There is some debate within the Craft Beer Movement™ about every goddamn thing, so it makes sense that the list of contentious issues begins with the very phrase "craft beer." The Brewers Association defines "craft" as ... just kidding, fuck off, who cares. Without spelling it all out, let us just note that the main beefing points tend to revolve around size, with other, lesser beeves devoted to ingredients employed and perceived independence of brewery ownership.
(I say "perceived," because just how independent is your new neighborhood nanobrewery if the bank owns half the operation and the label-design guy's rich aunt owns the other? It stands to reason that the Bank of Auntie might like to see a couple of new IPAs per season, whereas a brewer who owns his deal outright has more freedom to pump out something weird and excellent, such as Rising Tide's D'Hiver, a dark rye saison brewed with spices, which they call an "American Warehouse Ale," a style not yet officially sanctioned by the Brewers Association. I have no idea who owns Rising Tide—their website says "family-owned," but no mention of which family, could be the Rockefellers or the Mansons or the Anheusers, or I guess the handsome husband-wife-dog team depicted in the photo—this just happens to be the best strange-beer currently in my fridge.)
Anyhow. This isn't the time or place to reveal my comprehensive, proprietary system for classifying just how craft-or-not a brewery is—that's available exclusively to DeadspinPlus subscribers, so see Kinja Deals for more information, and don't forget to use the promo code "Bullshit" for 20 percent off at checkout—but I will put this one detail out in front of the paywall: A brewery is in its infancy stage when it's, you know, born. New. This period can last anywhere from six months to three years; transition into the next stage of development is clearly delineated by employee reefer policy.
There's a strong and obvious link between beer and marijuana. From the simple botanical perspective, cannabis and hops are kinda the same thing. Plus then there's the gettin'-messed-up factor. Again, I can't reveal the full depth of my research here, but let's just say that roughly 100 percent of all beer brewers smoke the dope. So the way I know a new brewery has entered Phase Two—the point where there might be some outside investors, or maybe tour groups swinging through, perhaps a permit or two to renew—is when they shift from openly smoking pot in the staff-video-game foyer to kinda just keeping that shit a little quiet, the way everyone else does.
I don't smoke drugs myself, because I've got too much beer to drink, and this could be part of the reason I've never made it to Amsterdam. I know the Netherlands has all sorts of other cool things to offer—Van Gogh prints at the airport, and I think canals, plus your standard array of Old Europe museums and stuff—but all you hear about when you're a certain kind of college student is the pot cafes. Which is fine if you're into that ... but wait, maybe it's not fine. Maybe it's the reason the Dutch drink such terrible fucking beer!
Heineken is my least-favorite beer, and the second best-selling Dutch beer in the United States, Amstel Light, is barely better. And the real irony to the crime is that one of the big problems with both flavors of piss is that neither betrays any indication that hops—the weed part of beer!—were used in the brewing process. I don't want to blame the existence of a pot culture for Amsterdam's seeming indifference to beer quality, because, like I said, all the guys who make the best American beer are stoned all day, too. But I suspect Holland's Intoxication-Based Tourism Board's decision to focus almost exclusively on that which is smoked rather than imbibed has provided a disincentive to get better at brewing.
Amstel Light is yellow. I will admit that it smells encouragingly like decent European lager for a second—some clean malt, a light hint of pepper that suggests maybe a mediocre pilsner that you'd happily drink by the liter on a hot enough day—but as soon as you get the rest of your face in on the action, it devolves into a skunky mess of burnt lemon and wet cardboard. Plus it's only 3.5-percent alcohol-by-volume. I'm all for low-ABV beer if it tastes good, but at the Amstel Light end of the quality spectrum, we're dealing strictly with a means-to-an-end situation, so it makes no sense to pay an extra three bucks a six-pack for a weaker, inferior version of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Is there any decent Dutch beer that they're keeping for themselves, at least? The stuff they send over here sucks, but I'm willing to believe they keep a little private stash at home. Please speak up if you know.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.
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