I’ve been into craft beer for several years now, and in that time I have been treated to many seasonal releases, industry shifts, and trends that I now know to be cyclical. I’ve also witnessed breweries getting craftier in that same time frame. Not only are they getting better at coming up with great, wonderful, and wild flavors using different hops, aging techniques, and adjuncts, but some are getting better at the basics.
I will use as my examples two breweries I am very familiar with from the Northwest, Ninkasi Brewing from Eugene, Oregon and Elysian Brewing from Seattle, Washington. Both breweries make some really great beers, and both share this little factoid in common, I really didn’t like their beers a few years ago. Let me explain.
The first time I tried a Ninkasi Beer It was just ok. Nothing really spectacular in any sense, but not bad either. As time went on and I tried some more of their brews they began to get better. I really don’t think this was my palate getting dialed into their beers, I think their beers began to actually improve. See as time marches onward recipe’s get tweaked, ingredients change, and the brewing process is refined, so beers that were once kind of meh, are now bright and lovely. Or dark and lovely depending on your choice.
Enter Elysian. When I first started seeing these beers, I was instantly turned off by their labels, and they still are quite baroque and overstated in my mind, but the beer inside has gone through a metamorphosis. What were once thin and watery messes are now robust and and very well crafted beers. Again I’m pretty sure it isn’t me, but the beer changed and got better. I now look for beers brewed by Elysian to try.
How do I know that it wasn’t me? Well their reputations preceded them. When I first asked about Elysian I was given the “meh, their beers are ok, for the price” or “They do a pretty good pumpkin brew.” Now people say they are a great beer and a great value! And they truly are, I can get a bomber of just about any of their brews for under $6.
As I’ve seen breweries improve, I’ve also seen them backslide too. Take for instance Ninkasi. Their story that I was able to piece together is this, they burst onto the craft beer scene and were amazing beers. I heard a lot about them, and I couldn’t wait to try them. But when I finally did, it was in the middle of a brewery expansion, and quality must have suffered. As they got their beers dialed back in with the higher production volume, the quality began to improve by leaps. It seemed that every beer they put out was better than the last, and I “discovered” some favorites like the Oatis, their Oatmeal Stout, and the Total Domination IPA. However the last Oatis I had was infected, and tasted like banana bread. Some people like that taste in their beer…I do not, especially when it isn’t supposed to taste like bananas.
I hope I just got a bad batch, and it isn’t the start of something mediocre. Really though it makes some sense that craft breweries would go through these ups and downs. They are so small, mostly, and ingredients change from year to year affecting flavor. And beer can change depending on the master brewer. Much like a restaurant can change and get better or worse under different head chefs, as new breweries grow and the industry naturally gets larger, people move around and you begin to have “Celebrity” brewers. These guys and gals are coveted and make some fine beer.
I guess this inconsistency is something that I have grown to love in craft beer. Changes in flavor, subtle and extreme from year to year, keep things interesting. How about you? Do you have breweries that you once thought were just sort of there, but now are rockstars? And on the other end of the spectrum, are there breweries you used to be very excited about that you can now take or leave? Let us know in the comments.