Sweetland Orchard Minnesota Mule Cider
Bad Weather Brewing Funnel Cloud
Big Wood Brewery Chocolate Chip Cookie Beer
Bent Paddle Hopmosa
Lakes and Legends Sweet Corn Beer
Bent Brewstillery Sweat Together
Schell's Red Citrus Sangria Beer
Sociable Ciderworks Candy Apple Cider
The Freehouse Caramel Apple Pi Beer
Grain Belt Blu Blueberry Beer
Flat Earth S'mores Beer
Schell's Frozen Bloody Mary Beer
We need to talk. Have you counted the stunt beers at the Minnesota State Fair this year? Not just the new ones—hey, ho, Chocolate Chip Cookie beer with a chocolate chip rim! Let’s talk all of them: S’mores Beer, Maple Bacon Beer, Mini Donut Beer, Funnel Cloud Beer, Blueberry Beer, Sangria Beer, Sweet Corn Beer, Mimosa Beer, Caramel Apple Beer, Pineapple Beer, and Margarita Beer. Then there are the stunt ciders too, including Caramel Apple Cider and Ginger Lime Cider.
Clearly, Lift Bridge is to blame. They invented the first cray-cray-crayzeeeee stunt beer at the Minnesota State Fair in 2013, the Mini-Donut Beer, a mild and biscuity beer designed to be paired with a cinnamon-sugar rim. It sparked down-the-block lines and shortages. It sparked intense interest and media coverage. It sparked other brewers to say, “Man, I could do that and get some of that sweet, sweet money and attention,” and now here we are. I think we should take a mid-course moment to talk about gimmick beers.
Are they tricks? Or are they truly treats?
I propose a philosophical inquiry: What is the true value and worth of these gimmick beers? Do they provide pleasure? Do they serve some other purpose, if not pleasure, such as expanding the minds of brewers and consumers to beer and cider possibilities otherwise unconsidered? Should they continue?
First, the basic: Do they provide pleasure? I would say that for most of them, yes, yes they do. There are different kinds of pleasure. Sweetland Orchard Minnesota Mule Cider is my favorite of this year’s stunt bevvies, and it provides the purest, most sensual pleasure. It has a nice ginger zing, a pleasant flintiness from lime-peel, which underneath you can taste the local orchard apples. It’s an experiment that’s essentially delightful, and refreshing. Others provide a more intellectual pleasure—the Funnel Cloud Beer from Bad Weather, for instance, answers whether a brown ale can be like a funnel cake. With a little vanilla in the back, and some malic acid in the front, the answer is: Yes, it can, subtly, and interestingly. If beer is truly liquid bread, as is often said, why can’t it be liquid cake?
Yes, some gimmick beers do fail—the Chocolate Chip Cookie Beer from Big Wood Brewery, for instance, with its chocolate chip rim, tastes to me as if someone dropped in a Chips Ahoy cookie with a packet of Swiss Miss, and I don’t like it. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs! They also provide the pleasure of conspicuous consumption or status. Try the beer served with the crisp bacon strip balanced across the top—Maple Bacon Brown Ale from Excelsior—and forever you can tell your friends "I once had a beer served with a bacon strip across the top at the State Fair". Thus, we must conclude: Pleasure—check, gimmick beers give it in several ways.
Do they provide education? Does someone with a mimosa beer—Hopmosa, from Bent Paddle, made with orange essence that some people love, but too strongly reminded me of orange furniture polish—learn something about beer or their own palate they otherwise wouldn’t learn? I would argue yes—drink Hopmosa, and you will have an indelible taste memory for orange in beer. Drink the Sweet Corn Beer from Lakes & Legends, and you will know what it’s like when real, bona fide sweet corn is put into beer (it’s subtle, and mildly tasty, cornier than most beer, and creamy, but not altogether more corn-tasting than something like Grain Belt.) So we have concluded: Yes, gimmick beers provide at least some education.
And yet. If gimmick beers provide both pleasure and education, we must call them good—but in my heart, something about them leaves me uneasy.
Consider being given a choice between looking at a regular dog, and a dog riding a bicycle wearing a hat. It’s human nature to look at the dog on a bicycle wearing a hat. Yet, if you had to choose between spending your day with a dog, or a dog on a bicycle wearing a hat, I hope I know which you would pick. These gimmick beers are hard to look away from, they’re much easier to talk about than the fine details of real beer—they catch everyone’s attention like a dog on a bicycle wearing a hat. My favorite beer of the year is Bent Brewstillery’s Sweat Together, a very hoppy 80 IBU West Coast IPA with a serious kick, at 7.3% ABV. While it was advertised as having dank pine and sweat to it, I mainly got bracing hops and scouring concentration. Of all the new beers this year, it and the Sweetland Orchard Minnesota Mule cider are the ones I’d buy again. But both have little wow in their descriptions—they are the dogs, not the dogs in hats on bikes.
In conclusion, are the many gimmick beers tricks or treats? Probably both—but I really hope that we have reached peak beer gimmick. Like everyone, I can’t look away from these things, and the amount of pleasure is diminishing with each additional and crazier gimmick added to the pile. If you’re a brewer reading this, can you please think of bringing something simply extraordinary next year, instead of something nuts? Next year, I’d like to get back to some state fair essence and try your blue ribbon best-in-show—not the one with the craziest costume hat.