanut Butter and Jelly” beer will be just strange enough to catch someone’s attention (including the media, beer bloggers included).”
Did someone say “Peanut Butter?!”
Mmmm…delicious! Or Yuck?
Well, that depends.
As, Sean of Beer Search Party says, that depends on whether the novel approach is “about the beer first.”
Novelty Beer can be a beautiful thing.
“As for some of the other questions asked, my response is why not indeed? We should have more innovative beers in the world, without innovation we would stand still and things would just get boring.”
—Looke (Luke), Likely Moose
Of Novelty Beer: What is craft? What is gimmick?
The test of time will tell.