AND REMEMBER WHEN IT COMES TO CRAFT BEER—STYLE IS EVERYTHING
By Sam Tierney
WEST COASTER Beer Magazine
Republished courtesy of www.westcoastersd.com
LET’S GO BACK TO WHEN THE EARTH WAS COOLING. In the beginning, there were no beer styles, there was only beer. Traveling here or there about the ancient world, you would have encountered unique beverages based on local ingredients and techniques. Communication was poor and brewing knowledge was fragmented and slow to spread.
Over the centuries, regions and even individual towns and cities developed distinct brewing styles that set their beers apart from others. When new technologies or ingredients were introduced, there were sometimes splits in the local brewing community and new styles were formed. The introduction of hops to the British Isles led to the fragmentation of the brewing industry into beer breweries that adopted the new spice, and ale breweries that stuck with the old gruit spices they had been using for centuries.
In Europe, there were guilds of white beer breweries that used wind-dried wheat malt, while neighboring brown and red beer brewers made dark, smokey beers from wood fire-kilned malts.
We’ll never know how many times a brewer came back from a trip somewhere and said, “I really want to brew a beer like they brew in that super rad town I just came back from. Why don’t we make beer like that here?” There are a few examples we can point to though; some of the most storied stylistic milestones have come attached to tales of traveling brewers. Pilsner was invented after Czech brewers learned from the English how to make pale malt, and a Bavarian brewmaster then brought his local lager yeast into the equation.
At Rodenbach in West Flanders, they credit their founding brewmaster’s time studying porter brewing in England for the original invention of their sour, wood-aged red ale. Population migrations have also spread brewing styles and techniques around the world. Lager brewing took hold in North and South America due principally to the mass immigration of central Europeans in the 19th century.
BEER EVOLUTION IS GOOD. Thus, we have the modern spectrum of beer styles. As communication between brewers proliferated, it became common to brew several styles of beer using varied ingredients and techniques. Even in the oldest brewing centers, styles of other regions had been adopted and tweaked into local variations. Munich was once steadfastly a dark lager town until the popularity of golden Bohemian lagers finally won out; the pale-but-malty helles lager is currently the dominant tipple in town. Nearly everywhere else in the world, the dry, low-hopped, often adjunct-lightened style of international pale lager is now the most popular and dominantly brewed style of beer. In the US, small brewers now brew pretty much every style ever heard of, with more unique beers continuously coming out.
|The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson|
Our modern understanding of beer styles can be traced back to the work of the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson and specifically his 1977 book, The World Guide To Beer. Jackson traveled extensively in the traditional beer countries, observing the styles unique to each location and recording what he found. Brewing texts had previously described various types of beer from around the world, but Jackson’s extensive organizing of styles formed the base for most of what we understand about style today. His classifications were based heavily on place of origin and describe mostly styles that are traditional to European countries, though he did describe American styles of the time like cream ale, steam beer, and malt liquor.
DIFFERENCE IN BEER RATINGS. Style guidelines like the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines and the Brewers Association guidelines built on this initial framework and created extensive descriptions of many styles for the purpose of judging amateur and commercial beers, respectively. The guidelines are tailored so that beers entered into competition can be judged against a stylistic standard that allows the personal preferences of judges to be mitigated. Without style guidelines, judging would be an essentially hedonistic exercise, with judges selecting their favorite beers as the winners.
Beer rating website Ratebeer.com conversely encourages such a hedonistic approach to rating beers, as opposed to the stylistic approach of beer competitions. A quick look over the top-rated beers clearly illustrates the result of generally disregarding guidelines in competition, as the top beers are overwhelmingly imperial stouts, which is apparently the most favored style of Ratebeer users. This upsets some people, but it must be noted that the aim of the overall Ratebeer rankings is to identify the commercial beers that consumers find the most excellent according to their personal preferences. Ratebeer also includes best-of lists broken down by style category, which are more similar to the results you would see in style-based competitions. Style categories on rating sites are a bit different from competition guidelines and, especially with Ratebeer, they tend to be broader and less defined. They are an attempt to cleanly separate every known beer in the world into an accurate grouping, so there will necessarily be some vague styles that cover a lot of unique beers. Beer Advocate takes a slightly more specific approach and tends to break beers down into more specific styles.
|Max Moran at San Diego's Indian Joe Brewing, where 20+ beers in a variety of styles are always on tap|
BEYOND MICHAEL JACKSON. Style guidelines are a human attempt to categorize a human endeavor, often crossing culture and time in the process. Naturally, there will be opinion and compromise in their creation. Jackson had the benefit of a much less dynamic and varied brewing industry back in the 70s when he formed his taxonomy. American beer was essentially a handful of styles at the time, with only several truly unique styles to worry about. In Europe, there were some very established and clearly defined styles in existence that in many cases simply needed to be properly named and described.
Beers like bock and hefeweizen were already clearly defined, even legally in Germany, which has always been the most rigid culture in regards to beer style, owing in large part to their Reinheitsgebot beer purity law. In the absence of previously recognized styles, Jackson did his best to describe what he found at the time, sometimes creating style groupings that brewers and drinkers at the time had not themselves adopted, such as the Flemish red style, which was a disparate combination of mixed-fermentation beers from Flanders. Belgian beers on the whole were mostly a blend of many somewhat-related beers that sometimes shared names. Belgian styles remain somewhat enigmatic, and many Belgian brewers still brew in their own unique style.
WARP SPEED. Those challenges look like child’s play compared to what we face today in attempting to keep up on stylistic categorization. As the “New World” style of brewing has spread like wildfire across the world, beer styles are spawning and evolving at breakneck speed. What we have previously taken as gospel is no longer safe; however, a careful reading of history shows us that this is really nothing new. For example, mild ale is today understood as a low gravity, lightly-hopped ale that is usually dark in color, and has been since about World War Two.
In the mid-19th century though, mild ales were often the same strength and color as modern American IPA, and hopped almost as highly. At the time, “mild” simply referred to the fact that the beer was not aged before consumption, as beers like IPA and Porter were at the time. Porter and stock pale ale, spending months aging in oak, would have had much of the character that we associate with sour and wild ale today.
Styles are simply in a constant state of flux; shifting economic pressures, brewing technology, and consumer tastes have pulled all of them in various directions over the decades. Any codification is really just a snapshot of their state at a particular point in time. We can argue for days over which version of a style is the most “authentic,” but in the end, they are all equally valid.
As I have made my way into a brewing career, first as a novice homebrewer learning the basics of crafting different styles, and then finally as a professional, considering style as a marketing tool, I have come to realize that brewers understand style in a way that is simply different from how most non-brewer beer drinkers do. Brewers can never disconnect the “how” from the “what” with regards to the role of the brewing process and ingredients in the end product. Most drinkers are perfectly happy to think of a stout as a black beer with strong roasted malt flavors reminiscent of coffee or chocolate.
MANY HOPPY RETURNS. Most brewers think of a stout as an ale with a significant portion of roasted barley or malt, possible dark caramel malt additions, and a base of pale or pale ale malt. They will then consider how varying the amount of hop bitterness and aroma, overall strength, yeast strain, or specific roasted malt composition can pull a stout across the various sub-styles like foreign, sweet, oatmeal, American, Irish, Baltic, Russian imperial, or porter for that matter, as most brewers recognize that that porter and stout are essentially the same thing.
What a brewer ends up calling a beer depends heavily on what term they think will lead to the best sales. This is illustrated quite well right now with the proliferation of the IPA style as a catch-all for any hoppy beer. Many hoppy beers that were previously grouped in other styles like American wheat, red ale, or pale ale are now being called wheat IPA, red IPA, and session IPA because IPA has gained mass recognition among most beer drinkers, instantly catching their attention in the beer aisle or at the bar. It’s simply easier to sell someone a red IPA than a red ale with a description clarifying that the beer is hopped at levels similar to an American IPA. I’m not the biggest fan of this evolution, but it is clearly the way the market is shifting right now.
|Styles galore at Best Damn Beer Shop Downtown San Diego|
Styles are an easy shorthand method for brewers to communicate the basic characteristics of a beer to their drinkers. Even as styles drift away from their original cultural history and character, they remain relevant because we generally still agree on what their basic character should be. Imagine if you walked into a brewpub or bar and there were no styles posted for any of the beers, just a list of ingredients, technical specifications, and flavor descriptors. Those with enough knowledge could use this information to find the kind of beer they were looking for, but even so, this kind of system is simply too long-winded and lacks the directness that recognized styles have. When considering bottled beer at the store, brewers often only have room for a few words on the label to catch your eye as you peruse a myriad of options. A simple “IPA” on the front of the label is a much more effective means of communicating what your beer is like than a wall of text explaining that it is a medium-to-high-strength, light-colored ale with generous hop aroma and bitterness. Obviously, this kind of description can be useful as a counterpart to the main style name, but does not possess the same clarity and directness.
STRAIGHTJACKETS OF EXPECTATION. A brewer recently told me that styles are a great starting point when coming up with new beers, but, on the other hand, they can become straightjackets of expectation. When you see IPA or pilsner on a label, you have expectations for the beer based on your past experiences. If that beer doesn’t deliver on those expectations, you are likely to look upon it less favorably, despite how good of a beer it might be on its own terms. Further complicating this, many people have received dubious information about many beer styles and subsequently have misconceptions about them. Putting a name like pilsner on your label can hurt you from both sides, with many drinkers associating the style with macro lagers, while typical light beer drinkers looking to branch out may find the beer undrinkably hoppy. The bottom line is that everyone has their own unique prejudices with different beer styles and you just can’t account for all of them.
The ebb and flow of styles can be a confusing yet exciting ride, so get out there and explore new styles, read up on the classics, and try to build a solid understanding of the spectrum of beer styles. Studies show that knowledge about a subject increases chances of enjoyment, and there are worse things out there to spend time learning about than beer.