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FRESHNESS: Can we Stop?

The more that we see beer enter the mainstream psyche the more that those around need to come up with new braggadocio tactics and techniques. The beer sellers need a niche and a marketing tactic. The beer drinkers need an angle to make their repetitive social media beer reviews stand out from the same photo filtered iceman beer pornography shared a thousand times. And we’ve found the answer: unfermented hop water.

Somewhere we lost our way. Somewhere we pushed through the 22 mile pain barrier, made it to the finish line but forgot to stop running. We fixed the problem but went too far, like Father Ted trying to tap out a dent in a motor vehicle.

Freshness became an issue. It became the talk of the town. The imported beers weren’t getting here quick enough and then were sitting on the shelf for years. We were drinking overhopped IPAs 18 months after they were bottled. We improved. We improved our import markets. We started cutting out Swedish or Dutch distributors. We had noticed the dent and gone to fetch the hammer.

Then we started making really good beer ourselves. We didn’t need to import. We could make it and match it ourselves. Every single beer drinking Brit took a holiday to Sonoma valley and, apart from those who hadn’t pulled their trousers over their waving willies yet, realised that Thornbridge Halcyon, brewed in a lovely Derbyshire village, didn’t require a £1000 return flight. We’d hammered out the dint and fixed our belts.

Then the sledgehammer dropped and the pants came clean off. BEER IS DEAD screamed Nas. We are all BORN TO DIE wailed Lana Del Rey. And it died. It died if it was any older than a week old. The hops were dead as soon as they entered the boil and could only be rescued by wrapping your muzzle around the hop filter. Freshness was key or the beer was destroyed.

Except it is nonsense; unrelenting nonsense. Suddenly we’re drinking beers unprepared, unconditioned and unfit for consumption. And we’re lapping it up; exclaiming the virtues of de-malted hop water as if the Ancient Babylonians had it wrong from the beginning. It is as though beer only needed one added ingredient aside from water – those green leafy cones – and that the fermentation stage was never an added necessity. Alcoholic leaves became the future of beer; as if yellow bananas were now no good and the bitter skin tasting unripened green variety were preferable. 

So it is that I became the town-cryer of freshness sensibility, telling anybody that would listen about the same repetitive stories. About that Cloudwater IPA two years ago that wasn’t good enough, only for me to be told by other drinkers that it was too old. About going to Brewdog in Ellon and being handed a Dead Pony Club straight from the bottling line (at a time when Dead Pony Club was in terrific form by the way) “This will be the freshest you’ll ever drink this,” I was told, only to find it near undrinkable. About that time Carl (@thaBearded1) drank a Cloudwater DIPA V7 9 months after its release only to find it completely palatable.

Which brings us nicely to Cloudwater Brew Co and much of what has been my empty sounding argument. I have found much of their first version of the DIPA series to be completely consuming of my non-FOMO senses, leading me to drink beer as soon as it has been purchased. The marketing spiel alongside the social media pressure has certainly worked upon me. With that I have failed to wait the length I know that I should to consume each batch.

Until the Birthday DIPA. This was a beer brewed especially for Cloudwater’s second birthday celebration (that I sadly couldn’t attend due to Valentine’s Day based commitments.) I had read mixed reviews, but certainly noticed a fair few that had likened it to licking hop pellets. TOO GREEN seemed to be a common theme.

So I sat on mine for a few weeks, I didn’t stare longingly at it. It came to my attention every time I opened the cupboard but I was able to resist. Not drinking a beer just to join in with the Instagram revelry actually proved to be easy.

But seven weeks after the birthday bash itself I cracked open my Birthday DIPA. Seven weeks later. In relation to the Freshness ideal forced down the throat of all beer drinkers, I may as well have been opening seven week old milk.

Yet it is delicious. Unexpectantly delicious. I was aware that this brewery can brew a Double India Pale Ale but this is the first time since the historical Version 2 that I am putting my glass down, blowing out my cheeks and muttering to myself. A reminder that beyond the much spoken about hype is an outstanding brewing team. It is gone within minutes. It is truly exceptional.

And there is no way that it was seven weeks previously.

This resonated with my thoughts on the last four versions of the first DIPA incarnate; each version was at its best by the time the next one was being released.

Cloudwater are the protagonists of this tale yet this has repeatedly applied to most hoppy beers in modern breweries. They are the story here because of this particular beer, but because many reading this article will have had access to the DIPA series.

Of course, beer should be fit for consumption upon release so fresh beer should always be as the brewer intended. My point is that it should never be a necessity. 

Freshness is an ideal that we are creating. It is a religious belief rather than a fact. It is an insistence that we should be strong enough to retract.

Beer doesn’t die as quickly as you believe. We need to stop using freshness as both the ideal and the excuse. Certain beer styles and strength taste better within certain time parameters. The parameters of common sense and expectancy should correlate with that. When we narrow the area with unreasonable expectancy we only damage the already beautiful. You’ll find that the intensity of aromatic hops sometimes needs to die slightly to balance and round off the beer anyway. 

We need only knock out the kinks. There is no reason to destroy the entire vehicle. We started talking about freshness because we deserved fresher. There must be a point of freshness saturation.

“You’ll never get it absolutely right.”

This train of thought goes against much of the ethos behind my next big beer event – Hop City 2017. I am sure that will prove that freshness is a benefit but in the more regular sense of just having beer within a reasonable time scale.

It would be ironic and condescending to write this and then go and drink Magic Rock Brewery's Un-Human Cannonball 2017 on the day of its release, wouldn't it?


Anonymous said…
IMO this is about two separate issues: freshness of beer and overhopping of beer. If you are relying on age to take the edge off the hops, there's too much in there! In the case of DPC, there is no reason it should improve after packaging. Maybe you have got used to slightly aged/oxidised beers and actually prefer them? I've heard of a US study that found drinkers considered oxidation a premium, European import quality.
BeerCast Rich said…
Interesting stuff as ever Mark. You're quite right that freshness has become a recent mantra but to my eyes 'freshness' does not equate to 'conditioning' and never should. Fresh beer as a quasi-movement comes out of the US's railing against the three-tier system and beer left lying around (see also beer exports sitting in customs, but they rail less against that for some reason). That it is a concept spreading here isn't a surprise - and of course BrewDog are at the forefront of this. I've written about freshness from that point of view very recently, in fact.

But this is about getting the finished article to the people who drink it as quickly as possible, without any loss of flavour. You're right, beer won't be ruined in days or weeks, but it will eventually. To my mind the forceful language is deployed with the longer game in mind. It's bluster, but pre-emptive, I guess. But none of this is at the expense of conditioning, or at least it shouldn't be. I can't speak for Cloudwater but their massively hazy unfiltered DIPAs would stand up every much as a bottle-conditioned supermarket PBA. What's causing the rush is limited numbers and hype.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the next step in this is something for the true beer geeks. An Orval approach to IPA, for instance. Market a hop-forward beer like beer fans love to sample Brett-examples and say when drunk fresh you'll taste this, leave it for a couple of months and you get this instead. Put the decision into the hands of the consumer. It's your call. Try them side by side.

Fresh beer does taste better. But as ever, all things are relative.

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