Hybridism is the new perfection.
There was a time, it seems, when there were clearly defined goal lines, and success meant hitting those goals. Culinarily speaking, that is. Well and good. There are still a lot of examples of this in the world today. The best examples, to me, seem to come from French and Japanese cookery.
More than others, these two cuisines seem to have an ‘end goal’. That being ‘Perfection’. Capital P. If you haven’t seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it gives a very clear illustration of the sort of thing I’m talking about. A chef who can dedicate a decade of his life to learning the art of sushi, and never get past the phase of making the omelettes, much less the rice, much less slicing the fish. No, no, no. Not until you’ve been in the game for thirty years, at least. It’s the sort of thing that leads you towards asking a man behind the chef’s counter at a little sushi bar in Fukuoka, after one of the best meals of your life, “how long have you been doing this?” And having him reply – with some assistance from Google Translate – “Not long – only 27 years.”
Similarly, in the French School, we see chefs reaching for the giddy heights of gastronomy. For centuries, many countries have looked to the bastions of French cuisine to set the limits and define the stops. Indeed, worldwide, the indication d’excellence in food, the yardstick by which we can measure the worth of a restaurant, be it in Hong Kong, or Spain, or America, wherever, is the Michelin star.* A system developed in France, to measure the worth of French restaurants, later applied to the gastronomy of the world. You probably all know the improbable story behind why Michelin, a tyre company, gets to call which are the finest restaurants in the world. To value add and do a little free advertising, they started reviewing restaurants and including that little book with purchases. Essentially, it was based on how much tyre rubber you’d burn getting there. A single star means a venue is well worth a stop. Two stars is worth a detour. Three stars is worth planning a special trip around entirely.
*Er, except here, that is.
And all this is but part of it. For a French chef, the perfection of your hollandaise, your mayonnaise, your Bearnaise – all of these things contribute to your becoming a Master Chef, worthy of the fancy hat. The toque – the traditional starchy hat with a hundred pleats – is not merely a glorified sweatband and hairnet. No, each one of the hundred pleats represents the traditional hundred ways that a French master chef can treat an egg, and by gum, you have to work for that toque. You will be tested, and you have to be, in a word, perfect.
This is something we tend to see less of in younger, more multicultural societies, or those even more given to tribalism and traditionalism. You may be hard pressed to find a culinary tradition more wide-spread than that of Italy, with (to grossly oversimplify) pizza or spaghetti available not only all across Europe, but on all continents, from the high tea-houses of Nepal to the wide avenues of Argentina, the sunburned shores of Australia, sweltering North Africa and everywhere in between. And yet, they have surprisingly few Michelin stars. Why? Because there is no centralised method. You can’t learn from the Cordon Bleu how to make the perfect lasagne, because everyone’s nonna makes the best version. End of story. Perhaps in France, there is a correct way to make the dish. But my nonna, her secret was a pinch of this, a handful of that, ricotta instead of béchamel, a combination of these two meats… Of course, France also has an amateur culinary tradition, that of small bistros and home cooks. They have a similar approach to the Italians, in that regard – the food must be delicious, and its usually both regional and seasonal, but it need not be perfect. No I’m talking, in broad terms, of haute cuisine.
A similar story can be told of beer. Beer was once – like French or Japanese cuisine – one of two things. Made well, or made poorly. This is not to take away from the incredible diversity beer enjoys now, or has exhibited largely throughout history, before the rise of globalism and homogeneity decided that it was either this way or the other. In the mists of antiquity, beer tasted different from household to household, from village to village, from city to city, and from country to country – even from season to season. A few styles managed to remain behind as blueprints, and some countries managed to hold onto their incredible heterogeneity. But in the early half of the twentieth century, it seems we began to crave sameness. Lager must taste like lager. IPA must taste like IPA. As the macro breweries and mega corporations began to loom over the scene, regionalism began to dwindle, if not outright disappear.
And this is not to say that all beers in the world began to taste alike, but a lot of them did. The initial flourishing of choice a person may have begun to enjoy came along with the advent of lorries and trains that could move beer around the country and give you a selection of different styles from a selection of different places. But then that began to give way to a single beer that could straddle all regions and crush out the competition. So we see a half dozen or so breweries cease to be independent, and became, for example, the Carlton and United Breweries, and further cease putting out dozens of different beers and instead started putting out a recognisable ‘core range’. On different horizons, a French, Danish, Belgian or Dutch brewery’s lager began to be the ‘right’ sort of choice, and began to spread that across the world. Consistency, reliability, sameness – this began to be the beer we craved. Not seasonal brews, not beers made from the locally available and brewed in the ambient conditions. Globalisation began to open up the world, and all things could, soon enough, be had at all times. And this meant that those companies who controlled the market only began to dig in more. The monoliths lengthened and grew. We moved towards the ‘correct’ notion of brewing. Right or wrong.
But that has all started to change. Rather than searching backwards through history solely to recreate or just incrementally better the ‘peaks’, brewers comb through the past to find lost or forgotten styles to revivify, to breathe new life into even as they map entirely new and uncharted waters. They are looking forward, to see if it is possible to create wholly new things. No longer anchored in place, they are liberated to do more than look behind to regard the high tide marks left on the sand. They are looking forward, to see just how far and how weird and how new they can go. Is it always successful? No. There are some pretty mediocre beers and breweries out there that promise the world and deliver fizzy cough syrup. But the successes are simply wonderful. Stouts with chilli, or chocolate, or coffee, or peanut butter, or raspberries, or vanilla, or cream, or cookies, or caramel. Hop varieties bred to provide tacky, resiny bitterness alongside the delicate flavours of strawberry, or melon, or lemon, or grapefruit, passion fruit, and so on.
There is a freedom and a looseness in the market now. There is space for failure, without it being a dirty word. If you failed to make a good beer back in the day, well, you weren’t a good brewer. Because there was, demonstrably, a way to make the thing you were trying to make. Nowadays, however, if you try to layer flavours or styles with complexities so incongruous as to be intriguing, people are not mad at you for trying something new, even if you fail. Not at all – good on you, maybe won’t grab another sixer of this, but look forward to trying the next one.
Think of it like modern art – you look at the early works of the masters and you know that they can paint their subject such that it looks like the thing they’re trying to paint. And yet, they’ve chosen instead to paint with a seemingly chaotic assemblage of colours, or shapes, or lines. Why? They know that a bull can be painted to look like a bull, for example, but if you can distil the essence of that bull into a few swoops, you can open entire new doors and methods of expression. This is where our brewers are at now – exploring the hybridisation of ingredients, styles, techniques and creating something wholly new.
The success of this hybridisation can likewise be seen in the food scene of this country. Australia had the gastronomic bad luck to be codified into modern statehood under the aegis of the UK. This meant that in our culinary tradition we had boiled or baked lamb, boiled or baked beef, boiled or baked chicken, potatoes, some stews, some basic cakes and breads, pies and salted meats and so on in that vein. It took, like, a hundred years and several discrete waves of migration before you could reliably find garlic and olive oil, or cumin and oregano, or chilli and lemongrass, or really any sort of punchy flavour at all on our common taste map. The upshot of which is that now we have some of the best food in the world, because we’ve borrowed ingredients, styles and techniques from myriad different cultures. Traditionally French techniques can be used to cook ingredients never before seen by the chefs of the emperors, wok tossed native veg can nestle alongside very recognisable traditional European foods. This hybridism is what creates the new horizons, and propels us towards them. The same mutation effects beer too – it’s simply evolution. Ales become pale ales become India pale ales, become extra pale ales or hazy pale ales. And then the permutations come more rapidly – IPAs become Double IPAs, Triple IPAs, WCIPAS, NEIPAS, and they become Cold IPA’s and India pale lagers and who knows where from there.
There is nothing wrong with striving for perfection. To boil down the thing to the thingness of the thing is, in its way, admirable and not at all to be discounted entirely. I applaud those that still try to make the cleanest possible lager, the most harmonious IPA, the most perfectly nuanced farmhouse ale, to pare back and focus solely on perfecting the style. Similarly, I have enjoyed the pissing contests of breweries trying to elevate a style to the umpteenth degree by, say, cramming the most IBU’s into their bottles or cultivating the highest possible ABV with traditional brewing methods. To take things and run with them to their logical (or ridiculous) conclusion, to see what pairs with what, what flavours accentuate or elevate others despite their utter non-traditionality is a fascinating journey to undertake. Perhaps it is fair to say that perfection is a game of inches – millimetres even, and thus begins to reach a point of diminishing returns. Hybridism is a new and boundless frontier, and seems like it could offer untold riches and satisfaction – if explored fearlessly and passionately.