Judging Beers by Sam Fitz – Vol 12: The Case for Beer: Craft or Mass-Produced?

Photo by PoPville flickr user random lady

Sam Fitz is a Certified Cicerone® and the Beer Director at Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel.

The meaning of the term “craft beer”seems to vary from person to person. To some it implies a higher quality, to others a higher price, and for a few it has even come to denote hoppy beers. The Brewer’s Association of America defines ”craft brewers” as producers of all-malt beers, owned less than 25% by a non-craft alcoholic beverage industry member, and showing annual production of 6 million barrels or less. But “craft brewers” are so much more than any generalization or narrow definition. They are artisans making beer that is innovative and experimental but often refined and perfected, and their product is not designed out of a need for mass distribution, but rather from a desire to achieve a taste that the brewer and like-minded consumers can cherish.

Giving consumers a real choice as to what they drink is perhaps the greatest attribute of craft beer, which varies so greatly it is hard to believe there isn’t at least one beer for everybody. One of my favorite games is finding a brew for the person who “doesn’t like beer”. More often than not, this individual simply suffers from a lack of exposure to what is available to them every day. Beer doesn’t have to be light and fizzy. Dark Belgian ales, or perhaps a sour kriek, are often welcomed by red wine drinkers. Wheat beers can be a great beginning for those adjusting their palates to the array of flavorful brews now available. Chocolate, coffee, fruit and spices are commonly introduced into craft beers to create fascinating results. Bourbon barrel-aging is adding a new kick to the marketplace. The point is, in order to evaluate and even appreciate craft beer, you need to go out and try its many incarnations. It’s unlikely you’ll enjoy everything you drink but, if you can’t find anything that pleases, you’re not trying hard enough.

Continues after the jump.

The flavors of craft beer are not the only reason to support the efforts of its producers. Craft breweries operate on smaller production scales, are more manually intensive, and therefore require more workers per barrel produced. The Brewer’s Association is working on tax relief for craft brewers as their success stimulates much needed job growth. Additionally, craft breweries are usually locally owned and very much entrenched in their communities. The ability to buy from a nearby brewery that employs your neighbors, interacts with and gives back to the community, and has a personal face is a luxury we’re just getting back to across the nation. So, embrace it!

The past year has brought a number of local breweries to an already growing Washington, DC beer scene. DC Brau, the first production brewery to debut in The District in over 60 years, opened its doors last year on April 15th. Port City, located in Alexandria, VA, opened just before, and the two have been joined by Chocolate City (DC), Lost Rhino (Ashburn, VA), Baying Hound (Rockville, MD) and 3 Stars (DC, coming soon) to form a formidable group of local, quality, craft brewers. If ever there was a time for DC to dive into good brew, it’s now.

As the first and largest production brewery in The District in recent history, DC Brau is getting a lot of buzz, and rightfully so. Their staple beers–Public, Corruption & Citizen–are great examples of American Pale Ale, American IPA, and Belgian Pale Ale, respectively, but some consumers stereotyped the brewery as heavy-handed with the hops, even though the Citizen is quite floral and derives much of its flavor from Belgian Abbey Yeast. As such, I’ve decided to review their collaboration with Stillwater Artisanal Ales, NATAS, to showcase the diversity of beers DC Brau is producing.

NATAS, Satan backwards, is a Belgian Style Imperial Porter made with local gypsy brewer Stillwater (he travels from brewery to brewery making beautiful artisanal beers) to commemorate legendary skateboarder Natas Kaupas. At 7.5%, NATAS, as the DC Brau website explains, pours “midnight black”, with a fair amount of carbonation and at least as much intimidation.

The nose is more inviting. Notes of coffee, chocolate, and roasty char radiate out from the head. The black and chocolate malts employed, as well as the roasted barley, really shine through here, and are quite a departure from DC Brau’s staple beers (although this brew is based on another delicious DC Brau product, Penn Quarter Porter). There is a very slight American hop presence from the Columbus hops added at the end of the boil that plays well with the delicate presence of complex esters from the Belgian Chimay Abbey yeast that is employed.

From appearance, to smell, to taste, this beer gets progressively less aggressive and more inviting. 100 pounds of Belgian Candi Sugar have been thoroughly fermented and leave little sweetness but a nice flavor reminiscent of caramel, maybe licorice, that sticks to the roof of your mouth. The bitterness you might expect to encounter from the roasted barley is subtle at first and matched by the minty bitterness of Perle hops and the heavy but herbal flavor of Nugget hops, but it does linger. Chocolate and coffee are still prominent themes and there is an undeniable smoothness, almost creaminess, to this beer that is impressive at 7.5%. The Dark Lord is apparently kinder than you’d think, and DC Brau Co-Founder Brandon Skall calls this “one of the funnest beers we’ve made thus far, and probably one of my favorites”. I’d agree.

As a closing note, this entry is not meant to be at the expense of the big boys of beer or their consumer base. Budweiser, Miller and Coors have engineered technological wonders. The ability to produce beer, a product that requires fermentation from living yeast, in large quantities at many locations across the world in exactly the same way every time is a remarkable feat of science. The quality control of all three products is impeccable and should be celebrated. These beers have their place: when you, as a consumer, want to know exactly what you’re getting, when you’re at a BBQ and crave a couple of cold ones, or quite simply whenever YOU feel compelled to have one. So let’s drop any snootiness and appreciate things for what they are. There is no wrong time for a Bud, but there is also a right time for a craft beer. You wouldn’t turn down a steak dinner because you’re a “McDonald’s Guy”, so if you are hooked on American light lagers, consider treating yourself once in awhile to something different, like a NATAS.

10 Comment

  • The author come so close to actually being inclusive of the rabble, but alas: “You wouldn’t turn down a steak dinner because you’re a “McDonald’s Guy””

    I sure wouldn’t, but I’d sure as hell take a high life over anything from DC Brau.

    • Would it have made more sense if he had said, ” Just because you choose to eat at home, you wouldn’t turn down a dinner prepared by an award winning Chef”? I think the point is that even though you may prefer mass produced light lagers, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a craft option you would also enjoy. I would suggest trying Oscar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils or Great Lakes Elliot Ness if you want something sweeter.

  • sunsquashed

    I agree, the NATAS is amazing. I’m not a big ‘hop-head’ so I don’t support DC Brau as much as I’d like to. I wish they would amp up production of the NATAS and El Hefe. The latter beer is one of the best hefeweissens I’ve ever had, it’s so complex and flavorful words can’t do it justice. On the other hand, they are clearly doing well selling the bitter beers, so they must know their market pretty well.

  • Hey Anon would you pay $55 for a steak dinner?

  • buying local is generally better for the environment and the economy. My favorite beers are always local draft beers.

  • “So let’s drop any snootiness and appreciate things for what they are.”

    Did the beer director of Meridian Pint really just say that?

    Another perfect example of beer geeks bending over backwards not to offend the bud crowd.

    Is Sam suggesting that Coors is equivalent in quality to the majority of craft brewed beers?

    If so, why is the best compliment he can come up with for them is to praise their remarkable ‘quality control’.

    If so, why doesn’t Meridian Pint have 3 or 4 of them tapped at all times?

    Maybe, it could be because they actually are inferior, purely profit-driven products and the Pint doesn’t serve second rate beers?

    It’s not snootiness to make note of the fact that most micro-brew is better than anything that comes from the behemoths, and I’ll never understand the need to pander to that industrial beer sector.

    • I think he is simply saying that there is a time, place and taste for every beer. That is a fair statement regardless of whether his bar sells a wide selection of macro-brews. If your time, place and taste call for a macrobrew, there are plenty of places to indulge.

      Quality control is actually a pretty nice compliment. I’ve had plenty of poorly made craft brews, but a macro will never reach the heights that a good craft beer can reach. Just my two cents.

      And no, I am not Sam Fitz’s mom.

  • Ill be honest, i’m not a fan of really hoppy beers, and most “craft beers” unfortunately follow that path with few divergences. With that said, DC Brau is the HOPPIEST thing I have ever had and could barely finish it. I think they thought it would be cool to see how many hops they could possibly infuse into a beer. gaaaaaah.

  • i don’t think fitz is trying to argue for craft beer or mass-produced beer. he’s just pointing out qualities that differentiate them. arguments aside, the writing in this piece is superb. always enjoy reading you, fitz.

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