Thursday, June 18, 2020

Slushees, Pastry Stouts, and Fruit Bombs. What's Become of Beer?

Why do some breweries make beer and then pump it full of fruit puree, candy, and sugar to create something that tastes nothing at all like beer? The answer becomes obvious if you scroll through the social media pages of breweries that do this type of thing. There's an enthused cohort of drinkers who are aroused by these beers and will pay dearly for them. 

Lion’s Tail Aloha Punch Slushee made with apple, apricot, guava, orange,
papaya, passion fruit, and pineapple. 4-packs were sold for $22.

Over the past year, beers like this have become increasingly common in Winnebago County. At one end of the spectrum are the fluorescent, juice-like beers that are made from light ales blended with fruit puree and other flavorings, such as milk sugar or vanilla. At the opposite end is the pastry stout: a black ale that gets aged upon or blended with dessert-like extracts or ingredients. Chocolate, cookies, brownies, coconut, peanut butter flavoring... Pretty much anything goes.

In either case, you start with something that begins as beer and then gets manipulated with post-fermentation flavoring additions to taste like something else entirely. This isn't altogether new. There's a long history of brewers adding flavoring agents to finished beer. What makes these beers different is their total reliance upon added flavorings. Perhaps more important is that the main flavors of these beers are not made at the brewery where the beer is made. 

The primary flavor of a heavily fruited beer or a pastry stout comes from a food processing plant. The brewer plays no role in the creation or composition of the flavoring agent. It gets delivered to the brewery in jugs, bags, or buckets and then gets added to a pre-existing beer. The point is not the flavor base the brewer made. The point is the flavor of the processed ingredients the brewer purchased from someone else. 

It's an approach that stands in contrast to what has traditionally been considered the brewer's art or craft; that being the ability to create a desirable range of flavors through the transformation of a common set of raw materials. The irony is that these beers, which have so little to do with the actual craft of brewing, are most often the product of so-called craft breweries.

That's not to say that making a palatable fruit-packed beer or pastry stout doesn't require skill. But it's a different, less exacting skill than that of a brewer. The skill is being able to combine those pre-processed flavors in a way that customers find desirable. It has more to do with blending or mixology than brewing. 

Equally important is the marketing. Since these are usually one-off beers there's no need for a brewer to create a product that will have enduring appeal. In fact, it's just the opposite. Novelty is crucial here. The important thing is to induce a sense of excitement that will bring people into the taproom. And to do that you need a name and an image that will arrest the attention of folks scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Here's a laser-sharp example of just that.

All the breweries in Winnebago County engage in this to a greater or lesser degree. But three local breweries, in particular, have made these sorts of beers central to their identity: Barrel 41 in Neenah, which produces a steady stream of pastry stouts; Fifth Ward in Oshkosh, which makes both heavily fruited ales and pastry stouts; and Lion's Tail in Neenah, which has been successful with its densely fruited "Slushee" beers.

The first Lion's Tail Slushee was released just over a year ago. The style came to the attention of Alex Wenzel, owner and head brewer at Lion's Tail in early 2019.  It appeared to be a tailor-made solution to a problem Wenzel was then wrestling with.

"There's a lot of new local breweries, but it doesn't seem like the customer base has grown a ton," Wenzel said when I interviewed him in February of 2019. "When you go to a beer event, you see largely the same population at each of the different places." 

One way to expand that community is to lure people who don't much care for the taste of beer by making beer that doesn't taste like beer. This approach to broadening the audience for beer is also not new. It's been going on for decades and finds its ultimate expression in beer-like beverages such as Bud Select 55 and MGD 64. Fruit-thick beers and pastry stouts take a new approach to that project by standing it on its head. Instead of stripping away beer flavor, these beers bury it under a dense blanket of flavors that recall sweet fruit drinks and sugary junk foods.

At first glance, all of this may appear painfully contrived. But this trend didn't just come out of the blue. All of the head brewers in Winnebago County came to their profession from home brewing where the unbridled use of novel ingredients has long been part of the culture. If you've been to a beer festival where home brew was being poured then you know how idiosyncratic the beers can be. For a brewer who learned to make beer in that scene, it's not much of a leap to heavily fruited beers and pastry stouts.

Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh is illustrative in this regard. Five years ago, when Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward began talking of their plans to launch a brewery, they had already settled on the idea that they would make "culinary" beers that employed ingredients more commonly found in cooking. When Fifth Ward opened in 2017 they made good on that promise by using ingredients like saffron and cinnamon to accentuate the flavor of a particular beer. About a year later, Clark and Wenger began to move away from that approach. That shift has led to the flavored and fruited ales they make today as part of the brewery's Frootenanny series.

"With those initial beers we were using those ingredients more as an accent than as a primary flavor," Wenger says. "But trying to explain that to people was always difficult. And at the time, even that was considered kind of out there. What we're doing now changed the way we brew. Like with our fruited sours, that base beer is brewed to be fruited. The customer has an easier time understanding these beers. When they see these fruited sours they know what they're getting. Like with Tangerine Dream, people expect that it's going to taste like tangerine and vanilla."

That goes to the heart of this entire trend. It doesn't take much knowledge, experience, or effort to process the flavor your tasting in a beer loaded with fruit or chocolate. The taste is familiar, affirming, comforting even. These are beers that promise not to leave you guessing or struggling to identify what it is your tasting. There's no need to develop your palate to enjoy this stuff. The experience is simple and exciting and asks nothing of you. It's the sort of pleasure that would satisfy a child. With alcohol on top.

That level of simplicity permeates the craft beer scene. "When we go out into the market it's much more difficult to sell just a regular beer," Clark says. "It's not what beer buyers are looking for. The flashy beers, the fruited sours, the hazy IPAs, the flavored stouts; that's what they're asking for. Some accounts that's all they're looking for." 
For a brewery owner, the choice is stark. Because unless you have the patience, time, and ability to educate your customers about the complexities of beer flavor, you're going to have to give the market what it demands. Small breweries live day-to-day. And they need to sell as much beer as they can right now. Especially now.

That’s not to say the decision doesn't entail risk. Brewer’s who pursue this path grow dependent on the most fickle type of consumer. People who have no special love for beer, but are triggered by sensation and novelty. Holding their interest requires an endless stream of amusements. That’s a shaky foundation to build a business upon. The high attrition rate within the restaurant industry, where this sort of approach is even more common, illustrates how difficult it is to continually drum up that kind of interest.

I won’t try to guess how this will play out locally. But there's a signal amongst all the noise that's probably worth tracking. A number of small breweries in this area appear to be headed to a place somewhere beyond beer. The beers I've mentioned here really have more in common with flavored malt beverages than anything that people historically have considered beer. When a brewery goes in this direction, it's hard to see a path back to where they can maintain a business based on more traditional types of beer. 

None of this is welcome news if traditional beer styles are what ignited and sustain your interest as a beer drinker. If that's the case, you're likely to find that local brewery taprooms will increasingly not be where you go to find what you're after. You may not be the customer they are trying to reach. If you haven't already, you might want to consider home brewing.

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