For this month’s Session, Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer asks us to write about “discomfort beers”, beers that took us out of our comfort zone and “beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like or whether you just needed to adjust to.”
As a runner, I know a few things about discomfort. Runners purposely and willingly subject ourselves to all kinds of discomfort, and often have a good time doing it. Yes, runners are a little weird. Of course, it’s the mental and physical development created in adapting to discomfort which runners seek. In the same way, going outside of our beery comfort zones develops both the palate and the mind to appreciate beer’s full potential.
As for us brewing enthusiasts, we’re often going about, trying new beers from different breweries. That’s how we learn about beer, and it describes how I started my journey to discover beer ten years ago. I just started picking up six-packs from different breweries sitting there in the grocery store cooler, taking them home, and seeing if I liked them. Most of the time I did. I started venturing online to learn more about the different beers out there, creating this positive feedback loop, where I read what others were raving about and then confidently striding into bottle shops and bars seeking them out, repeating with increasing frequency.
Some beers took longer than others to get used to. I remember my first sips of Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, finding it to be completely unbearably bitter. It was like chewing on an old bicycle tire. Over time after sampling other hop driven beers, I cautiously came back to Racer 5. To my surprise, I liked it on the second go around, apparently developing a taste for IPAs. Or perhaps I developed a taste for old bicycle tires.
One beer style I found discomforting early on were American Barleywines. The massive amount of sweet malt, supposedly balanced with lots of hops in the American style, tasted like a syrupy, chalky mess. As I’ve learned more about beer and expanded my palate, I’ve come back to try a few American Barleywines. They still taste like a syrupy chalky mess. I’m fine with Barleywines brewed in the English style. Somehow, American’s have taken a perfectly good style and made of mess of it with too many hops.
There are other styles I often find discomforting. Like our Session host, I wasn’t a fan of my first Black IPA. Black IPA’s require a careful and delicate balance of aggressive flavors, and not every brewer can pull off. Some Black IPA’s are wonderful. A fair share of Black IPA’s can be diplomatically described as out of control monstrosities. Session IPA’s are sort of my anti-discomfort beer. I really liked the first few I tried, but now I’ve grown to sour a bit to the style. It’s really tricky to balance the high hop content with a whisper of malt, and I’m afraid a few Session IPA’s come across as little more than fizzy hop water.
Now if I were a beer industry professional, it would be my job to choke down these discomfort beers to do my best to appreciate the full scope of brewing. But beer is just my hobby. I see little point in forcing myself to appreciate beers I don’t particularly like and probably never will. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay to explore areas that might not seem to be the most fruitful for discovery.
Like the past summer, when I made a point of seeking out Lagers and Pilsners from various breweries. I’ve never been a big fan of these much maligned styles associated with big multi-national corporations. Now sitting around, drinking Lagers isn’t exactly my idea of discomfort. But it was rather eye-opening discovering Lagers from small California brewers of subtle, satisfying depth in a thirst-quenching beverage. I also gained a new appreciation for Pilsners after sampling many examples of the style. To my surprise, some of my favorite California brewers whiffed on the Pilsner style, despite having a number of successful flavorful ales in their line-up. And wouldn’t you know, some Pilsners from mega corporations aren’t half bad. This summertime experiment went to show how just how challenging the Pilsner style is to brew.
I suppose if I were really hard-core about beer, I’d spend a summer drinking American Barleywines. Whether running, drinking beer, or anything else, how much discomfort you’re willing to embrace says a lot.