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Oakes Weekly - April 29, 2004
On Matters of Style
Styles & Seasonals
April 29, 2004
Written by Oakes
When Michael Jackson first set about organizing the world’s beers into styles, his task was fairly easy – to document what was out there at the time. He did such a wonderful job that not only do newfound beer lovers make quick work in digesting his ideas, but that most every style guide out there is built upon his work. What I, as the man in charge of such issues at Ratebeer, would like to also applaud, is the way that as beer interest grew in North America, he was able to balance off the North American and the European conceptions of style.
Today, though, the beer world is much more complex. Not only do we have all the traditional styles that he has written about over the past thirty years, but we have a near-constant level of innovation. This makes documenting the world’s beer styles a much more difficult task, and if you take a look at the various major sources of beer style information, you’ll see a degree of disparity opening up that hasn’t been there in the past.
I want to take a look at some of the recent cases I’ve been considering, just to give you an idea of where Ratebeer’s style guidelines come from.
First, English Pale Ale. Historically, this was a bottled version of bitter. The biggest difference of course being the lack of cask-conditioning. The notion of this as a separate style took hold, however, not in England but in North America, as breweries took to emulating Bass (itself a bottled version of a popular cask bitter) and other breweries took to making pale ales of a much hoppier type, now known as American Pale Ale. The latter being quite distinct from the former, and both proving popular, the lines were drawn and both styles rightfully recognized. However, back in England, it is a stretch to argue that if you bottle a style it becomes a new style. (A new beer, yes, the Britons grumble aloud, but not a new style!)
In terms of bitters, over the UK the style takes various regional interpretations – hoppy examples in the south near the Kent hop fields for example, with maltier examples in Wales. Scottish Ale is a label applied pretty widely to all ales from Scotland, that are not of Wee Heavy status. However, the lower gravity ones can easily be understand as regional variants of bitter and mild. Perhaps the stronger ones (80/- or even more) can be seen as truly distinct from bitter when they get overly malty and toffeeish, but not the lighter ones. To me, some tightening up needs to be done with conventional theories about what Scottish Ale is. It should not be “any ale of low to medium strength brewed in Scotland”. A combination of sufficient dearth of hops to fit into the Bitter category and sufficient gravity to escape the Mild category to me seems reasonable.
Another thing the English have been doing, pretty much under the radar of North American beer lovers, is reinventing the golden ale. We started it, with what was and sometimes still is known as Canadian Ale. Today this is a macroish type of beer, barely distinguishable from mainstream lager and the lager/ale hybrid Cream Ale. (Cream Ale itself seems to be stuck in mid-shift from its old definition to one of a Boddy’s-style pale, bland nitrobeer). Then brewpubs came along, and made blonde ales of their own. These are usually all-malt, and with more character than the old Canadian-style golden ales, but not by much. English breweries, however, have had tremendous success over the past decade or so with hoppy, low-gravity golden ales, served from the cask. Only a handful of North American beers are being made in this category – I’ve had two impressive newcomers in the past six months, which is pretty good considering this started as a summer style. Watch for this style to be given its full due as soon as I decide if something new has been created or if the English are just plain wiping the floor with us.
I mentioned mainstream lagers…say fond farewells to American Standard, American Light and Dry. These product-positioning categories have no justification for calling themselves beer styles. Pale lager falls into two categories – mainstream and premium. I don’t mean premium in the “Michelob” sense of the word that US beer marketers use, but in the “all-malt, noticeable malt and hop character, just not quite enough hoppiness to be a pilsner” sense, as championed by a good number of craft breweries. I hate the idea of breaking off a style based on superiority, but it seems more reasonable when you realize that brewers of each are aiming for different things. This doesn’t mean one needs to recognize the success of mainstream brewers in executing their game plan. That is an individual decision and this individual decides that it is better to aim high and fail than to aim low and succeed, in which case no particular praise is warranted for successfully making characterless beer. Especially when I can point to a dozen or more examples around the world of brewers who actually succeed in making mainstream lager that tastes good (to me, Windhoek, Casablanca, Chernivskoe, Carlsberg – fresh and local that is, and a few of the Finnish ones are good places to start).
No proper discussion of beer style would be complete without talking about barrel-aged beers. When it comes to new styles, yes they are constantly evolving. Some, however, get cut short by changes in fashion (see Hemp Beer), and some by lack of commonality amongst entrants (see Rye Beer, Honey Beer). Barrel-aged beers do suffer a little bit from the latter, but also there is the question of the former. I wouldn’t want to anoint a new style into the pantheon without feeling very secure in the knowledge that a style was going to stick around a while. So one year of being in vogue doesn’t really count, especially when that vogue seldom ventured beyond special editions and into the realm of everyday usage. Yes, there is Blackwatch, but Rogue IIPA alone didn’t carry that style into existence. Give me more, and most especially give them more often! It’s what Ratebeerians want anyway.
With the creativity of brewers knowing seemingly no bounds, categorizing each and every of the world’s 30,000-plus beers into a style is becoming increasingly difficult, for those of us who actually have to do it. I could create two hundred substyles so that everything fits neatly into something, but there comes a point when people get confused and, in the quest to find a place for one beer, twenty others are left dangling between two or more substyles. I can only hope that as the issue becomes ever-trickier (and that would be the best thing for beer-drinkers) I’m able to continue providing a framework that makes sense to newcomers and veterans alike, to North Americans and Europeans alike. I’ll never get the Jorises and SilkTorks to agree completely, but hopefully our worldly sense of vision can be retained and advanced.
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With the creativity of brewers knowing seemingly no bounds, categorizing each and every of the world’s 30,000-plus beers into a style is becoming increasingly difficult
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