Breakfast beers, pastry stouts, and end of the world

Oconee Brewing of Greensboro, Georgia recently announced the release of Bacon & Kegs beer, a 6.5 percent ABV red ale brewed in collaboration with the beloved and bemoaned, but always popular, Waffle House restaurant chain (image above from Facebook). Understandably, predictably, and very likely by design, the story of this beer is getting a lot of media attention across the entire country, even in those parts of the nation where the beer is not, and very likely never will be, available.

Yeah, I’m guilty. I’m sharing the story too. Around here, the only thing we know about the Waffle House restaurant chain is that Waffle House is often part of a headline for a story involving things like late-night inebriation, firearms, and a shirtless guy from a town called Somethingsberg. So yeah, you make a “Waffle House beer” and people are going to pay attention, even way the hell out here in Washington.

That’s all fine. I have no issue with engineering a beer to get attention, assuming the beer is good. Marketing is half the game in the beer biz. At least it is part of the game and should never be ignored.

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Oconee Brewing’s Bacon & Kegs beer is described as having a malty character enhanced with “salty, savory, and smoky bacon extract.” According to the brewery, the beer pairs well with breakfast food items or can be enjoyed as a stand-alone. By that description it sounds like bacon itself: great with breakfast but stands on its own, too.

above: An early example, Founders Brewing’s Breakfast Stout — a double-chocolate imperial oatmeal stout infused with coffee. A great beer, but definitely reminiscent of breakfast.

I am a lover of breakfast meat, make no mistake about it. Bacon has a special place in my heart. Just ask my doctor. Still, I am not entirely convinced that bacon should have a place in my beer, or that I really need a beer that pairs well with breakfast.

Regardless of whether or not I am fully ready to embrace the concept, today the world of craft beer is awash in pastry stouts and breakfast beers. I can think of one brewery here in the Northwest that has, basically, earned considerable acclaim among beer lovers because of its culinary-inspired beers.

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The style itself is not at all new or even novel, but the sudden, increased popularity and visibility is new. It’s a trend, not unlike many others we’ve seen in craft beer. Some stick, some fade. We’ll see what becomes of these breakfast beers, pastry stouts, and other culinary-inspired creations.

I have some thoughts about how this current trend fits into the overall narrative of American craft beer. In some ways, it’s harmless and novel, but in others, it might be a sign that something is afoot.

And Over The Shark We Go!

For many years now, beer enthusiasts have wondered when the craft beer bubble would burst. We’ve anticipated a thinning of the herd. As much as we’ve enjoyed the skyrocketing growth of the craft brewing industry, we’ve endured an uneasy feeling in our guts, a sense that at some point things would change, that this level of craft beer exuberance was not sustainable..

above: Burial Beer Co. (a fabulous brewery in North Carolina) — Idol for None is an imperial stout with maple syrup, Vietnamese cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla bean and maple-wood-smoked sea salt. Image from Facebook. 

Anyway, while we all waited for things like market saturation, industry in-fighting, and consumer choice-fatigue to quiet the boom, something else may have happened: perhaps craft beer jumped the shark.

I really hope not. Lord, how tragic would it be if the craft beer industry was brought down by a ginger-blackberry, rosemary-chive imperial strudel stout?

Good is Good. Bad is Not

At their best, breakfast beers, pastry stouts and other culinary-inspired creations are well-conceived and expertly executed—delicious beers that push the boundaries of how we think beer should taste. At their worst they are gimmicky and gross—head-shakers, palate wreckers, dumpers.

It’s nothing new, right? Craft beer enthusiasts have always sought to find new, unexpected flavors in their beers. Flavor has long been the allure of the beloved elixir. The long-standing popularity of IPA and the subsequent accent of hazy, juicy IPA is a great example.

Since the very birth of modern craft beer, the flavors have been the driving force. Good flavor. Beer flavor. Breakfast beer, and the like, can be a bit too much. Perhaps we are trying a little bit too hard to be clever and creative.

lucky envelope brewing gingerbread stout
above: Gingerbread Cream Stout by Lucky Envelope Brewing. I’ve tasted a few culinary-inspired beers by LE and they’ve all been good.

Consider the way Oconee Brewing describes its Bacon & Kegs red ale bacon beer: “The beloved scent of bacon stands out from the typical medium hop aroma of a red ale. The malty sweetness of the base beer blends perfectly with the salty, savory, and [smokey] bacon extract to create a delicious and unique beer.”

I do not mean to disparage this one beer in particular. For all I know, Bacon & Kegs is an amazing beer.

I do not mean do disparage this type of beer. Truth is, I have enjoyed many breakfast-infused and pastry-themed beers and will likely enjoy many more. Beers that excited my palate and challenged my mind.

above: Rogue teamed up with Portland’s world-famous Voodoo Doughnuts to create Voodoo Doughnut Mango Astronaut Ale—inspired by the Mango Tango, a doughnut filled with mango jelly and topped with vanilla frosting and a tangy orange powder.

At the same time, I have dumped more than my share. Some of them are just plain useless. Not just undrinkable, but uninteresting and predictable. It is not enough to make a beer that tastes like a pineapple upside down cake, the real trick is making a beer that is good and tastes like a pineapple upside down cake. Otherwise, it’s like listening to a long, drawn-out, really bad joke that is so boring you know the punchline long before it comes.

These kinds of culinary-inspired beers are best served as an occasional thing. The fact that they are enjoying a day in the sun is one thing, but god help us if this trend ends up sticking. Many of the consumers that the craft beer industry hopes to attract are standing on the sidelines waiting to get into the game. This kind of absurdity might make them turn their backs, raise a middle finger in the air, and walk back to the cheap beer aisle.

Make. Good. Beer.

To all you breweries out there, I have some advice. Make a beer because it is good. Remember what Dr. Ian Malcolm said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Make good beer. I know many, many of you do, and you are fully capable of mastering the food-beer thing. Far be it from me to challenge your creativity, that’s not my intention. Just keep your eye on the prize. Make. Good. Beer.

Just because you can make a beer that tastes like a breakfast casserole doesn’t mean you should make a beer that tastes like a breakfast casserole. If you have a concept for a beer that tastes like a cherry-almond Danish, and you think it will actually be a good beer, go for it, but don’t do it just because it’s trendy these days.

Do it because you are inspired. Do it because it’s going to be a great beer. Otherwise don’t bother. Well, unless it’s going to get you a whole ton of free publicity. In that case, have at it.


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2 thoughts on “Breakfast beers, pastry stouts, and end of the world

  1. News flash! Brewers and beer drinkers like to have fun.

    That’s how I see this trend. Brewers are aware they are making a novelty beer, and customers are similarly aware of what they are drinking. Both take their beer seriously, but not too seriously.

    During my tour of Washington independent craft breweries, I’ve seen a whole lot of these beers, and tried more than a few. The brewers also know how to make good beer, and make a lot of it.

    I first heard about Bacon & Kegs a couple days ago from a friend who is not a craft beer aficionado. It kindled his curiosity. Perhaps he will enter the world of craft beer through this avenue.

    Oh, by the way, if you like French toast for breakfast, try Breakfast of Leisure at Great Notion.

  2. News flash! People who write beer blogs like to have fun too.

    I am old enough to remember a time when beer was fun, and not so serious that we couldn’t poke a bit of fun at each other.

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