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Craft Beer and Jazz

Thad Aerts By

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When I first started dabbling in jazz, it all sounded the same. I mean, aside from the variations in theme, tempo, and melody—it was all just jazz. I could barely hear, or cared to hear the differences between different groups of musicians. Never mind the variation of different musicians playing the same instrument. Miles Davis was no different than Lee Morgan who was no different than Chet Baker. It was all trumpet and it might as well have been played by the same person. Of course, this is crazy. Now, the differences in tone, phrasing, etc. of a trumpet is not only incredibly noticeable, it's what I am fascinated by.

So what does this have to do with craft beer? Over the past 20-ish years, craft beer has come into its own with an explosion of experimentation. The things that are being done today are things I never thought I would see. In my mind, it's a lot like what jazz went through in the '50s through the '70s. Boundaries pushed and new styles created—to the point that many said this isn't even jazz, or music for that matter. See Bailey reference above.

The funny thing is, beer is a beverage that has been around for centuries. It wasn't until after prohibition that the faint, yellow, fizzy, sub-par flavor blah came to be accepted and known as "beer." At least in the United States. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this essay. The fact remains that there have been generations upon generations of people that lived their lives believing that beer, by and large, only meant one thing. And that one thing was faint, yellow, fizzy, sub-par flavor blah that was packaged in a can or bottle and relied heavily on the colors red, white, and blue.

Another moment of reflection. Upon the arrival of my early drinking years, I often wondered why all beer was just... beer? It all tasted the same. It all looked the same. It all smelled the same. Sure, there were the "imports" like Guinness or Heineken—but that was only reserved for rare occasions when you were feeling especially high brow. I wondered why things couldn't be added to beer to alter the flavor profile. Apparently, I wasn't the only one thinking such things. We can thank Jimmy Carter for lifting the ban on home brewing, which by doing so ushered in a whole new era of experimentation that eventually led to what we know today as craft beer. Thanks Jimmy!

So now we have all these beers, and there are A LOT of them, that taste almost nothing like the "beer" that generations had been programmed to accept. Take for example the Apricot Peach Orange Whip Mimosa Gose that I'm currently drinking. Here is a beer that is more like orange juice then anything. It looks, smells, tastes, and covers the side of the glass with pulp like OJ. There is a kiss of alcohol in there somewhere which gives it it's Mimosa characteristic. This style of beer is the current hot-shot new kid on the block that all the craft beer geeks are after. We are only one of a handful of breweries to currently make this style of beer—so there aren't many points of reference to compare it to. But we still do. We pick it, and all our beers apart. With each batch, we strive to make it better than the last. Sometimes with certain styles, like our New England-style hazy IPA's, each batch has improvements that are small. But when compared to the bigger picture, the beer has come a long way. The devil is in the details and the details are where the advancements are made.

But to be honest, I don't care about details. I mean, I do, but what matters more to me is nuance. I suppose you could argue the two are more the same than they are different. I'm more intrigued by the intangible nature of how something is expressed—be that jazz or beer. You can show me music scores or recipe sheets all day long—but really, that means nothing to me. I want the finished product and I want to discover the mystery of why the particular piece of music or glass of beer before me is what it is. I want its personality, not its report card.

Therein, at least for me, lies the beauty of any discipline of expression. Whether that be when a new creative movement within a discipline is forged or when the advancements are minuscule, I am thoroughly fascinated by the personality quirks that make the end statement talk.

Jazz has had moments of vast and noticeable changes followed by long periods of near stagnation. But even during those times of lull, there have been some great records made that do something ever-so-slightly different than anything you have ever heard. Or said in a way that has never been said. The funny thing is, with rock music, I get sick of the formula—the stagnation. Guitar, bass, drums, and vocals typically equates to a boring equation. But for whatever reason, the pursuit of slight variation and nuance within jazz continues to intrigue and fascinate me.

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