Every beer is a brewer’s invention to some degree—a combination of ingredients that could never be found in nature. A barrel of crushed grapes, left to its own devices, can turn into a crude sort of Beaujolais nouveau. The winemaker’s job is mostly to prod the process along. That isn’t true of beer. For grain to turn into an ale or lager, it has to be malted, cooked, strained, cooked, strained, fermented in a barrel, and sometimes again in a bottle. “Mother Nature makes wine,” Calagione likes to say. “Brewers make beer.”
Which isn’t to say that beer is any less natural, or less subject to nature’s vagaries. One year, a drought in the Dakotas may leave the barley with half its usual starch. The next, a hot summer in the Yakima Valley could turn the hops less bitter. The water in the mash may be hard or soft (Bavarian water is great for dark lagers, not so good for pale ales), the fermentation tanks sealed tight or exposed to the open air. And at the end of the process lies a notoriously finicky organism. All brewing yeasts eventually run out of sugar or self-destruct, poisoning themselves on their own alcohol. Only the hardiest strains—“freaks of nature,” Calagione calls them—can produce the most potent beers. Dogfish has its own yeast-propagation lab, but some strains give up too soon, causing what’s known as a stuck fermentation. “Our brewery is a hundred people relying on a few billion yeast cells,” Calagione says. “Sometimes they outvote us.”
There’s no reason, given all these variables, that a given beer should always taste the same. We expect a Merlot to change from year to year, crop to crop. Why not a Michelob? Beer has been an industrial commodity for so long that it no longer seems an organic substance. And brewing, in its complexity, allows just enough control to maintain the illusion. If winemakers are Dionysian, brewers have had to become Apollonian. Age will only improve a Bordeaux, winemakers say. Brewers tend to prefer their beer fresh, exactly as they made it. Their skill lies in compensating for nature as much as collaborating with it.
Burkhard Bilger, “A Better Brew”, The New Yorker (24 November 2008), 94-95.