I wrote earlier this year discussing where beer styles come from and the different ways in which the pantheon of styles can be viewed. I have personally long ascribed to the theory that there are both styles and categories. I use both on Ratebeer. They are not the same thing. Styles are rigid in definition – either it is or it isn’t. They have specific histories and easily definable characteristics.
Categories do not. The Belgians have traditionally been lukewarm to the idea of beer style. They have some, for certain, but they also have a lot of beers that are not in any style. For some of these, they are remnants – survivors of what once was a local style. We know about Berliner Weisse over in Germany, but Belgium has a few of those as well – Aarschotse Bruin, now made by Huyghe; Grisette, now made by De Smedt; and Jack-Op, now an InBev product are all examples.
Other Belgian beers have some notion of stylistic affiliation. Certainly in the case of Duvel the popularity of that beer since its switch to a pallour of hazy straw in 1970 has led to the emergence of several imitators. This has in turn led to the notion that these beers now constitute a “beer style”, though nobody has figured out a name that sticks. You’d be amazed how important that is. We all know what a Duvellish beer is like. We can point to its characteristics and debate whether or not certain beers qualify. But we can’t really say much more other than that the beer is either similar to Duvel or not.
This lack of a good name is going to give me fits, as I’ll get into in a moment. But on the flip side we have Bière de Garde, which has a name but no definable character. This is the French paradox, beer version. Quite the opposite of places like Lithuania or Belgium, which have beers clustered into reasonably definable groupings without names, the French already have the names. They just don’t have set characteristics.
P-Tor44, who has more experience with French beer than I having lived there, described it pretty well:
“They really seem to go after the wine culture of classifying beer on color alone. They do the same thing with wine, often mixing many grape varieties and selling the wines divided strictly by region and color. Beer there seems to have followed the same path to assimilate with the wine drinkers, most people have never even heard the terms lager and ale over there, and they are almost never used in advertising a beer.”
For North Americans, the French influence can be easily seen in Quebec, where you walk into the average non-DDC brewpub and are told the styles available are Blonde, Blanche, Rousse and Noire, or Blonde, White, Red and Black. There is, at least in theory, no set definition for what any of these must be, though in practice you’re looking at what we call Blonde, Wit, Amber Ale and Stout.
In France, however, there really is no set definition. Bière de Garde can be any colour. It can be fermented top or bottom. And despite its name, it may or may not be suitable for laying down. The only really thing you know from a French beer called Bière de Garde is that it is from the north of the country and is not a pilsner. It’s more of a “what it isn’t” style than a “what it is” style. Which isn’t really even a category, let alone a style.
So you take the French microbrews, the ones not called Bière de Garde. What are they? Defined by colour rather than character, you only know that it’s a craft beer, of colour X, and it probably has a lot of house character. Now, if you wanted to classify these beers in the manner in which we are accustomed, you could use the names because they have them, and call them categories like they’re Belgian. You end up with French Rousse, French Blonde, French Noire, etc. But it can be pretty tricky as to what to actually do with them. One of the things we love to do in North America is explore the world of beer by brewing it ourselves. (OK, I should really just say the United States, because Lord knows most Canadian brewers still look at you like you’re an alien when you say words like “Amarillo” or “Simcoe”. You say something like “gotlandsdricke” and they’ll give you the Heimlich.)
So yes, American brewers (and homebrewers) like to explore hands-on. If one of them became curious about these new styles they’d read about on Ratebeer and wanted to try to brew one, how would that come out? Would it be recognizable to the French? Without some sort of guidelines, can you really declare anything a style? So clearly to me what the French are doing has very little to do with beer style. French craft beers are a category, to the extent that they have characteristics easily identifiable as “French”. The tart ones surely do, but cleaner ones not so much. The ones I’ve had have been fairly yeasty, but that could make them Belgian. Characterwise they might very well be Belgian, but if the beers have evolved in isolation from Belgian influences that classification is a bit weak, and possibly offensive. Which leaves me at a point where I don’t honestly feel comfortable tackling the issue in any greater detail without actually getting over there, visiting some breweries and drinking many, many more beers.
Lithuania is another tricky issue. However, there are certain defining characteristics to their country brews. One is strength. Variable though it might be, it’s always high. The minerals are almost always there. Diacetyl maybe not, though. House character – surely. But at this point another crucial element has to be the ingredients. All the brewers in northern Lithuania are using the same malts and hops. You can’t make their beers without them, I don’t think. Imagine the fits that would give someone from outside the area in trying to replicate the beers. You can buy Moravian malt and Saaz hops if you wanted to do something Bohemian, but you can’t get Lithuanian anything outside the specific region. But that uniqueness represents how beer styles traditionally evolved – in isolation, to local tastes, and with distinctive local ingredients. One of the things that makes a porter a porter is that when you walk into a bar and order a porter, you have some idea of what you’re getting. I think you can do that with the Lithuania farmhouse beers. All I need is a name. Lithuanian Farmhouse is too lazy and, well, Anglophone, to catch on like “gueuze” or “doppelbock” or anything else with a foreign name and preferably a sexy story.
Soviet-style lager is surely its own style. Once you’ve had one, you’ll never mistake it for anything else nor anything else for it. I’ve written how diacetyl is a crucial component of its character. Now, I’ve had a lot of diacetyl bombs in my day but I’ve never mistaken one for a Soviet-style lager (well, except that one in China…ugh). There’s just something distinctive about an underfermented, diacetyl-laden adjunct lager made with filthy yeast on ancient equipment. But I won’t call it a style. It is one, there is no question in my mind. But it’s on the way out. In St. Petersburg, the most Western of Russian cities, you can’t find it anymore. In Moscow, you can but it’s difficult. The colonies still produce it but most of them are still subject to strong Russian influence and that means the modern European stylings of Baltika, Sibirskoye Koronna, Klinskoye, and Krasniy Vostok. So I suspect that Soviet-style lager is not long for this world. Normally I’d be in favour of mounting a campaign to save an endangered beer style – a campaign that would inevitably involve official stylistic recognition - but in this case I’m making an exception.
Those other Russian lagers, the funky microbrewed ones, I’m just not experienced with. I believe that in that case there is fire somewhere but right now all I see is smoke. Give me the guidance of a Russian beer writer and I might be able to find out more. But at this point, I and other Western beer explorers have used all of our beerhunting skills and only come up with a handful of examples. Craft beer is very far underground in Russia at this point.
Another interesting possibility is South American dark lagers. These are so sweet and creamy, a world of their own. As with the other beers mentioned, they have developed in isolation. They’re a lot like Baltic Porters in the way they’ve developed, taking a classic style from abroad, cutting off the foreign supply and influence and letting the beer take a character of its own based on local ingredients and market preferences. I’d prefer a more interesting name than South American Dark Lager but everything I’ve seen so far has this as being a distinct style. One thing I wonder though – it appears to be a macro thing, but there are a lot of new micros on that continent, especially in Argentina. What is the character of those beers? Are the micros making beers that are truer to original European styles? North American styles? Or do those beers, like their macro shelfmates, have a distinctly South American character? As with Russia and France, it sounds like a good excuse to travel.
In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to implement some of this into Ratebeer’s concept of style. Anyone interested in donating relevant beers to this discussion can let me know. I’m on a mission now. I’m tired of reading the same hackneyed beer and food articles. I’m sick of seeing introductory pieces explaining the Beer Basics. I’ll leave the writing of that stuff for someone else. I’m taking the bull by the horns here, throwing down the gauntlet. It’s time we raised the bar for intelligent beer discussion. Don’t talk to me about chocolate and cheese unless we’re discussing Ween. Let’s talk about beer. If you’re in the industry, I especially want to hear from you. I’ve got some big topics to tackle in the coming months and I want your perspective and knowledge.