Craft beer and natural ingredients go together hand in glove. Much of the appeal of a craft beer is knowing the origin of its grain, hops – even its water. Often, it’s served to you by one of the hands that made it. Like a farm to fork meal or a hand-kilned bowl from an art fair, a craft beer is a philosophical statement as much as a product.
But using whole ingredients in an exponentially growing industry leads to an awful lot of waste. Brewers mitigate this by reusing when possible or by giving their spent grain to local farms. Nonetheless, the question of access and sustainability is ever present in a nation with thousands of operating breweries. To that end, university labs and businesses are working to develop products that distill flavor and active agents while reducing waste. Some of these processed ingredients have been embraced by brewers, while others still carry the stigma of artificiality. Exploring how brewers take advantage of lab-altered products shows how the line between acceptable and unacceptable is blurring, if it was ever clear in the first place.
Certainly, the most widely accepted of these products are hop oil and lupulin powder. Their ascendance has been discussed ad infinitum, including on this site. John Kimmich freely discusses how the Alchemist uses CO2 extract for bittering instead of hops. The omnipresent New England IPA would be impossible without lupulin powder.
This technology was met with immediate excitement and approval by industry and drinkers alike because it addressed a problem that needed solving. The problem was how to isolate and amplify hop flavor, and these powders and oils did that while simultaneously minimizing inefficiency through absorption. So, hip brewers employ lupulin powder proudly. Rather than hiding the fact that they use processed ingredients, they trumpet it in their advertising. Hell, Captain Lawrence just released a hazy IPA called Powder Dreams.
However, these hop-derived products are mostly the exception. A conflicting example is malt extract. Almost every home brewer’s first recipe involves a malt syrup or powder, but after someone knocks out a couple prepackaged kit batches, they kick off the training wheels and try their hand at an all grain mash. And yet, commercial brewers still sometimes use malt syrup and dry extract as a quick way to boost the original gravity of a brew. Though they don’t advertise it, it’s a fully accepted practice.
While the process for these types of extraction might be technically complex, it is nonetheless fairly transparent. There’s something intuitive about removing resin grands from hop plants or reducing a grain mash to a viscous syrup. Dicier is the idea of modifying an ingredient at a genetic level. That ethical question has come to the fore recently, as researchers at the University of California – Berkley developed a genetically modified yeast that imparts hop taste and aroma during fermentation.
Interviewed for an NPR article, John Gillooly of Drake’s Brewing Co. says he is resolutely on board with the idea, seeing the yeast as an effective way to round out a hoppy beer’s flavor. Conversely, Firestone Walker’s Matthew Brynildson has pragmatic concerns about this advance. In the same article, he worries that essentially combining the flavor hopping and fermentation processes puts craft brewing on a short road to bargain-basement practices. My opinions about genetically modified organisms aside, I can understand this argument. Making beer is both art and science. Breweries spend years developing house cultures and experimenting with hop additions. Outsourcing much of that science to a lab tinkering with your yeast doesn’t instill much confidence in the final product.
Then there are adjuncts. Adding fruit, spices, and assorted sweets is as much a part of American craft beer as the Reinheitsgebot is to traditional German beer. A chocolate stout or a raspberry sour is catnip to craft aficionados. Whereas every brewer cultivates the image of themselves pouring fresh berries into wort, many rely on concentrates, extracts and flavorings to achieve the desired effect. And that’s not an inherently bad thing.
There’s certainly a stigma to using processed adjuncts in beer. Brewers tend to keep their ingredients close to the vest, which is reasonable if only for proprietary reasons. But the notion that a brewer is using anything other than fresh local products is unacceptable to some consumers. Even the mandated “natural flavors added” labeling can raise a raft of conspiracy theories, not helped by the chorus of less-than-reputable internet voices.
Nonetheless, there are a good many revered beers using flavor additions that have seen a laboratory or manufacturer. Speculating about them by name would be unfair, because of the aforementioned stigma. But they exist. There is, for example, an American-made rich chocolate stout that is almost universally praised. In an interview, the brewer confirmed that this beer contained Belgian cocoa but pointedly refused to say in what form the chocolate came to them. If you search forums of flummoxed home brewers trying to clone this ale, you’ll find many references to brewery employees acknowledging they use an extract rather than raw chocolate. Should this matter?
Consider also, a Belgian brewer that, for years, produced the only readily available lambic in much of America. These days, anyone living near a decent bottle shop or Whole Foods can find gueuzes, krieks and framboises by the cartful. But in the early 2000s, this brewer was mostly the only game in town. Many of their fruited beers were saccharine sweet, and it became conventional (if unconfirmed) wisdom that they were using some form of concentrate or extract, sweetening before bottling and pasteurizing. Yet while some find their fruited lambics too sweet, few deny the skill that goes into their creation. Nor would anyone refute the influence their product had on American brewers and drinkers alike.
And to loop in an entire style: informed consumers these days take it as a given that most pumpkin beers don’t use fresh pumpkin.
It would be unfair to brewers to expect them to speak completely transparently about their ingredients. For someone to acknowledge that their cherry porter uses a natural extract rather than whole fruit would open them up to criticism. But, if the extract was sourced from a local producer using real fruit, would that make a difference?
Even if craft beer drinkers are fine with a brewer using a concentrate or extract, they may baulk at the idea of one using a flavoring. I find this dichotomy interesting as a venue for addressing the question of where we draw the line natural and artificial.
Flavoring has changed over the years. Once upon a time, an impact compound would be augmented to form something like the imagined ideal flavor, which often tasted (and was) horrendously synthetic. This resulted in generations of consumers thinking fresh cherries taste like Luden’s cough drops. Today, though, most reputable flavor houses aim to replicate the natural taste of something by breaking it down to its characterizing flavor components. From there, they procure ingredients that match each component. They might start, for example, by sampling a particular blueberry preserve that a brewer specifies. Then, they can craft a water soluble syrup created from raw ingredients, to impart the flavor of the preserve to a beer.
Certainly, this is several steps removed from that image of pureed fresh fruit going into the fermentation tank, but it has not-insignificant advantages. Certainly a naturally-produced flavor addition produces less waste for the brewer. It also allows them to alter taste without boosting the ABV or introducing malicious microbes that could spoil wort. It also gives greater control over each batch, allowing brewers to tweak flavor levels and reduce batch-to-batch variance.
If we acknowledge that issues of availability and sustainability will only get worse as more brewers enter the fold, we have to be open to innovative solutions. We should acknowledge the role of flavor technology in brewing while still insisting on transparency regarding the materials used. I personally do not have an issue with a brewer using a flavoring in their beer, provided it is made from whole ingredients. That line between natural and synthetic is my line.
Yet other brewers, other drinkers and other writers have different lines. Right now, we often pretend the line is that any beer not made from off-the-vine ingredients is somehow suspect. This is disingenuous. There are more breweries in America now than ever before, and new ones launch every week. The universities, labs and businesses producing these products may not conform to our image of the utopian beersmith, but they are probably necessary to maintaining the robust craft beer culture we enjoy today.