The way we look at beers – the notion we call beer style – is not a new one by a longshot. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians had “styles” of beer, based on the type of beer, the ingredients, the purpose for which the beer was brewed. We know this because they left us records. Now, the era of the Egyptians and that of the Mesopotamians lasted centuries. While the pace of change may or may not have been as rapid as it is today, it is fairly reasonable to assume that the records we do have of their beer universes do not reflect the totality of their eras. Each record is just a snapshot of a certain part of the era.
We’re no different. We have a lot of records, of course, including ongoing records like periodicals and websites. But each is just a snapshot.
When it comes to beer style, the one snapshot that means the most is the World Guide to Beer. This was followed by the New World Guide to Beer and the various editions of the Pocket Guide to Beer. For much of the beer loving world, Michael Jackson is the source of our beer style knowledge. Every other beer style theorist, every other style guide – at least the ones people actually respect – is based upon his work. There are also places where the concept of beer remains largely if not entirely Jackson-free.
For the places with the Jackson influence, there is one key problem. His ideas, first put forth in the 70’s, have taken on a life of their own. At the time, he described the beer world as he saw it. If the ales of Scotland had a distinctive character from English ales, they were then called Scottish Ale. The Scots themselves, however, never called it that. It wasn’t until brewers elsewhere, working as much from his texts as they were from actual experience with the beers of Scotland (or Köln, or Ireland, or Wallonia), started ascribing Jackson’s names to the beers they were producing, that those names became firmly entrenched and defined beer styles.
These have been adapted and added to over the decades and now we’ve got a pantheon of beer styles…based on observations of a generation ago. Observations from a time when you didn’t have to take your shoes off to count how many porters there were in the entire world. Observations from a time when the United States had forty brewers. Observations from a time when people actually believed “light”, “standard” and “premium” were beer styles. Observations from a time when macrobrewed ales not only were top-fermented but tasted like it, too. It was a whole different world back then.
If you stepped out of a cellar today, and took a look at the world of beer the same way that Jackson did in the 70’s, what would you see? What world the world of beer look like?
The first thing you’d notice is that the US has more breweries, more beers and more beer styles than any other country. The mass market beer scene has changed surprisingly little in the past 30 years and the beers are still yellow, fizzy, and tasteless. Flavourless, too.
There is pretty much everything conceivable being brewed in the US. I don’t imagine you’d attempt to slot each and every beer into a neat little niche. The variety is too great. Despite beers made with every imaginable ingredient and technique, the concept of style runs strong. Even when brewers get esoteric, they often attempt to describe their beer in terms of a stylistic starting point with a variation. You can see this when you judge a specialty category – beers get penalized if they don’t have a base style.
Because of this strong orientation to style, it would be almost impossible to describe American beer without talking about style. You could talk about “strong, dark and sweet” but in the US, that’s not really narrow enough. The savvy drinker looks at something like that and says “yeah, but do you mean like a foreign stout, or more like an old ale? Or is it a doppelbock? Barley Wine? Dubbel? Abt? Eisbock? Some sort of strong Belgian style like Trois Pistoles?” All these types of beers are quite different, yet all are “strong, dark and sweet.” So you would have to narrow it down and then you’re using so many words and setting such a tight definition that efficiency calls for the use of the one proper stylistic term, just to make life easy.
The rest of the New World is basically the same. With no history of great beer, New World brewers have driven the market, not the consumers. In Old World countries, people who drink good beer have expectations of what their beer should be. In the New World, good beer drinkers don’t have these expectations. They have desires. This allows the brewers to brew whatever suits their style, and whatever suits their passion. The brewers then drive the market. They put the product out there and because the marketplace is open-minded, it succeeds or fails on its merits as a beer, not on whether or not it fits an archetype. It doesn’t have to be a great pilsner to win a market for pale, hoppy and light. It can be an English-style Summer Ale, or a Kölsch, or a hopped-up American wheat, or a very light saison or IPA. The possibilities are endless, as long as the beer kicks ass. Can you say the same about Bohemia? England? Germany? No. In the New World, you see all the beer styles so defining style becomes crucial to allow the consumer to understand what they are getting.
Moreover, the styles that developed as a direct result of Jackson’s work should be considered mainly as New World styles. So while we in North America understand what is meant by various geography-specific styles like English Pale Ale or Bohemian Pilsner, we sometimes forget that the people in those countries do not view the world of beer in these terms. That’s our way of categorizing what they do.
They don’t look at it our way. They have their own ways, ways that do not reflect the concepts of beer style that we hold dear. Ways that reflect the concepts of beer style the way they were when he found them, not the way they became after people read what he wrote about them.
You can see this in England, in central and Eastern Europe, in Russia, in France and in Belgium. It’s a whole different animal from the beer concept described above. The one above is the one we know, the one we grew up with. The one Jackson fans will understand.
The other concept of beer is completely different, and I’ll talk about that next week…