Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Session #68: When Does Novelty Cease?

For this month's Session, Tiffany at 99Pours asks us to write about novelty beers.   Here are my riffs on the subject.

In the 50's, Elvis Presley introduced novel innovations in music to the world.  About the same time, Alvin and the Chipmonks released records using novel recording techniques.  Both Elvis Presley and Alvin and the Chipmonks won multiple Grammy Awards.  Elvis is still Elvis.   Alvin and the Chipmonks are still unlistenable to anyone over the age of seven.  Somewhere between Elvis Presley and Alvin and the Chipmonks lies the interface between timeless innovation and perpetual novelty.

Beer is no different.  Chile beer is one novelty beer that many feel has not only overstayed its welcome, but should never have come over in the first place.  And yes, chile beer is often a stale lager with a jalapeno pepper thoughtlessly dunked into it, a beer gimmick resulting in an overpowering and undrinkable mess.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  One of my favorite beers is Devil's Canyon's Hades Habanero, where a deft touch of the habenero's transforms an earthy underlying amber ale into a lively concoction.  And this year I experienced the pleasure of Green Chile Ale from De La Vega's Pecan Grill & Brewery in Las Cruces, NM, a beer where local green chiles are carefully put on a pedestal of light malt to be celebrated in all their glory.  I also experienced a beer brewed with fennel of all things, Almanac's Spring 2012 Bière de Mars, and found it sensational.   Somehow, these beers made with habaneros, green chiles, or fennel  don't seem like novelty beers, but examples of innovative brewing with unusual and local ingredients.

Of course, there was a time when the ubiquitous IPA was a novelty beer.  Just a few decades ago, an IPA in America was either a rare British import, or was handed to you by a shaggy homebrewer with a devilish glint in his eye.  And as IPA's caught on and became ordinary, the new novel became uber-hoppy double, triple, and even quadrupal IPA's, as brewers engaged in a hop-driven arms race.  Until there was nowhere else to go and a few breweries got the bright idea to release Gruits, beers without any hops, but often flavored instead with spices and other exotic additions.  And it was novel.

Well, sort of.  For the first 5,000 years of brewing history, the Gruit ruled, as hops first started showing up in beer around 1400 AD.  Seems like as long as beer is continually reinvented, there will always be novelty beers.  They just may be standard beers from our past, or of the future.


  1. Interesting ... I think I've had more chili beers that I have liked than ones I have not liked. Of course, I don't drink that many, and only try ones at places where I already know that I like their beer in general.

    It is always interesting to me that "novelty beer" means very different things to different people. When I mention "sour beer" in the general (non-beer-geek) public, I get confused are-you-crazy looks. I of course don't think of sours as "novelty" at all. Just yummy.

    In fact, I have gotten similar looks for really main-stream (IMO) beers such as fruit beers.

  2. I liked the Elvis and Alvin and the Chipmonks perspective. If I feel a "novelty beer" such as The Rocky Mountain Stout has potential to impress I will be up to the challenge but if I view it as gimmicky such as some of the so-called Holiday beers with very little substance then that appears to be more of a novelty. Good post.