Samuel Adams has been a respected pillar of the craft brewing community for years, but I am starting to wonder if the brewery's best years are behind it. With recent stunts like the Beef Heart beer and the new attempt to create a new beer style in Infinium, it sort of feels like Sam Adams is trying to claw its way back into the hearts of beer geeks. Perhaps this all stems from the brewery's recent removal from "craft brewer" status. You see, Sam Adams is on the precipice of, or has already passed, producing 2 million barrels a year, which makes it officially too big to be considered a "craft" brewer anymore. Meanwhile, Owner/Brewer Jim Koch is trying to redefine the term both legally and philosophically, writing his own definition of "craft brewer" for the brewery's website:
"Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria."
So what is this new beer, Infinium, and what is the hype about? Well, it's billed as the first new beer style in years, and one that is designed to fit into the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity law, which dates back to 1516 and states that all beer must contain only water, malt and hops. Of course, the law was repealed years ago, but many German brewers still proclaim to brew under the law. Samuel Adams has brewed this beer as a collaboration with one such brewery, Weihenstephan of Germany, which is said to be the oldest brewery in the world. The goal from the beginning was to create a new style that could still be made under old German laws. Now let's quote from the incredibly bad press release that accompanied the beer:
"Thanks to Infinium™, a crisp, new champagne-like beer that sets a new standard inf brewing, men now have the ultimate drink with which to celebrate this holiday season."
That intro to the news already sets a tone that makes me think I am about to be sold a new InBev spinoff, wannabe craft product. Also, what is with the direct reference to "men" having a new drink to celebrate with? Why not women? The press release continues to describe the beer itself:
"Infinium pours out a deep golden color with fine bubbles and has a fruity, elegant aroma. Its crisp acidity gives it a dryness and tartness on the palate that is balanced with a smooth malt body. Infinium is packaged in 750mL cork-finished bottles and contains 10.3 percent alcohol by volume, twice the amount of an average beer."
Champagne-like beers are nothing new. Numerous brewers have attempted the style, including Golden Valley here out in McMinnville, OR with the Champagne Vs. Brut.
The press release continues to make references to how much men will love this beer:
"men are eager to celebrate with beer throughout the holiday season. Infinium’s light, sparkling character is a welcome complement to all festivities, allowing drinkers to enjoy the best of both worlds."
Sorry, Sam Adams, but this whole deal reeks of trying too hard to win back the hearts of beer geeks (or perhaps just men). They must not have gotten the memo that women are a huge, fast growing segment of craft beer buyers. Based on the press release, I became pretty disinterested in this beer, with the only real question being "how is this a new style of beer?" The answer came in a pretty good interview with Samuel Adams Founder and Brewer, Jim Koch, in Serious Eats. Jim explains that they changed the malting process to create the style:
"Basically we changed the malting process to be much much longer, and at much lower temperatures, to create a stable malt that still included almost all of the enzymes that are original to the barley itself. It's not just another day or two, it's a multiple. You could think of it as three or four times as long, it's not quite that simple, but that's a good way to think about it. In the brewing process, we took part of the mash at a certain stage in its development, and put it in the fermenter. and again, allowed it to remain active for several weeks, rather than the normal one hour or so that you have in the brewhouse."
Something like that is a good example of how a bigger brewery really does have the leeway to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, though I am not sure this qualifies. How exactly does the extended malting process affect the grain, and how does it contribute to a new style of beer? Making a light, dry, fruity, and effervescent beer takes no new innovation and scarcely defines a new style.
|Jim Koch, photo by Liz Clayton (Serious Eats)|
The interview is filled with rich quotes like:
"Sam Adams has been arguably the most innovative brewer in the US for the last 20 years,"
But my favorite one is this thinly-veiled barb towards Dogfish Head Brewing:
"We can all throw Chinese gooseberries or Buddha's hand into the brew kettle"
That is an amusing jab, but it also smacks of desperation. The day may have come where Sam Adams is no longer seen as a craft brewer and is no longer on the cutting edge, but Jim Koch is not about to let that happen without a fight. It remains to be seen whether Infinium is a good beer, but simply rehashing tricks that have already become old hat (collaborations, new techniques, and faux new beer styles) is not going to do it. Don't even get me started on what the point in brewing under Reinheitsgebot even is?! Either way, I am still looking forward to trying Infinium to see what the fuss is all about so maybe it is working.