What This Maple Bacon Ice Cream Stout Taught Me About Our Expectations of Beer

maple bacon imperial stout-fullsteam-brewdogs

We all are individual snowflakes.

Our identities are unique, enhanced by our various shapes, sizes, thoughts, beliefs and whether we say “soda” or “pop.” Our backgrounds and histories ground us and help us become the people we are today.

But the winter that forges us doesn’t last forever. The climate from which we create our individuality ebbs and flows like seasonal temperatures as we grow and are exposed to the world. What makes us different in winter inevitably changes come spring, when snow melts and we find ourselves less an individual snowflake and more a drop of water, careening toward everyone else, where we join together as a flowing mass.

As beer drinkers, our tastes are personal but were still part of the larger group – the beer-drinking community. As a single person, we are able to determine our own shape and preferences, but it’s hard to shake the pull of others.

Last week, I took part in a shoot for Brew Dogs, the Esquire TV show featuring Scottish brewers James Watt and Martin Dickie. They visited Durham, NC to film an episode in which they wanted to brew the most “calorific beer ever.”

I wanted to be a part of the shoot to support Durham and Fullsteam, my favorite, local brewery, who hosted the eclectic pair. As I left, I had a feeling an event like this – by no fault of James, Martin or Fullsteam – can cause our beer-loving, individual snowflakes to melt.

James and Martin are on stage, addressing the audience


*paraphrased and not actual quotes*
“We’ve made the best, one of a kind beer possible!”
“It’s a 12 percent imperial stout”
“We brewed it with a gallon of maple syrup, two pounds of smoked bacon and ice cream, then turned half the batch into ice cream and we’re serving it as a beer float with a piece of bacon on it and drizzles of maple syrup!”
*there was no actual rioting, but lots of yelling and cheering*

The beer, Maple Bacon Ice Cream Imperial Stout, was a smash hit:maple bacon beer-fullsteam-untappd-3 maple bacon beer-fullsteam-untappd-2 maple bacon beer-fullsteam-untappd-4 maple bacon beer-fullsteam-untappd-1

Like me, I know there were many who attended the event because they wanted to show support for their community. But there were also many who attended for the beer, or to be on TV, or to achieve some intrinsic status symbol, buoyed by the number of Tweets, Instagrams and Untappd check-ins that were compiled within moments of the beer getting into our hands. It was tangible exclusivity.

brewdogs-cell phone-checkin

Thinking back to the BrewDogs shoot yesterday, it made me think of the insanity of Cigar City’s (final) Hunahpu Day:

… all because people couldn’t get their beer.

These two events are not the same. But they do occur within the same world of beer we’ve created, where specialty beers are revered and people lose their minds to be among the few who try them. Judge not, that ye be not judged … I am also guilty of this.

I worry what this means, as craft beer becomes more of the norm and behaviors become routine. We expect brewers to provide these kinds of experiences and even worse, I fear, we’re starting to expect these reactions from each other.

What is our expectation of beer today?

Breweries are not setting examples of mass hysteria for us to follow. Yes, they’re complicit in organizing events, but they’re simply supplying the product. Brewers offer the medium and we’re delivering the message.

What we’ve seen in recent days, months and the past couple years is that the message is muddled.

During the BrewDog shoot, James and Martin encouraged interacting with the beer to properly sense aromas and tastes. They specifically asked the audience to turn to each other and openly discuss impressions of the beer. They wanted eyeballs to move from cell phone screens and make contact with other human beings.

But that didn’t last long and the group was back to taking selfies, hoisting the new beer toward the sky like a trophy.

When we stand at the alter of beer worship, it’s becoming like a game of telephone. The brewers say something to us, trying to explain why their beer is unique and more importantly, why we should savor it together. But as it gets passed from one person to the next, that message gets distorted. Finally, it reaches an end point where new words and meaning have changed the scripture we follow.

Breweries are trying to act as tributaries that set our path, but we’re quickly becoming a wave eroding what’s ahead of us, spurred onward by the rush of expectations of what a collective mass believes a culture should be. The truth is, we probably still don’t know.

stout in glass

Let’s have a conversation about this – how do you feel the craft beer audience is changing?
+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


28 thoughts on “What This Maple Bacon Ice Cream Stout Taught Me About Our Expectations of Beer

  1. As someone who was added to a “Beer Curmudgeon” twitter list the other day, I must curmudgeon.

    I’m not sure if it’s my least favorite part of “craft beer”, but one of the things I dislike most is the treating of beer as a status symbol. Beer, in my opinion, is something to be enjoyed passively. You take it when you can get it, but when you have it, you slow down and savor what’s in front of you (and not just the beer).

    All these attempts at having the biggest “cellar” or coolest untappd profile take away from beer and I find it very off putting. It’s the very reason I don’t do beer trades, run to stores for rare releases, and for the most part attend special beer events. Because while the breweries are trying to provide an avenue to celebrate the beer, little boys of drinking age (like those ranting and raving at Cigar City) are turning it in to a time to celebrate themselves.

    1. I went through a few iterations of this post before settling on this text and “curmudgeon” appeared early and often originally.

      Sometimes I feel like the old man … “Back in my day!” … but I suppose it’s the natural progression of such things. You’ll always have people who are interested in something for a variety of reasons – some good, some bad – and the best we can do is hope for the best.

      … and gripe along the way.

  2. The Craft Beer crowd is starting to resemble those malnourished, mal-attired indie-rock sneering scenesters with their particularly pretentious mixture of entitlement, elitism and glibness (I couldn’t think of another e-word to make that sentence a real tongue-twister).

    I think it’s interesting that people are pushing the idea of a craft beer community, but fostering a culture of exclusivity. The maple bacon ice cream beer, Dark Lord, Pliny the Younger, Zwanyze… there’s nothing wrong with these events (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the business models of breweries like the Big 3), the problem – as you indicated – is with people’s expectations, their sense of entitlement, and their desire to post an Instagrammed picture of a beer they don’t remember the taste of and say “haha, I had this, you didn’t.”

    A personal story: this year I waited in line at Lord Hobo in Cambridge for Zwanyze day. When 3pm rolled around I was first in line… outside the door. #1 Loser. The first to not get a taste. Of everyone in line I had the most “right” to be pissed… except that I had no right to be pissed at all. Disappointed, of course, but when I did get in the door LH had several other Cantillon beers – beers I’d never tried before – and I got taste them, savor them, Untapp them and Instagram them. I didn’t get the white whale but I did get a handful of narwhals (apologies to the animal lovers).

    A major issue with the craft beer scene is its majority. That stems both from the start-up culture of many new breweries, but more importantly from the entitled nature of one of its key demographics: millennials. Maybe when we all grow up we’ll be able to appreciate the beer without the badges and image filters.

    1. As for your e word: Egotism? 🙂

      But you nailed it. I’m starting to worry about being a beer-loving millennial, partly because I fear I’ll get lumped in with the people who are being nothing more than whiny, spoiled brats. It’s getting ridiculous. The amount of excessively drunk, noisy, reckless people at the DC Craft Beer fest this weekend was proof that some people are in this community for all the wrong reasons.

      C’mon guys. It’s beer. We all love it and it’s great and hooray beer, but it’s just beer.

      1. Egotism. Well done, sir. And thanks.

  3. I think beer culture will always have a sturdy foundation based on the appreciation of the craft, the tradition, and the ingenuity of brewing and beer drinking. However, we all know the dark, leaky corner in that foundation made up of people who just drink to get drunk, and like a black mold creeping from that corner we find the folks who throw temper tantrums because Cigar City ran out of Hunahpu, or the kind of people who check into Untapped consistently not to critique, or share, but to brag. These are the people who will go out and buy as much of a limited release as they can and throw it in their basement just to keep it from other people. These are the people who drink for status. These are the people who drink to feel privileged.

    1. Mr. Balls,

      I most certainly agree. I just fear the chorus of the masses will eventually outweigh the rest of us beer nerds. Problems like this always some down to the common denominator, of which there are many Average Joe Craft fans. Like Doug mentions above, curmudgeon is a role that seems to be picking up steam. I hope the foundation holds strong.

  4. Incidentally, I imagine that they roasted the malt over the bacon in order to impart the flavor, but I’m really stumped by the fact they brewed the beer with ice cream. Did they explain the process at all?

    1. The intimate details – no. When the beer was poured before ice cream was added to it to create a beer float it had no head. That might have been because they but the bacon straight into the mash, but it wasn’t made clear aside from saying that bacon was used in the making of the beer. Fullsteam makes an amazing smoked brown ale with hickory, so they know what they’re doing with that ingredient.

      As best I can remember the process used:
      Ice cream

      then split the batch

      Then add ice cream’d beer on top of the stout when serving.

    2. We added the bacon and the maple sugar to the mash, but our version didn’t have ice cream added to the brewing process. The Brew Dogs recipe might have had ice cream as part of the recipe — which could be a fun sugar/lactose addition — but we didn’t know about the ice cream until a few days (hours? I forget.) beforehand.

      So for our purposes the beer just had a scoop of ice cream added. Oh, and a bacon sprig.

      I thought the event was a lot of fun, with a good mix of Fullsteam regulars, tickers, and BrewDog fans in the mix.

      1. Agreed! I was very excited about the opportunity for both you guys and Durham. It’s awesome to receive that kind of attention – and it’s much deserved.

  5. But how was the beer? You didn’t say.

    I personally wouldn’t say “our expectations” because I don’t consider myself wholly in with the frenzy crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I like a rare beer or one off when I stumble upon it, but that Cigar City crowd, Pliny chasers or Darklord hoarders aren’t my scene.

    But I can’t blame the breweries for tapping into that money stream once they realized it was there. If you host a beer event and it turns into a complete cluster F of a frenzy, that’s bad. If then twice as many people turn out for it next year? Money in the bank.

    1. I think you make the point for the brewers that’s often over-looked, Ed. This kind of thing is a dream economic scenario for them. They’ve got a scarce, incredibly high demand product, and can dictate price and availability as they want. The hype is shitty for the temperate craft-fan, but amazing for the brewery itself.

    2. The purpose of the beer was to be an overly extreme one-off, so I didn’t want my opinion of it to taint the rest of what I was trying to get at. The brewer at Fullsteam is awesome at his job and definitely nailed all the high notes such a beer required.

      I will say that it was very unique.

  6. Best piece you’ve written in a while (except the last Session post, of course).

    I’ve been drinking a lot of what I’d call “B-list beers” from local breweries, and you know what? A lot of them are just plain good. Heavy Seas Cutlass is a great amber. Flying Dog Doggie Style (especially after the recipe revamp) is world class. There are hundreds – if not thousands! – of perfectly delicious beers being passed over, and only because they’re not rare.

    I’m hoping that when the faddish aspects of the culture drop out, and these scenesters burn out and move onto whatever the new cool thing is, we’ll see a reassurance of people enjoying beer because its beer, not because it’s some novelty that gives an odd, esoteric street cred.

    1. Wait, you mean to tell me my attempts at academic theses on the state of the beer industry isn’t up the alley for our resident writer? Pssh.

      As you and Ed point out, the economic ramifications of the one-off approach is bountiful, but that’s also in tandem with the hype machine that rolls along with it. It’s a powerful 1-2 punch courtesy of sites like RateBeer and Beer Advocate.

      But I certainly agree. I get caught up in my never-ending quest to TRY ALL TEH BEERZ that I often overlook my old standbys, simply because I want to try something new – specialty, seasonal or not. It’s nice to get a reminder of all the good stuff breweries are up to.

      1. My bad, I didn’t mean to imply you weren’t routinely kicking ass. You are. You’ve just, as of two-weeks late, been kicking especial ass. Assio Especial.

        It’s a weird kind of empathy, but I feel bad for the B-list beers. They’re trying their best! I’m always burnt out on the hype, and am happy to drink great beer that’s easy to find.

  7. There was a time when I was obsessed by “the new”, and driven to try new beers wherever possible – all so I could check them into Untappd. It was during my month off alcohol that I realised I’d let Untappd dictate my choice of beers to a ridiculous degree.
    Which is why, since my beer-free February, I’ve taken a very different approach to Untappd. If I feel like checking in something new I will. If I can’t be arsed I won’t.
    In the process it’s taught me to focus on the beer and the enjoyment it brings, rather that the fact that it’s “NEW!” being the driving factor.
    That said, I do think there’s a place for novelty beers like this. But people don’t need to be all stupid about it.
    Beer was made to help interaction with people, not smartphones.

    1. When I find a new beer, my first instinct is to add it to Untappd, but I find myself worrying less and less about such a thing. I’ll very rarely bother with it if I’m with people, but mostly find it as a good way to jot down initial impressions.

  8. This was a really good piece, I enjoyed it very much. Echoing some points already made I will say that in my opinion there is often not that much difference between the rare white whales and the really good B-listers (as Oliver Gray called them). I’m always excited when I find that a readily available beer can hold its own with a hard to come by, highly coveted beer. That means I can have it when I want, for less hassle, and generally less money. Still if you’ve never tried Pliny the Younger, or Hunahpu or Zombie Dust, it’s natural to want to know if these beers really live up to their hype.

    Having said that I can’t blame the brewers for wanting to cultivate some sense of exclusivity with their beers. Human psychology 101 tells you that this makes good business sense. It’s certainly not limited to the world of craft beer either. Look at the world of art or fashion or wine. I heard a story on NPR some months back that some bottles of wine have become so expensive (hundreds of thousands of dollars) that they are really investments too expensive to ever drink. Laying down that kind of money on a bottle of wine that you never intend to drink seems more ridiculous than anything I’ve seen in the world of craft beer.

    I’m not saying that the idea of drinking beers for the status or exclusivity is acceptable behavior, it’s childish, but as craft beer becomes more popular I don’t see it going away anytime soon. I think it’s simply part of the human psyche. Although the scene at Cigar City was ugly I think I prefer that reality to the alternative where limited releases are auctioned off to the highest bidder, as you sometimes have in the world of art or fashion.

    1. Oh yes, psychology definitely plays a big part into planning like this. I think I kind of touch on it within this piece on Millennials, who just so happen to be a majority of this rabid fan base we speak of.

      There is something of a companion piece to this post circulating in my head which I think ties things together, but that’s still marinating…

      1. I would argue that the urge to feel special or part of an exclusive group is not unique to one generation but is present in all of us. The need to brag about it, or behave badly when things don’t go your way, is another matter. The electronic communication networks now available almost certainly exacerbate the problem.

      2. Oh, no, I definitely agree. I’d even go further and say it’s not just feel special, but to offer or create something “beautiful.” Music, art, dance, even sports offer some kind of attempt at creating beauty, no matter how insignificant the action may seem. Not only being able to claim a piece of something special, but have a tangible representation of that, amounts to something. Even if it only is a status update.

  9. While that sounds like the most awesome beer imaginable the calorie would worry me. However if it tasted as good as it sounds I would drink one just for the experience.

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