Of Rice And Beer.

Great Divide Samurai Rice Ale

Great Divide Samurai Rice Ale

Until recently, I was a big fan of Great Divide Brewing’s “Samurai” ale, a pale yellow, light bodied, gently hazy looking beer made by the Colorado based brewery.  I enjoyed it for the same reasons many beers like these are, for its delicate, airy mouthfeel, effervescent, refreshing snap in the carbonation, gentle fruitiness, perfectly balanced bitterness, and a supremely clean tasting graininess.  In my mind, Samurai definitely rivaled the best so called summer beers out there, be it lager or ale.  And this was exactly the setting in which I last enjoyed the beer, on the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, on vacation with family.  As soon as I saw it was available nearby, I snatched up a whole six of it.  In multiple days of low ninety degree heat, it was a perfect match.  It was flavorful without being having too much going on.  After all, who wants to sort out the intricacies of highly complex ales when you’re literally worried that your beer cooler might melt – Samurai was straightforward and tasty without at all being bland.  It not only walked that hard to find, tightrope thin line between being interesting yet somewhat simple, but did so with sureness and confidence, as if staring down the best pilsner or pale wheat.  Yet as I enjoyed each one of those over the hot days last summer, I also admired the beer for straddling another line, and this one not so thin:  Samurai, a craft beer produced by one of the most recognizable craft breweries in the country, not only was made with barley, but with – rice.

Among many craft beer geeks, true beer snobs, and even the newest of craft curious, the word is spoken, when it is mentioned at all, with the same sort of disdain the newer Star Wars releases hold for someone who grew up watching – and only believing in – the original trilogy.  For many craft drinkers, the use of rice in beer confers a feeling of something made cheaply, whether accurate or not. To some, rice, and beer made with it, is not at all to be taken seriously, and even scorned. To them, it is a bit like the Jar Jar Binks of brewing grains, holding about the same value as the silly comic foil does to barley’s solidly respected Skywalker-like straight act.  How this lack of lack of credibility truly began is difficult to pin down.  But most descriptions of the use of rice in beer begin and soon end with a lack of any measurable flavor contribution, so that might lend a clue.  Another reason for the disdain for rice comes not just from whether it’s used but who uses it, at least with any regularity.  As any craft drinker will likely (and often happily) tell you, it’s a grain predominantly used in the beers of the world’s much bigger, “macro” breweries, like Anheuser-Busch.  Considering its less than admired, flavorless characteristics, many craft beer fans often claim that breweries such as those use rice like cheap filler, akin to adding water to your pasta sauce to make it go further – again, true or not.  This only further helps to divide those two worlds of beer and their fans.  The divide between craft versus macro beer is a line that for some is very clearly and deeply drawn in the sand, and the use of so called “adjunct” grains like rice is at the crux of that seam.

I was reminded of those Samurai ales and the well known knock on adjunct grains such as rice just last month, when the Brewer’s Association dug that line in the sand even deeper.  The well known craft brewing trade organization has always maintained a three part definition of what a craft brewer “is”, of which one of the three sections addresses the use of adjunct grains as such:  A craft brewer is a “brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.”  As “all malt” means the only grain used in the beer is barley, the definition has always kept a disapproving eye on the use of adjunct grains such as rice.  While the Brewers Association definition may not be the final word on craft beer, it carries plenty of weight, and the definition has likely served to reinforce a stigma about the use of adjuncts in beer making.  In December, the BA dug its heels in a little deeper, when it released a chart calling out specific breweries that did not meet the definition’s criteria, many of which because they use “adjunct” grains such as rice in their beer.  The chart not only re-lit the fire under the craft versus macro brewery debate, but poured a gas on it, as internet discussion boards and facebook conversations hotly discussed how fair, or even necessary, the chart itself – or perhaps more importantly – how necessary even the definition is.  That line in the sand between craft breweries and the much larger macro breweries seemed as clearly defined as ever.  For many who took exception to the chart, and the Brewers Association’s definition of “craft brewery”, especially as it pertains to the use adjunct grains like rice, it is often a simple and seemingly easy to understand defense – as long as the beer tastes good, what’s the problem?

GlassAs it turns out, the answer is, “nothing, really”, if you ask the right people.  And some of these folks, perhaps surprisingly, are craft brewers themselves.  In a 2009 L.A. Times article, owner and CEO Patrick Rue of The Breury, an established and respected California based craft brewery, mentions how rice met a distinctive need in their “Trade Winds Tripel”, adding a lightness to the beer which paired well with foods with a more delicate taste.  Rue mentions that when the beer was left unfiltered, as many craft brews are, the rice lent the beer a subtle coconut flavor.  In the BeerAdvocate.com review of Great Divide’s Samurai Ale, the website’s editors noted a faint “cooked rice” flavor that meshed well with the barley in the beer.  The review also points out a “big crispness” in the brew as well, which likely is at least in part due to the rice – a common characteristic of the grain.  It is within these kinds of descriptions that rice’s positive impact on a beer begins to come to light.  When I asked local brewer Will Landry about rice’s overall affects, he summarized the grain as one which is easily and highly fermentable, and therefore “gives that dry, crisp taste or lack of body”.  In a nutshell, rice contributes much less to a beer’s flavor than to its structure, adding a crispness a brewer might be seeking for a particular style.

But perhaps it is within this very definition that rice continues to undermine itself.  In the craft beer world, where many drinkers are in a constant search for the next big, citrusy and palate raking IPA out there, or the richest, boldest stout, it might be easy to understand how a grain with little affect on flavor gets so much sand kicked in its face.  Add in the fact that those larger breweries such as Anheuser-Busch certainly don’t hide their use of rice – it’s written right on the label of every bottle of Bud, front and center – and the Brewer’s Association’s continued categorization of even smaller breweries which use adjuncts like rice (at least predominantly, and in their “flagship” beer) as something less than worthy of official recognition, and the case against rice, fair or not, continues to defeat almost every appeal that comes its way.

But every once in a while, a craft beer comes around that seems to be able to make use of this maligned grain.  I mentioned that I “used” to be a fan of Great Divide’s Samurai Ale.  I found out recently that the brewery had actually retired the beer, much to my disappointment.  Instantly, I wondered if the brewery had given in to some sort of craft beer peer pressure.  When I looked a little further into it, it turns out the brewery simply revamped its product line, and replaced it with a new release, as well as promoted one of its current seasonal brews to annual status.  This kind of thing happens with any brewery, as beers come and beers go.  Besides, the seasonal which was stepped up to year round production sounds awfully good.  It’s a Belgian Farmhouse Style Ale called “Colette”, which is made with barley, four different yeast strains, wheat….and rice.  Maybe I’ll look for it this summer when I’m at the beach.

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~ by thebeerroad on January 23, 2013.

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