I try not to get hung up on the semantics and trivialities of the beer industry, like what exactly is the threshold for a session beer. These types of topics can be fun to banter about with other beer geeks at the bar or on Twitter; though it’s not something worth losing your temper over (I’m looking at you, Ding). That being said, when I see craft beer being discussed in the mainstream I like to give it a look to see how it’s being presented and how it’s received.
I think we can all agree that beer is defined as an alcoholic beverage made from water, malted barley (with the occasional adjunct), spiced with hops and fermented with yeast. But that’s the technical definition, there’s also an unwritten definition of what truly constitutes beer. It’s subjective to be sure and varies from person to person; but it’s what makes for great discussion as I hope this blog post will do.
So what exactly IS beer and what are the poser products? Here’s how to differentiate:
These “malternatives” to beer emerged on the heels of the wine cooler craze of the 1980s and 90s. They get their alcohol by fermenting malted barley, though there’s no hops used. In fact, the flavor isn’t derived from the barley, but rather through the (often heavy) addition of artificial flavors just like a lot of mainstream consumer beverages. I like to refer to them as “alcopops” because they tend to taste just like alcoholic soda pops. In fact, I’ve found myself opting for a Mike’s Hard Lemonade or a Smirnoff Ice when I’m in a situation where the only true beer choices are any of the BMC light lagers (or worse, the “ice” lagers).
This might be a controversial choice for this list as malt liquor is generally purchased for its uhh… “performance” value. What we consider to be malt liquor is essentially the same as any of the macro adjunct lagers, just brewed with more adjuncts, less hops, and with a higher gravity. I’ve tried a few of these beers and some are tolerable, though many are borderline undrinkable. Even though the BJCP doesn’t have style listing for these products, I consider them to be “beer” because they’re made with the four primary ingredients and undergo the same basic brewing process as any other macro adjunct lager. It would be nice to find one that actually tastes good someday.
A lot of people consider Four Loko to be malt liquor, but I say this product, and others like it are better categorized as flavored malt beverages. Though they are consumed for their potency like malt liquor. And of course their taste is derived entirely from the addition of artificial flavors (and up until a few years ago, energy drink-like stimulants). Even the beer app Untappd lists Four Loko as malt liquor, which I do not understand since the average Untappd user is probably a craft beer drinker of some caliber. There’s no hops in the brew and certainly no one’s drinking it for the base malt, so how could this be considered “beer”?
Whenever I talk beer with someone who’s not a beer appreciator, they often say they enjoy a wheat beer with fruit added because it’s light and “doesn’t taste like beer”. I agree, though I tend to find the average beer of this type to be a little too faux for my taste. Sure, there may be fruit puree added to the brew at some point, but there’s most likely a flavoring extract of some sort as well. Beers of this general style are distant relatives of hefeweizen, so I consider them to be beer (as does the BJCP).
Fruity lambics are often considered to be a special treat to the craft beer enthusiast. This style has been around for centuries and many breweries still use the process of “spontaneous fermentation” whereby the natural yeast in the air ferments the wort rather than any kind of harvested and cultured yeast. I sometimes think of fruity lambics as the alcopops of the beer world since the fruit tends to dominate the palette and many breweries add sugar and/or natural flavoring. Also, I don’t know anyone that drinks a lambic for the malty and hoppy qualities (or can really pick them out). Then again, the wild yeast also plays a major role in the taste which is a definite characteristic of beer.
These are the original “beer cocktails” of the mixology world. Legend has it that bars in Germany used to mix lager and lemonade in order to conserve their beer supply as well as to refresh the bicyclists (or “radler” in German) that drank them after a ride. As FMBs grew in popularity over the last 20 years it makes complete sense that breweries would start selling a Shandy in a bottle and calling it “beer.” What I’d like to know is how much of the beverage is actually beer and how much is lemonade? 50/50? 95/5? Is there even any actual lemonade blended with beer, or is it simply an added flavor? Regardless, I’d say shandies are better lumped in with the alcopops because once you blend beer with a beverage other than beer, it’s a cocktail.
Blending beer off the tap is an artform that takes skill and finesse to get right. Probably the most popular blend is a Black & Tan whereby a dark beer is blended with a light one; the most popular example of this being Guinness and Harp (or Bass Ale). Some breweries blend two of their beers, like a porter and a lager, and sell them as a bottled Black & Tan (though they do not have the parfait-like appearance of those made by a skilled bartender).
Since you’re combining two beverages, these types of drinks could easily be considered cocktails. However, I say as long as you’re blending beer with beer (and nothing else), it’s still beer. Think about it: some of the best barrel-aged brews in the world are actually blends of different beers from different barrels. Even a traditional gueuze is a blend of both young and old beer, but you’d never call Gueuze Tilquin a cocktail or an FMB would you?
When you hear the word “cocktail” you tend to think of an alcoholic beverage made with various liquors, liqueurs, non-alcoholic mixers such as juice or soda, and sometimes fruit or vegetables. Nothing about that type of beverage resembles beer, even if you use beer as one of the ingredients – right? A lot of upscale bars and restaurants have been experimenting with beer cocktails lately, and while I’m sure they’re tasty drinks, I would not consider them to be beer.
On a related note, I would consider the following drinks to be beer cocktails when mixed at a bar, or an FMB if sold pre-packaged: Snake Bite (beer and cider); Chelada (beer and tomato juice); and most everything on Wikipedia’s list of popular beer cocktails.
When “Not Your Father’s Root Beer” went mainstream in 2015 it took the beer world by storm. Copycat brands began spring up everywhere. Most beer geeks actually do consider these products to be beer because they are brewed the same way as beer (at least some of them are); they just get their soda-like taste from artificial flavorings added before packaging. My beef is that even if these concoctions are brewed with malted barley, hops, etc., they really aren’t beer because they use next to no hops and the soda flavors completely dominate the palette. They really aren’t all that different from the way FMBs are made, and if anything, hard sodas are the true “alcopops”.
I have no problem with breweries adding unusual, bizarre and just plain wacky ingredients to a beer as long as it’s still beer at the core. The problem with hard sodas is that they’re intended to taste like exactly that – an alcoholic soda – rather than a beer with a soda-like flavor. Some novelty beers take the same approach with their shtick.
Some are very clearly intended to be jokes and gags like many pepper beers, and others are intended to be eccentric, but drinkable beverages like Mama Mia’s Pizza Beer. And then there’s a few products that fall somewhere in between such as the entire Rogue Voodoo Donut lineup. But at what point do these offbeat brews transition from real, true beer to simply FMBs? Is it possible to be both real beer while also being a novelty or joke? We’ll discuss that more next time.