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Oakes Weekly - October 27, 2005
Appellations in Beer
October 27, 2005
Written by Oakes
This week, the EU’s highest court sided with Greece in a battle against Denmark and Germany over the use of the name “feta”. The ruling makes feta an appellation in the European Union. Thus, when operating inside the EU, only salty sheep’s-milk cheese from Greece can call itself “feta.”
To the average North American cheesehound, this probably sounds ridiculous. Cyprus, with its large Greek population, makes feta. Bulgaria makes a lot of feta, and is slated to join in a little over a year, which makes the decision seem rather shortsighted. Other countries, too, make traditional feta. Ultimately, there is nothing inherently Greek about feta. You can use those same processes elsewhere to produce the exact same cheese. The same cannot be said of other name-controlled cheeses, like Roquefort, that bear the stamp of their environment. Taking these points into consideration, I find the decision highly questionable.
Beer does not have many appellations. Considering both written and unwritten ones, they are Kölsch, Trappist Ale, lambic and Berliner weisse. Most national or regional names applied to beer are referencing a style. Obviously, India Pale Ale and Russian Imperial Stout are not from those countries. But there is nothing inherently Scottish about Scottish Ale either. It is merely a beer in the style of those made in Scotland. (More specifically, in the style of those made in Scotland in the 1970’s when Michael Jackson started writing about beer style. Had he decided to declare Yorkshire Ale, or Welsh Ale, we’d have those, too.)
Indeed, the reason why geographic labels apply to beer style rather than to origin is because the vast majority of beer styles can be replicated pretty much anywhere in the world. In some cases, like the sour Flemish ales, it took a while for brewers elsewhere to produce beers of character in that style. But they are doing it now, in the US and in Italy. I can only assume that more countries will follow.
So what appellations should be held as sacred in the beer community? Kölsch? You’ve no doubt noticed that a large number of Kölsch beers are produced outside Köln. Just not in Europe. In the 1960’s, the brewers of the area sat down and hammered out a definition for Kölsch. In reality, this “style” is a style of origin, because it is just one of many light golden ale types. The length and breadth of golden ale types – the English Summer Ales, the Canadian Ales, the Sparkling Ales, the Kölsches, the Cream Ales, those brewpub blondes – doesn’t offer a whole lot of variation. It’s more like a die than anything else, six sides of the same damn thing. Slight variances in production differentiate them. In the case of Kölsch, this includes using ingredients of certain types and cold-conditioning. The production process, however, can be replicated anywhere. Moreover, because the specs for Kölsch were only laid down forty years ago, it’s not like the style has any great pedigree to protect. This is not farmhouse Cheshire, the name doesn’t have centuries of history. Kölsch is an appellation, but I don’t think it’s really a legitimate beer style in any other way.
Berliner Weisse is pretty much the same deal. There used to be some 700 breweries in Berlin making wheat beer. Today there are two. They are unique, so we have some sense of what a Berliner Weisse is. But when there used to be 700, we can’t really say with any certainty that the two (or three, if count East Berlin Schultheiss) examples for which we have a modern record, set the boundaries of the style. You need a lot of examples to set a style’s boundaries, preferably examples that push up again other established beer styles. You don’t know what a beer is until you have figured out what it isn’t.
So when a brewer in Turkmenistan makes a sour, low gravity wheat beer and calls it Berliner Weisse, it is. We can’t say that it isn’t, because we don’t have that information when it comes to this particular style. The only reason, I think, that Berliner Weisse is even considered an appellation as opposed to a geographic style reference no different from American Pale Ale, is that for the longest time the only examples in existence were the ones made in Berlin. The style remains very rare, but there are now examples made elsewhere and as long as they fit the base description, they have as much right to call themselves Berliner Weisse as anything else.
Which leaves us with two. Trappist Ale is clearly not a style, but an appellation of origin. Nobody really claims it to be a style, so that pretty much settles it. If monastic brewers in Germany had any marketing sense, they’d claim an appellation of origin for themselves as well.
Which leaves us with lambic. The one beer that is truly a product of its specific environment. To a degree, styles like saison are influenced by environment, but there is nothing etched in stone that says the environment in question must be Wallonia. Any beer with similar production techniques can be a saison, taking its influence from the forests of Alaska or the swamps of Nicaragua or wherever the brewer may happen to be located.
Lambic, on the other hand, needs the specific bacteria and yeasts found in its home region. We’ve all had “lambic” made elsewhere, and some of them are pretty good, but they are not usually wild-fermented. You can take lambic yeasts out of the Senne Valley and make a pretty credible imitation of the style anywhere. But it’s just an imitation. The interaction between the beer and the environment is too complex and variable to be completely and accurately replicated artificially. Just as you can make blue cheese in South Africa, but you cannot make Roquefort; so too I see that lambic is a true appellation, one that should be respected everywhere in the beer world.
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Indeed, the reason why geographic labels apply to beer style rather than to origin is because the vast majority of beer styles can be replicated pretty much anywhere in the world.
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