Complexity (Guest Commentary)

This is an opinion piece sent in by a reader. If you have a topic you’d like to discuss, send your idea to chris@beerandwinejournal.com. I am most interested in reader stories in which the author explains his or her “thing.” Is there a beer you’ve brewed over and over and perfected? If there a technique you’ve mastered or adapted from commercial brewing to the homebrew scale? Is there a handy gadget you’ve made or adapted from it’s original use for use in homebrewing? Is there an unusual ingredient that you use often? If you’d like to share your experience with other Beer and Wine Journal readers, send a short (500–750 words optimally) article, and a helpful picture or two. Include a picture of yourself. (Also, we haven’t had much wine content, if you enjoy home winemaking and would like to write something, please let me know.) 

 

Marco

Guest commenter Marco Aguado.

“Complex” is a Useless Beer Descriptor

by Marco Aguado

 

I’d like to discuss what I think is the most overused and unnecessary word in the world of craft brewing. The word I love to hate is “complex.”

Beer is not complex. You know what is complex? A suspension bridge, brain surgery, a commercial jet air liner — these things are complex.

Whenever I start to hear the word complex getting thrown around like it’s going out of style, I totally lose interest in whatever is said after. It’s like describing an IPA as hoppy or a stout as roasty.

I’ve read too many articles and beer reviews where “complex” is used so often that it results in hilarity. Using it once is using it one too many times. Many brewers are guilty as well. I recently came across a new brewery’s web site where every single of one its beers was described as complex. It comes off pretentious to a novice who has just gotten into the world of craft and the word itself says absolutely nothing.

I recently asked a good friend who loves craft beer, but does not lurk in the beer forums or follows new releases if the beer he was drinking was complex. He looked at my puzzled and asked, “What the hell does that mean?”  My point exactly. So we proceeded to discuss it. Although my buddy loves good beer, he is a simple man. Had I tried to persuade him that the beer he was drinking was complex, he would have cursed at me and demanded a refill. Do we want to alienate him and others like him?

It seems some people want to elevate beer to a higher spot on the totem pole, maybe to feel superior or equal to the wine enthusiast. Or maybe to the scotch connoisseur or the brandy drinker who sips his brandy in a smoking jacket.

There’s a video where John Kimmich — owner of The Alechemist, and most recently voted by website Beer Advocate as the number one beer in the world, Heady Topper — saying “it’s a beer, it’s nothing elevated, it’s nothing more than what it is. The perfect drink for the working person, the common man.” Well stated and simply put, nothing complex about that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amgfgU5-lhs

I wonder if the “complex” thing is borrowed from the wine folks, and it has leached into beer circles because of the inferiority complex that some beer people have to wine folks.  Let us give back the term to the wine enthusiast. Let them keep the snooty reputation they’ve worked so hard to gain. Beer needs no elevation. Beer is the peoples’ drink. President Obama uses beer to settle disputes during tense “teachable moments.” He even has chefs brew beer in the White House kitchen so he can share beers on the campaign trail. Beer is the common thread between all social classes.

Instead of describing a beer as complex, explain what makes it complex. I had a lady friend describe Rampant IPA as fishy. Is that considered complex? No, but I could at least kind of understand where she was coming from.

Don’t get me wrong, being a countertop partial mash homebrewer, I understand that brewing and brewing equipment can be complicated if you choose to make it so. I’ve done all-grain but I love the simplicity of partial mash. But in the end, it’s still just beer.

I do enjoy pouring a double IPA into a brandy snifter and swirling it and marveling at the color and foamy goodness. There is nothing complex about that. I’m not saying we have to dumb down beer, let’s just not turn it into a meaningless word contest that just comes off as pompous.

I’ve recently started to see this term leech into the culinary world. Is food complex too, now? In a world that is becoming increasingly complicated everyday, life has become increasingly complex. Let’s not make the simplest of life’s pleasures complex. Life is complex enough as it is.

So let’s make it a point to never use “complex” as an adjective for beer and tell us what you really taste and smell.  If something actually is complex, lets encourage our tasting compatriots to unpack the term. If you taste many different flavors or smell a variety of recognizable aromas, be explicit and describe them. After all, beer is for the common man (and woman).  Nothing complex about that.

Do you have a term you’d like eradicated from the world of craft beer?

 

[The word I’d like to see banished from the homebrewing world is “infected.” Your beer is never infected. It may be contaminated, but it’s not infected.– Chris Colby, Editor]

Comments

  1. I have to take issue with this one. I find complex is an excellent term, but only by way of introduction. By all means, after dropping the C-bomb, please go on to “unpack” it, as the author so beautifully puts it. But the word itself should not be maligned.

    Complexity implies many factors at play, in varying levels of intensity and subtlety. It’s an excellent term for setting a mood when describing flavour interplay. It is not the be all and end all, but it IS a great atmospheric term to prepare the reader or listener for what is (or should be) to come.

    Also, what’s with this “common man” stuff? It implies a false collectivism where none should exist. Beer is a beverage. Nothing more nor less. Beer is more than you could possibly describe and less than you could ever need to. Beer is what you want it to be, in as much or little intensity and engagement as you wish to ascribe to it. Or I wish to. And if I wish to describe it as complex, I sure as hell shall! 😉

    Spot on to Chris re: infected vs. contaminated though. That’s just a matter of facts over popular terminology.

    Still, a great read, passionately put, and well constructed. Just wrong! 😉

  2. Great conversation point here. I will give you this – “complex” is a meaningless descriptor on its own. In most contexts it smacks of marketing jargon. It is certainly an overused phrase in the craft beer world.

    But if you have the goods to back it up, then it’s a great lead-in phrase. I don’t know how you’d deny that a well-aged, well made RIS or barleywine typically has a great complexity of flavor. A massive hop-bomb IIPA will often have a fantastically complex aroma that is loaded with hop aromatics. These are all valid uses for the term “complex”, but go ahead and give me more detail beyond that. “Complex hop aroma” tells me nothing. “A complex aroma loaded with orange-citrus hop notes, that fade into alternating waves of juniper, roses and spice, all backed up by hints of graham cracker and caramel from the malt” makes me want to drink some beer, though.

    When a brewery uses the phrase “complex” to describe their Blonde Ale or Raspberry Wheat beer, that’s just pompous. When a qualified beer reviewer uses the term “complex”, then lets me know why (and it makes sense to do so), then I’m cool with it.

    Like I said before, this is a great discussion point. I like this Op-ed style column. I hope to see more.

  3. Chris Colby says:

    Glad you both enjoyed the Op-Ed piece. The vast majority of our posts at Beer and Wine Journal take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to the nitty gritty details of homebrewing (with the occasional dumb joke thrown in). Every once in awhile, though, I’d like to l run an opinion piece for discussion. I liked this article because it was well-written and I mostly agreed with it.
    One thing I’ve never heard is a definition of complexity when it applies to beer. Is it just a lot of flavor? If so, is it the intensity of the flavor or the number of flavors? (And is more flavors in a single beer always a good thing? What if some of them clash?)
    Are there non-complex beers? If not, then “complex” doesn’t have any meaning as a beer descriptor. And if so, if there are non-complex beers, where’s the dividing line? (And to follow up on a comment of Eric’s, why can’t a raspberry wheat be complex?)
    To me the word “complex” involves something more than a count; it involves interactions between the constituents of the thing. A Ferrari is complex. A pile of unassembled Ferrari parts less so. Are the individual flavors in a beer ever “assembled” in such a way that they could meaningfully be described as complex?

  4. Kevin Elsken says:

    I feel that a complex beer is one that has a number of discernable aroma/flavor/mouthfeel elements that can be considered and evaluated separately. Complexity is not a good thing or bad thing on its own – if the elements harmonize then it is a positive attribute.
    Conversely there are beers which are not complex but still excellent. A well made Bitter, for example, that combines the malt, hop, and yeast flavors in a way that no one element overpowers the others. The flavor elements present a unified front, one that does not require the drinker to consider unpacking those elements in order to fully appreciate what the brewer has created.
    But to the original point, saying a beer is complex is pretty useless by itself. For me, drinkability is a word I would never, ever miss if i never heard it again.

    • Chris Colby says:

      “Drinkability.” Yep, there’s a word that needs to go away. (Although, for some reason, I don’t mind “quaffable” as an adjective.)

  5. Kevin Rich says:

    Bravo Marco. Well put. I loved the article

  6. I agree that “complex” is a useless descriptor, very nearly akin to saying “um” and letting your thoughts gather.

    However, saying beer is “simple” shows a complete lack of understanding of or disregard for what really goes into making the perfect pint. It is the chemistry of the water, the biology of the yeast, the interactions of the different ingredients, and compounds, and processes which make beer great, and allow the brewer ever-greater scientific and creative control over their truly complex product.

    – Dennis, Life Fermented Blog

  7. Even the BJCP style guidelines use “complex” all over the place. More often than not it’s lazy shorthand for layered or multi-dimensional flavor/aroma. Sometimes it’s hard to describe the individual components, but you should at least try!

    • If you were writing an essay for your high school English class and started using “complex” as your most common adjective your teacher would have graded you down and told you to be more specific. I do not claim to posses a palate that conects well to the language center of my brain so I enjoy reading specific descriptors of a beer or other beverage. Then I hunt for the flavors as I drink the beverage, like a flavor scavanger hunt. Beer or wine enthusiasts need to look for better ways to describe their beverages. If you need a conversation starter, do not use complex. Please start with a descriptor like the color aroma or something obvious and more to the deeper layers. Complex will say nothing other than you need to read on or say more to actually get to your point. Complex is just a catch phrase.

  8. I like the way Mike stated it, that “complex” is lazy shorthand for the interaction and blending of flavors and aromas without taking the time to flesh out the specifics of what is being experienced.

    The worst thing about “complex” is that it means something different to each person, so it is not specific. A “complex” stout is intriguing. But a stout that has a bold coffe-like roastiness that fades to dark chocolate flavors that linger on the pallet is a stout I want to drink as soon as possible.

    Complex can be a good conversation starter, but really needs to be followed up with more specific information.

  9. Complex is just a way to describe a beer that is multi-dimensional (possessing more than one basic flavor) as opposed to a beer that is one-dimensional. Barrel-aged beers, sours and many Belgian beers are definitely complex. Pale lagers, brown ales and amber ales are mostly simple and one-dimensional. The word “complex” is not a plague to the beer world. What I see becoming more of an issue is the constant overthinking and overanalyzing of the usage of terms and adjectives within the beer world.

  10. Joshua Eastman says:

    So you really wrote an article to say you don’t like when people misuse words on a regular basis. You sound very experienced in the world of wine and bordering ignorant in the world of craft beer. Crafting a good beer takes skill and methodology, making wine takes good ingredients and understanding of a very simple process and lots of patience. I love both wine and beer but this article wasted 10 minutes of my life I will never get back.

    • Shlomo Reising says:

      So it took you ten minutes to read that short article? I’d be pissed too if I were you because that means you are probably not that smart. Nonetheless, I love it when internet commentators go straight for the ad hominem.

      B&WJ is (was) a nice website because all of the comments were constructive and well thought out. I guess this will happen more as B&WJ get more popular.

      In the spirit of the trolling with which you have graced these pages I will sum up by saying that, Joshua, you are an ignorant slut.

  11. You could always look at the genetic “complexity” of the components that included in wine versus beer. So in terms of the number of discrete genes:

    grapes ~30,400 genes
    barley ~ 32,000 genes
    hops ~46,000 genes
    yeast ~ 7,000 genes
    humans ~25,,000 genes.

    These numbers are approximate since a lot of it depends upon whether or not you include things like splice-variants, alternative start/stop codons, etc.

    At the end of the day, can’t we all just play well together? Wine is great for people who like wine and the same for beer. Beer is indeed complex and the options available to the brewer are near limitless. If wine lovers feel threatened by beer, well that’s their problem.

    Cheers

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