The Wall Of Cans, The Wall of Noise
The last time I was in Düsseldorf, my wife and I went to the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. I’m not a big fan of “modern” art, and I’m mainly in Düsseldorf for the altbier. But I wanted to see their Expressionist collection. On the way to that hall, though, I got into trouble.
We came through one large exhibit hall with 10 meter ceilings, and there were some very large paintings on the walls. One caught my eye: a stunningly detailed field of colors, some in quite small squares, on a canvas easily 3 meters square.
I stood in front of it for ten minutes, and leaned in to see more details…and leaned in…and a dozent tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to please step back, I was too close to the artwork. Which is when I realized that I was only about 10 centimeters from the painting. It had drawn me right in.
I felt that same mind-sucking search for meaning just last week…at the liquor store. I was standing in front of about 20 meters of quadruple shelves, packed full of craft four-packs. Every one of them was a 16 oz. abstraction, a fling of colors and shapes, a diffidently ironic yet desperate scream for my attention. Flowers, geometric patterns, out-of-copyright art, cartoons (unicorns, kitties, and pigs, oh my!), Mondrianesque perpendiculars and Escher homages, maps, fruits, pastries, and of course, an abundance of hops: photorealistic, anthropomorphic, reverently limned with vibrantly resiny halos.
Beer labels used to be nice little pieces of graphic design, just like beers used to be carefully considered and formulated. I can’t help feeling that similarly to the way 8,000+ breweries has to have stretched the pool of brewing talent to some very shallow points indeed, the drive for half of those breweries to create a new can release every week or two has allowed almost anyone to design a beer label.
Some of this shit looks like it was designed in Word by someone who was determined to use all the cool stuff; some of it looks like the revenge of the art school reject. Have we run out of talent, is it more a matter of unrealistic expectations and shitty pay, or is it just that wrappable adhesive labels and advances in printing have made any questionable idea attainable?
Put the design aside, though; what’s in the can? When I leaned in closer to read the text (with no Teutonic minders to haul me back), I was often no wiser.
There are so many new beers every week that names have become the province of random generation, while any thoughts of established beer “styles” are largely out the window. And that’s no big deal. The value of beer styles is wide open for discussion. The older I get, the more I’ve thought about this, the more cans, bottles, and taps I’ve opened, the more I can see all sides of the debate over sticking to or blowing up style guidelines. Go, be free, make beer whatever you want it to be without a concern for the dead hands of brewers past.
But if you’re going to reject styles, you’ve got to give us something that helps us make a choice. Read a good wine label, and you get a hint of what they’re aiming at putting in your mouth: the types of grape, sometimes the percentages in a blend, and some tasting notes. Even if the notes are flights of fancy, they at least give you an idea.
Too many beer labels consist of a nonsensical name – a movie quote, a pop culture reference, a literally random grouping of nouns and modifiers – and a bare minimum of description. What hop was used this week? It almost seems like they’re being scribbled on as they come off the line.
Maybe they are. There are a lot of local, limited-run beers on shelves right now that were never given TTB approval, or even submitted. Not all of them have to be, there are limited loopholes, and besides, who gives a shit? The TTB and its stupid beer label regulation could disappear tomorrow and I wouldn’t shed a tear. But at least the approval process slows things down.
So many new beers! I remember back in the mid-to-late 90s when shelves had maybe 300 different beers and people actually complained about the number of choices. ‘It’s so hard to make a decision!’
Fools. They sound as silly now as Springsteen’s 1992 release, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Really, Bruce? Fifty-seven channels? My God, what an overwhelming plethora of choices. The last time I looked at a cable menu, there were over 300 channels, plus all the streaming services. There were probably more than 57 options just in sports.
I can’t even remember the first time I wrote “Consumers’ favorite beer flavor is ‘new,’ whatever is new.” But it’s been true for well over 25 years, and the pace has accelerated. We used to want the new seasonals, then the new brewers’ new seasonals, then the limited releases, then the monthly releases, and now we expect weekly releases. We want something new every time we go to the taproom, the liquor store.
We sowed that wind, and we’re reaping the whirlwind. If we wanted something new every time we opened a beer, we could do it, for weeks without repeating, with just what’s on the shelf at a good-sized liquor store right now, without any restocking. There are that many beers.
But they don’t stop coming, because brewers know you want more! Think about the FOMO till it makes you tremble; you literally can’t try all the new beers. You’d be traveling the world every day (which you can’t right now anyway). Even if you could get them all, at 2 ounces of each, your guts would explode from the volume. But you still want to try!
Now think about the brewers. They feel pressure to put out new beers every month or week, even if it’s just swapping new hop strains into the same IPA formulation, a new fruit into the same gose, a new kind of donut into the same stout.
That’s not the best setting for creation of great beer, and even if one of them is great…next month it’s not NEW!!! anymore, and unless it’s one of the very few beers that punches through the jaded boredom and becomes a regular offering (you know, for maybe two years), it’s going to get discounted. Or sit there till the re-fermenting fruit pulp explodes the can. Fun!
When will the music stop? Will drinkers or brewers call this bullshit first? Someone’s got to. Because if no one blinks, craft beer could disappear up its own randomly colored, flavor of the week asshole, leaving us all floating on a raft of four-packs that no one wanted. Paw-paw hard seltzer smoothie, anyone?
Me, I’m going down to Human Robot in Philly. They have a new beer called Tin Hoagie, with a can-wrap label that looks like tin-foil wrapped around one of our famous Philly sandwiches, with the name and a forthright description – 4% pilsner with Hallertau hops – on what looks like a piece of paper tape holding the tin-foil closed. Good design, an amusing name that holds the design together and works with the shape and material of the package, and a clear description of the beer. Gimme.
So there’s hope. I mean, there’s got to be, because the last few years sure look like Pandora’s Box got opened, and we could use the hope that was always at the bottom of that box. I hope for good beer, thoughtfully made, thoughtfully enjoyed. With a cool label.
Author of Whiskey Master Class, Harvard Common Press (2/18/2020 release); “To enhance your knowledge in the magical world of distilling, my friend Lew Bryson is the perfect place to start.” — Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller
Another great whiskey book I wrote: Tasting Whiskey, Storey Publishing; “Tasting Whiskey is a book that I would have loved to have had close at hand when I first started getting into whiskey.” — David Wondrich, author of Imbibe and Punch