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Are Pacific Northwest Brewers One Trick Ponies?


The Pacific Northwest is an amazing place to live for a beer lover. There are a number of styles that brewers here do very well including American Pale Ales, Amber Ales, IPAs, Stouts, and Porters. Unfortunately, I am discovering that there are a very large number of beer styles that they do poorly.

The popularity of craft brewing is on the rise in the U.S. and that is great news for all of us that live here. For those of us that live in the Pacific Northwest, this is even better news as our beer, hop, and malt industries will likely continue to grow as a result.

Many people are, for the first time in their lives, not only discovering the wonderful world of ales, but also learning more about foreign styles such as German and Belgian varieties. U.S. brewers, of course, are now producing many of these styles and with limited degrees of success.

But nowhere is the success rate lower than in the Pacific Northwest. It is either arrogance or ignorance, but nearly every single foreign style beer produced here is over-hopped. Yes, we have great hops here and supply a significant portion of the world with them, but that doesn't mean that we need to hop the hell out of everything we make.

Pyramid Breweries recently released an Imperial Hefeweizen that is loaded with hop flavor (not to mention a lack of banana or clove taste). What were they thinking? Were they thinking it would be fun to make a hefeweizen with a northwest spin? Or do they simply not know how to brew one?

The hopping is the first problem - not following style is the second problem. For example, Widmer's flagship product is their Hefeweizen... which is actually an American Wheat. There is not a single note of banana or clove in this beer. Did they call it a Hefeweizen for marketing purposes? All I know is that it is not a Hefeweizen.

I just singled out a couple of supposedly German-style beers, but the problem exists throughout the spectrum of foreign ales we brew. Our Scottish/Scotch ales are watery, not sweet enough, and over-hopped. Our Belgian ales are over-hopped, often not carbonated enough, and lack the complexity the authentic versions have. Our English style ales often use local hops instead of English hops. The list goes on.

What's worse is that many of the brewer's descriptions of their beers say some to the effect of: "We just wanted to pay homage to the monks who suffer tirelessly for their beer". That was made up, but there are many quotes along these lines that can be dug up. If the brewers really wish to "pay homage", then why do they insult the style by not following it?

In all fairness, many of our brewers are attempting these styles for the first time. When Deschutes brewed their 19th Anniversary Golden Ale (their first Belgian attempt), one of the brewers proclaimed, "Good Lord, this is a lot of malt". If a Belgian were to brew an Northwest Style IPA for the first time, I would imagine they would say, "Good Lord, this is a lot of hops". The stark reality, however, is that there are homebrewers making better foreign style ales than the "professionals". Again, I wonder if it is ignorance or arrogance.

One should note that these beers we are referring to aren't necessarily bad. Many of them are quite good. But when you are at the Oregon Brewer's Festival, for example, and you get your mouth all watered up for a Belgian ale and it tastes like an IPA, it is very disappointing. What is worse is when nearly ever beer you try at the festival tastes like an IPA.

If northwest brewers continue to produce over-hopped phony versions of foreign style beers, it is possible that the local crowds will continue to "eat" them up, but these beers will never be able to compete on the world stage against brewers who understand their regional styles and exhibit their mastery of them. Furthermore, East Coast brewers such as Ommegang, Victory, Allagash, and others will continue to put northwest brewers to shame in this arena.

There is a lot of brewing talent in this part of the country and I look forward to the day when there is a selection of locally made foreign style ales that taste like they are supposed to.

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