Can We Talk Flavouring in Beer?

Photo credit: Emily Collins

by Stephen Beaumont

Anyone remember the Reinheitsgebot? Also known as the Beer Purity Law of 1516, it was developed in Bavaria and limited brewers to the use of malted barley, hops and water. (Yeast was excluded because it wasn’t yet understood and other malted grains, particularly wheat, were added later.) It was, for its time, a pretty big deal.

It was a big deal in the early days of Canadian ‘microbrewing,’ too, with breweries from Granville Island to Upper Canada touting the Reinheitsgebot purity of their beers. Never mind that Germany, Austria and what was then still Czechoslovakia were the only countries terribly concerned with such things, in Canada the “made with 4 natural ingredients’ line – including yeast for fermentation now – was considered a safe and sure way to sell beer.

How quaint it all seems now!

While four ingredient beers are hardly uncommon in North America these days, they are far, far less dominant than they were even five years ago, as flavoured beers proliferate like wild flowers in the spring. Why, just this past weekend my beer fridge offered me the option of a lime-flavoured Berliner weisse, an Imperial stout “inspired by Mexican hot chocolate,” a “Golden Sour Ale” aged with peaches and an “Imperial pale ale with coffee.”

What’s more, that was just the tip of my beer fridge’s iceberg of flavours! Thankfully I’m seeing far fewer fruited IPAs these days – definitely a flavouring trend no one really needed! – but now that take on the style seems poised to be replaced by the ‘milkshake’ IPA, dosed with lactose for body and sweetness, not to mention the rising tide of coffee pale ales and IPAs; finding a plain Berliner weisse or gose is now trickier than locating one accented by some sort of fruit or other flavouring; and let us not forget the bourbon barrel “flavouring” of Imperial stouts and barley wines, which still oft times produces ales that taste more of the spirit than they do of the beer.

And that’s just the conventional side of flavouring. Did you catch the Chick-fil-A tenders-flavoured beer that Richmond, Virginia’s The Veil did a while back? How about Lervig and Evil Twin’s money and frozen pizza-flavoured stout, or Rogue’s Voodoo Donut collaboration series? The list, sadly, goes on and on.

Look, I’m not saying that flavouring beer with other than hops is a bad thing – I was a big proponent of fruit beers even back in the days when they were widely disparaged as “not real beers.” But when I begin waxing nostalgic over beers that are well-brewed in basic styles –pilsner, pale ale, helles, dry stout and so on – then I have to wonder if this cult of putting stuff into beer has finally gone too far.

Or maybe it’s just that we beer drinkers are all enablers. After all, it’s our money and our palates that encourage breweries to do such odd and unusual flavoured beers, often with a reward of a ‘special release’ that draws both crowds and inflated revenues. So maybe the answer is for us to simply stop buying them, even for curiosity’s sake.

Maybe, but I won’t be holding my breath.


Short Sips with Stephen Beaumont

A corner dedicated to bringing you insight from industry author and beer connoisseur, Stephen Beaumont.

Twitter: @BeaumontDrinks