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A festival signals just how complex beer has become

The language of wine is now very much the language of beer

click to enlarge Juicy Brews Beer Festival in Sharpsburg - PHOTO BY BEN PRATT, COURTESY OF HOP CULTURE MAGAZINE
Photo by Ben Pratt, courtesy of Hop Culture magazine
Juicy Brews Beer Festival in Sharpsburg

On a clear, crisp Sunday in early autumn, hundreds of beer-lovers descended on Sharpsburg’s Dancing Gnome brewery for the first (hopefully first annual) Juicy Brews Beer Festival. Like many beer festivals, the event generated much buzz and sold out in minutes. However, this was not your average festival.

Organized by Dancing Gnome and online beer magazine Hop Culture, the Juicy Brews fest was dedicated to “New England” IPAs: hazy, juicy IPAs that dial back the bitterness and emphasize the fruity, floral qualities of hops. Aside from a few sours and fruit beers, hops made up the lion’s share of the lineup, which came from both local breweries and buzzy out-of-state spots like Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company and SingleCut Beersmiths, in Queens, N.Y.

My immediate reaction to the festival was one of pure sensory pleasure. Between the big, bold beers and the perfect fall afternoon, it’s hard to imagine a lovelier day of drinking. Now, with some time to reflect, I’ve been thinking about what the Juicy Brews festival reveals about the state of American beer.

For one, it signals just how complex beer has become. Beer was once the unfussy option, the tonic of the masses. On Cheers, Norm simply orders beer — no need for a name, because beer was just beer. In contrast to the perceived snobbery of wine, beer was meant for drinking, not thinking.

Today that divide is not so sharp. I listened to festival-goers discussing the merits of individual hops the same way sommeliers might extol grape varietals. The language of wine is now very much the language of beer, and it would not be surprising to hear “fruit-forward” and “notes of jasmine” mentioned in a review of an IPA.

This is not an inherently bad thing. We think critically about the food we eat and the books we read, so why not about the beers we guzzle? American beer is more interesting and nuanced than ever before, and it continues to evolve and grow. Though America certainly did not invent beer, this hop-forward approach is unique and deserves to be celebrated.

Even so, I hope that beer remains an approachable, democratic drink. Whiffs of snootiness hang in the air at any beer event, and social media confirms that lots of dudes (and it’s almost always dudes) love nothing more than decrying mass-produced, pumpkin-spiced or otherwise “inferior” beer. Though the “it’s just beer” maxim seems too dismissive, a bit of perspective goes a long way. 

The festival’s best lesson, perhaps, was that Pittsburgh beer-drinkers have it awfully good. The locals — Dancing Gnome, Grist House and Voodoo — more than held their own against the guest breweries and, in fact, produced some of the day’s most impressive tastes. Add in the recent results of the Great American Beer Festival, where four Pittsburgh breweries took home medals, and it’s clear that it’s a great time to be drinking beer in the ’Burgh.

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