The Session No. 68: Novelty Beers

This month’s Session* topic is hosted by Tiffany Adamowski at 99 Pours who, along with her husband, owns a bottle shop in Federal Way, WA.  She’s a fellow beer bloggers conference attendee and her topic is Novelty Beers.  Tiffany asks:

What novelty beer comes to mind when you think: Is this beer just too strange to stay around? Why in the world would they choose ingredients most beer drinkers have never heard of …what the heck is a qatar fruit? If it’s okay for beer to taste like tea or coffee, why not pizza? If wild yeasts are allowed to ferment beer, then why not beard yeast? If oysters, why not bacon? If pumpkin’s good enough for pie, why not beer? Since hops are flowers, why not brew with actual flowers?

My first thought in pondering this topic is to punt.  I can’t immediately think of a single novelty beer I’ve tried. Sure, there’s been a few Dogfish Head brews that might qualify, or some odd fruit infused beer at one of the local breweries.  But none of these strike me as being a novelty beer.

And then it hit me why.

Earlier this week I wrote about beer trends for 2012. My number one beer trend? Putting anything and everything in beer. There are no boundaries in the U.S. craft beer industry. If we’ve learned anything over the past year, there is no ingredient you can’t put in beer.  Bull testicles? Done.  Maple syrup, bacon, chocolate, peanut butter? All done. Yeast from a brewer’s beard?  Yesterday’s news.  Thus, is it possible there aren’t any novelty beers left?

This freedom to experiment is what sets the U.S. brewing industry apart from other countries, particularly European counterparts whose century old traditions continue to have a strangle hold on limited styles. I appreciate the experimentation.  It really isn’t all that new in the U.S., but choosing odder and odder ingredients in an arms race of novelty is a more recent trend. 

Why would brewers choose ingredients most beer drinkers have never heard of?  Setting aside the cynical answer – that it’s a marketing thing – it’s because craft beer drinkers are inherently curious and adventurous with their beers.  When I visited Evan Bowser for a post on Bowser Brewing Company, he’d just picked up some horseradish from the grocery store for a 10 gallon test batch.  Ten years ago while living in San Francisco for a year, I remember trying beers at Magnolia brewed with heathers and herbs instead of hops.

Novelty beers are created for the established craft beer fan.  The kind of beer drinker who understands the basic styles and isn’t afraid to try something new.  It’s fun, and I’m as likely (or maybe more likely) as the next beer geek to taste a peanut butter beer,** for example, just to see if it works.

Sometimes the experimentation does work. Often it doesn’t. But why not give it a try?  Beer is social. We like to have fun with it.  As long as it isn’t purely for gimmickry, I even embrace it. Still, at the end of the average day, please hand me an uncomplicated stout, porter, IPA, or brown ale, and I’ll probably be happier.

*Today is the first Friday in October which means it’s time to take part in The Session, a collective effort of beer bloggers around the world to write on a common topic once each month.

** Throwback Brewery’s Fat Alberta Chocolate Peanut Butter Imperial Stout.  It was fun to try and tasted . . . . interesting.