More on Beer Styles… and Chad Invented the Term “West Coast IPA”? WTF?

Noted beer vlogger Chad9976 has commented on my previous post on beer styles, and has written enough that I felt like a response deserved another full post. Chad’s comments in blockquotes, my responses interspersed.

Found this slightly ironic considering, if I remember correctly, you grade according to style. I grade in a universal perspective. When we grade according to style we’re essentially saying some styles are superior to others. While I have a preference towards IPAs and stouts, if I rank a sour or even a wheat or an imperial lager a 10 out 10 I mean it’s just as good as a super rare barrel-aged imperial stout that I also gave a ten too. Would you say the same?

First of all, there’s not such thing as grading from a “universal perspective.” We all have our opinions and biases, and the only way to combat that is to grade with as much self-knowledge as possible, and to confront and report those biases to our audience.

That out of the way, I think you have it exactly backwards. Grading according to style isn’t saying “some styles are better than others,” but simply understanding what a beer is “trying” to be, i.e. what the brewer intended when she brewed the beer, to the degree that we can understand that. If a brewery labels a beer a sour, I’m going to understand that beer in that context, and not try to grade it the same way I would a stout or an IPA or a pilsner. This is basic, Beer 101 stuff.

Giving a beer an A+ means that, for my palate, it’s one of the finest beers I’ve ever tasted in that general category. Doing direct comparison between beers of different styles is much harder — to move to a different world, can we really directly compare a perfectly-prepared plate of carbonara to a medium-rare steak to a jelly doughnut? Comparing these things against one other is just silly, as they’re trying to do very different things and evoke very different flavors.

This may sound egotistical as hell, and feel free to disagree, but I think I was the first person to start describing IPAs as west and east coast. Back in the 2008/09 days when I really started paying attention to them I noticed the ones from the east coast were piney and the ones from the west coast were citrusy. I’m even noticing IPAs from Colorado seem to have a similar taste. I never heard of anyone use the terms east or west coast IPA until I started saying it in my video reviews and writing it in my text reviews. Mr. Red Rooster absolutely despises those terms and trolls any review I post with them in it, lol.

Perhaps other people were using those terms pre-2008. I dont know, I wasnt really paying that much attention to craft beer before then.

Green Flash West Coast IPA has reviews on BeerAdvocate going back to 2005. The very first review calls the beer “good interpretation of the west coast IPA.” I’d be willing to bet that the term dates back at least to the early days of Stone, say 1996 or so, although I don’t have good evidence to that effect.

I do agree 100% with “A style is a label that sets the tone for what I’m expecting from the beer, and in that sense styles are very useful.” That’s what I consider them good for – just a general expectation. Like if you say “Movie A is a comedy and Movie B is a drama – which one do you want to go see?” I’m much more likely to say Movie A because I’m in the mood for it. that’s not to say it’s a guarantee I’ll like Movie A better than Movie B, though. Same thing with beer. One of the things I love about mahar’s is you can sort the menu by style so even though there may be beers on there I’ve never even heard of, if I’m in hte mood for an IPA and Beer X is filed under the IPA category I’m much more likely to buy it than Beer Y which is filed under barleywine (again, there’s no guarantee one will be better than the other – just that the style classification gave me a general idea what to expect).

I’m glad you brought up this comparison. One of the biggest criticisms of movie critics and awards groups (like the Academy Awards) is that they consistently fail to recognize great comedies, action pictures, et cetera, in favor of the more standard dramatic fare. This is similar to my criticisms of BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer lists that have a Top 100 list that’s composed almost entirely of DIPAs and Imperial Stouts, usually those that are incredibly hard to get. I agree that KBS is one of the best beers in the world, but there’s a lot more to the world of beer than just that.

I recently got into a discussion with Shane Welch from Sixpoint over this. I was about to review their “Righteous Ale” and I asked him should I tell my viewers this is a rye, an IPA or something else? His basic response was “Who cares?! just drink it!” I said I agree, but I made the same point you did that knowing the style gives me an idea of what I’m about to encounter. He said styles have the opposite effect – that they pigeonhole beers and thus drinkers. There’s certainly a truth to this, too. I forget who said “To label it is to limit it”. (I think it was Foucault), but it’s something I agree with.

Neil Gaiman is on record as saying that he believes that bookstores should have only two sections: fiction and non-fiction. Which is a great deal if you’re Neil Gaiman and your work doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, but most books are best served by putting them alongside other, similar books, and readers tend to like to search within categories of stuff they know they like.

So yeah, it might make sense for Sixpoint to argue that their beers stand outside style or that they’re being pigeonholed (I can’t say for myself, having not tried any Sixpoint beers), but that doesn’t make style obsolete. Most beers fit pretty comfortably within at least a broad style.

The point being that styles definitely serve a purpose. I think it’s when upper echelon beer scientists start to break them down further that they become really masturbatory and arbitrary. For example, a year or so ago there was this big debate over whether it should be called a “Cascadian dark Ale” or a “Black IPA.” Some said they’re different styles because of where the hops come from. My friend Kevin from The Foaming Head made an excellent point on this that that line of thinking is absolutely absurd because you could then apply that principle to already existing beer styles (and to some extent we do, i.e. American vs English IPA).

I suspect that if the Black IPA thing really catches on, in a few years there will be enough examples that you can reliably make a statistical cluster around different sub-types. To try to do it this early with only a handful of fuzzy examples is just silly. That’s another thing about styles: they’re always changing, always in flux as tastes change and brewers experiment.

I think we have reached a point of over-analysis, though. For example, lambic vs wild ale. That only beers in a certain part of belgium should be called lambics. If they’re brewed using the same (more or less) process and the outcome is essentially the same – what’s the difference? Why do we need distinctions between an Oud Bruin and a Flanders Red and a lambic and a gueuze and a sour? To me they’re all just sour.

That last may be a palate thing. There are definitely differences between a Flanders Red and a lambic. Different types of malt, different types of yeast, different souring agents, some oak-aged, some not, different length of time aged….

So you’re right for the wrong reasons, and wrong for the right reasons. LOL

I suspect we agree more than we disagree. Looking forward to any further response you might have.

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About danieleharper

Chemist, rationalist, skeptic, feminist, and deeply humanist. Podcasts about Doctor Who and social justice at oispaceman.libsyn.com.

3 responses to “More on Beer Styles… and Chad Invented the Term “West Coast IPA”? WTF?”

  1. Chad's Adventures (@Chad9976) says :

    I had actually never heard of Green flash until a couple years ago when they started showing up around here. I suspect there’s people in say, Washington state that have never heard of Southern Tier. So yeah “west coast IPA” probably pre-dates Chad’z Beer Reviews. Although it is interesting that I came to the same conclusion – west coast IPAs are citrusy, east coast are piney.

    I totally agree with you about “best of the best” lists. As much as I love Pliny and KBS it does annoy me that 90% of the beers on these types of lists are essentially variations of those two themes (with the occasional Belgian quad thrown in for good measure). When I put together my Top 10 of 2011 list I specifically chose only one IPA whereas 2010 and 2009’s lists were full of them.

    On another note, it annoys me when people take these “best of the best” lists (and for the matter – beer competition awards) so seriously. You should hear some of the stuff another beer reviewer constantly tells me about these lists. His logic is basically 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. And beer judges are gods among men, they don’t get it wrong (unless they vote for beers he doesn’t like, in which case they’re crackheads). Not to pick on that one person, but I hear these types of conversations all the damn times at Mahars, beer fests, meetups, etc. I really want to scream “Who gives a fuck!? Drink what YOU like! Not what other people say is “quality” like they can quantify that statement with empirical evidence!”

    If reviewing beer was an objective process then everyone would reach the same conclussion. I absolutely LOVE it when I get trolled by beers snobs for not coming to the “correct” conclusion on a beer. Check out the recent comments on my Founders CBS video for a great example. I gave the beer a 10 and this clown said I STILL got it wrong, LOL!

    Anyways thanks for dedicating an entire post to a response!

  2. Steve from Rockford (815Sox) says :

    Yes, the distinction between West and East Coast IPAs was around I’d say at least mid 2000s… if not a bit early. The balance and hops used alone was/is a very obvious difference. It is a bit much to claim that you were the first to coin the term Chad… When I would go to Phish shows, which are full of beers from all over the country, I would here people describing IPAs in the west and east coast way. (Off topic: But in the late 90s, Fat Tire was like a frickin alternative currency on Phish tour… people from Colorado would bring case upon case of the stuff because they knew it would sell. Before that it was Sammy Smith brews particularly Oatmeal Stout.)

    Now, in 2008/2009 you did have people starting to argue that the Midwestern Breweries (especially MN, MI and WI) were starting to develop a distinct style of IPA themselves. Today, its is not uncommon to hear someone say “tastes like a midwest IPA”. I do think that Bell’s Two Hearted and later Hopslam were the two beers most responsible for this… only because Bells has a reach that all other craft breweries in the midwest lack.

  3. Lee Russell says :

    I must agree that styles are just sort of very basic generalizations. They are pretty helpful if something claims to be a specific style yet varies wildly (Alexander Keith’s IPA is a perfect example). If it’s that much of a difference than that will figure into my reviews. That’s a matter of false advertising. But if something vaguely fits the style, I’m not going to bitch too much about it. If I had a dollar for every IPA that would only be considered an American pale ale south of the border, I’d be much better off. Don’t even get me started on the different types of English pale ales/bitters. That’s a very dodgy one. A tad more alcohol and malt and suddenly it’s an ESB. A little less and it’s a golden pale ale. More malt, less alcohol and it’s a mild. Jesus, these descriptions are more for selling the beer to a specific audience than they are for really telling you what it is. Again I go back to Keith’s IPA…it once was an IPA, and they kept the name after dumbing it down to a lager-like macro, just because the brand was so strong. People, especially macro drinkers, buy what they know. It’s THEIR BEER. It’s THEIR traditional drink. Can’t call it “Keith’s Lager”. Keith’s tried to release a “Traditional Lager”, and it died a quick death despite being the best beer I can recall them ever releasing.

    Too bad, Chad, I recall hearing West Coast-East Coast IPA before I started doing reviews or even watching reviews on YouTube. However, I know I didn’t understand the difference until I watched videos from you and other beertubers.

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