Tag Archive | beer styles

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.


What’s in a Style, Anyway?

There’s been a lot of discussion online lately about the utility and value of beer styles in general, mainly among some of the European beer bloggers I read. There seems to be a growing consensus that current style conventions are overly complex, “a mile deep and an inch wide,” too beholden to history, etc.

For millennia, there really wasn’t a such a thing as “beer styles,” — beer was quite simply beer. Locally made, typically in the home alongside the daily bread, according to old practice. Only those who traveled widely (and few did) would realize that the beers made according to traditions in, say, Scotland differed from those in Bohemia (to name only two examples). For those situations, it was enough to make some general statement about color — typically “light” or “dark” to some degree — and perhaps to append some place moniker to the descriptor, “of the kind they make in Flanders,” would have been plenty descriptive for the time.

It was only with the work of the Beer Hunter Michael Jackson in the seventies that the modern taxonomic hierarchy of beer styles came into its own. While Jackson’s work was far from perfect, he basically codified the broad outlines of the beer styles that we use today. One of the things he did best in this regard was to set up a nested scheme of styles, much as a biologist uses taxonomic nomenclature to describe a species.

Consider the human species. Even non-biologists will know that we are generally referred to as Homo sapiens, but it doesn’t stop there. The full branching list describing our species is detailed here, and can be summarized Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo sapiens sapiens. (The second sapiens is not a typo — it represents our subspecies as compared to the now-extinct neanderthalensis.) Each term in that long chain represents a differentiation of one particular species from a larger group, so that one could speak of all the species of genus Homo, or drill down and speak of one of the subgroups.

Back to beer, then, we can say that we have two large overarching groups that cover some 99+% of beer styles: ales (top-fermented) and lagers (bottom-fermented). From there, we subdivide based on historical and regional branching for the most part, recognizing that brewing regions developed flavor profiles that differentiated themselves from other areas. A German kolsch and an English porter might both have been ale styles developed around the same time (give or take a century or two) but they come from very different brewing traditions and have very different flavors.

I think the issue that people are having recently is the feeling that maybe we’re chopping a bit too finely on the style markers, and judging by incredibly selective criteria. Does it really make sense to argue whether one American IPA is more west-coast or east-coast, especially given that brewers (unlike biological organisms) are not beholden to their regional style characteristics and can cross-pollinate from anywhere (whereas in biology evolution constrains future development, i.e. dogs cannot breed with cats to gain characteristics lost from a remote ancestor)? This is where thinking of beer styles as a nested hierarchy helps us, as we can always back up a rung and talk about a particular beer within a larger sub-group; if we can’t decide of that IPA is more west or east coast, we can always simply refer to it as a simple IPA (a luxury the biologists don’t have, short of declaring a single-species genus or similar).

In short, I’d rather see us spend less time dickering over the details of style guidelines (although it’s all in good fun for those who like enjoying the hobby that way), and more time appreciating the diversity and uniqueness in a particular glass of beer. Whether an IPA is more east or west coast is much less important than being able to appreciate a particular beer for exactly what it is, to admire the exact flavors you get in the glass, and to enjoy it!

That said, styles do have a big place in marketing, reviewing, and understanding. If a brewer calls a beer an English IPA, I have very different expectations that I would if she called it a West-Coast IPA, let alone than if she called it a pale lager or a stout or whatever. 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.

As the industry grows over time and more and more beers become available, I expect the list of available styles to grow as well, as the more basic categories get “filled in” and brewers start to sub-divide more and more finely to properly describe their beer. In the IPA category, I wouldn’t be at all surprised in twenty years to see brewers simply start describing their beers by the hop variety that provides most of the flavor; calling a beer an “Amarillo IPA” tells me a lot more than just “West Coast,” if I know my hops properly. It’s just a natural growth of the market.

Your thoughts on styles? I know this is a bit rambling, but beer styles are such a fundamental part of the hobby that it’s hard not to have some kind of strong opinions on them. Ultimately, though, all we’re talking about when we talk about styles is how we organize things, how we do the “paperwork” of the hobby. What’s in the glass, the beautiful boozy elixir, is really where the fun is.