Let’s get this out of the way: beer is good. It goes well with cheese. It goes well with meat. It goes well with pizza. It goes well with pong. It goes well with sportsball-watching. It goes well with board-game playing. It goes well with writing. It goes well with sitting around doing nothing of any merit whatsoever. One might go so far as to argue that beer saved civilization. Thank you, Belgian monks.
I recently spent some time in the UK–Scotland (the Highlands, all over) and London–and was exposed to two beers that presented themselves in diametrically opposing ways.
The first beer I will review, the Innis & Gunn “original,” earns from me a strong recommend. Drink at any time and you will be rewarded.
The second beer, Flying Dog’s “jalapeño white ale,” is somewhere between pass and hard-pass. If you’re curious, it’s not a total waste of time and calories and money. If you find “craft beer” to be absurd, stay away. This will do nothing to change your mind.
They’re both distinctly modern beers, in the sense that they are “boutique.” Boutique is the new paradigm, the new zeitgeist–the new shorthand that almost means nothing. Boutique beer–in the sense that both drinks posses small-production-run, unusual, experimental traits that appeal to the “connoisseur.” In one case, the experiment made sense, was interesting and worked. In the other, the experiment failed not because it was “bad,” per se, but because it was totally unnecessary.
The “original” from Innis & Gunn spends 77 days in an “Oakerator.” The story behind the idea is interesting enough, but what totally hooked me was how well the execution was carried out. First and foremost it tasted fantastic. The oak age augmented the natural carameliness and vanilla-ness of certain brews. To my tongue, the beer was creamy and smooth. The hoppy punch was present but not overwhelmingly sour. It was heavier than the lemony, citrusy wheat beers I usually enjoy, but it wasn’t unpleasantly bitter or leaden. I could absolutely taste the oaky, smoky whiskyness–but in sum, everything was balanced. It was a beer that had taken disparate parts and identities and traditions, and had derived something harmonious and good. I had it with a beautiful fresh-caught haddock fish & chips (outstanding) and I had it with a gluttonous aged cheddar and angus beef burger (outstanding)–the beer made both dishes sharper and more potent.
Secondly, because Innis & Gunn is a Scottish firm, and Scotland is sort of the religious homeland of whisky, the merging of both drinks is not merely a post-modern mashup, it’s culturally and aesthetically relevant. It matters. It makes sense. It feels right for the place. I couldn’t drink enough of this stuff and now I’m on a mission to find it here in Los Angeles.
The other beer, this “jalapeño white ale,” was the exact opposite. I bought the bottle at Borough Market, a place full of foodie-paradise type stands, for better and worse. I walked into a beer shop that looked like they had all kinds of good drinking. I asked if they sold any Innis & Gunn, and the reaction was–almost verbatim–oooooh that’s too big for us.
Too big? I knew I was in trouble right then and there. Innis & Gunn might be big by the standards that they bottle their beer in enough volume for peons like me to be able to find and drink it, but Budweiser they are not. I almost felt like I had to apologize for mentioning the name.
I looked around and eventually stumbled into this jalapeño beer, which seemed so ludicrous that I had to try it.
Was it good? Put it this way: I finished the bottle. I got a lot of chili on the nose. I found the beer to be crisp and bright, and then also earthy and sour, with a low, smoldering chili heat. I didn’t find it too spicy but then again I love habañero peppers, so my tolerance for heat is quite high. The ale might possibly have paired well with literally nothing that I can think of quickly. I’m certainly not going to have a jalapeño beer with spicy food, right? A jalapéno ale-battered fish & chips might be exciting. Of course, since there’s something like one bottle of this stuff, could you really justify using it that way?
I kept thinking about the fact that one of its main selling points was not that it was particularly tasty drink, nor even that people were craving for more, but rather, that it was a rare experiment. I kept settling on, so what? It’s rare–great. Maybe it’s rare because nobody wanted more of it, and maybe nobody wanted more of it because it’s a bottle of limited-interest so-what.
Experimentation is good, but just because it can be done, does not mean it needs to be released into the world, let alone packaged as some kind of special issue this-or-that. As far as I can tell, jalapeño white ale is a bottle of in-group signaling and not any kind of advancement into making new, delicious beers.