Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Truth About Faux Craft

Right now “faux craft” is news. Beers fitting that loose definition have been around for a while but seem to have become more apparent as the big brewers respond to the perceived threat of true craft beer. In New Zealand faux craft has been commented on recently in both Fairfax media and the New Zealand Herald. In the US the Brewers Association have gone on the offensive, starting a campaign to expose and shame the practice with some success.

Craft Beer College’s Steph Coutts recently proposed a formal tasting of a range of New Zealand’s “faux craft” beer and this resulted in an event on Saturday January 5th at Hashigo Zake. Invitations went out to some of CBC and Hashigo Zake’s regular associates and a group of 20 enthusiasts, brewers and beer writers sacrificed the pleasures of a sunny Wellington Saturday afternoon to sit together in an underground bar.

Steph and partner Jonny Day acquired stocks from four broad categories of twelve beers that they considered were faux craft. These were served blind (i.e. without being identified), one category at a time. In each of those four categories a fourth beer was added that was undeniably “craft” to act as a kind of benchmark and perhaps to ensure that we tasters took our samples seriously, since one in each flight was almost certainly a beer we respected.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that in general we expected a few preconceptions about the quality of these beers to be confirmed. In other words, we were braced for a fair amount of mediocrity. But we were all also open to the prospect that one or more of these offerings would give us a nice surprise and stand up well alongside one of the elite craft beers – maybe even show it up.

The first round was wheat beers. Samples of “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” were left in our glasses and we set about determining what was good, bad or indifferent and tried to match them to certain named beers. For me (C) stood out as an authentic and flavourful if imperfect German-style weissbier. Another (A) had many of the same characteristics but a lot less flavour and was a bit of a disappointment. (B) had a massive apricot aroma that identified it immediately but then failed to match its aroma with flavour and ended up somewhat insipid. Finally there was (D) which showed none of the aromas and flavours that I would expect a traditional German or Belgian style wheat beer to incorporate as a result of their distinctive yeasts. It was dreadfully bland. (C) comfortably won a show of hands for favourite and was revealed to be Tuatara Hefeweizen. (A) turned out to be Crafty Beggars Wheat As, (B) was Monteiths Apricot Wheat and (D) was Boundary Road Wheat Reaper.

We moved on to pilsners. (A) and (B) struck me as quite reasonable New Zealand Pilsners with plenty of hop aroma and bitterness on show. I speculated that a slight sweet note in (A) might have betrayed a little oxidation. Others judged it more harshly. (C) stood out for lacking the fresh hop characters we all expected from a New Zealand pilsner and tasted more like a plain old golden lager. Finally (D) blew away everything that came before it with fresh, vibrant hop aromas and flavours and a complete absence of flaws. It won the voting by a landslide and was revealed to be Croucher Pilsner. (A) was Boundary Road The Resident Pilsner, (B) was Speights Triple Hop Pilsner and (C) was Crafty Beggars Good as Gold.

On to pale ales and the craft wannabes were given something of a handicap by being put up against Epic Pale Ale. The Epic was immediately recognised by everyone. But I think that even if the craft representative had been something less distinctive the three faux craft pale ales would still have suffered from the same contemptuous judgement. All three really were awful, but in their own ways. Craft Beggars Pale And Interesting was hopelessly bland. Hancocks Grand Pale Ale drew scathing criticism for being faulty (diacetyl) and generally unpleasant. And Monteiths Pacific Pale Ale, whose commercial description made it sound like a hop-bomb, started with a raw, grainy aroma and barely improved from there.

Finally we had a round of “other” beers - a couple of darks and a couple of amber or brown beers. All were easily identified so the blindness of the tasting was somewhat compromised. The “control” beer was Emerson’s Porter, and as expected it was true to style and full of flavour. Boundary Road The Resident Red Rye was for me the best of all the faux craft beers – rich and flavourful thanks to the rye, balanced and bitter. Hancocks Brown Ale drew plenty of criticism and was considered faulty by some. For me its main problem was just a lack of flavour. Finally Monteith’s Barrel Aged Porter got plenty of positive reviews although I thought it reminded me too much of Monteith’s Black to get carried away. And for all the positive comment there was a lot of speculation about how much barrel aging it really had, whether the barrel it was aged in was actually made of wood or whether the beer was left in a barrel or vice versa.

In the end the tasting’s big surprise was the lack of a surprise. Respected craft beers stood out and many of the others were exposed as bland or faulty. Boundary Road’s The Resident beers did quite well, but the awfulness of their Wheat Reaper suggested that without their imported guest brewer (Spike Bukowksi) their capabilities are limited.

Many of us assume that with the resources at their disposal the only thing the big breweries need to make beer as well as genuine craft brewers is the will. This tasting suggested otherwise.