Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blurring The Beer Style Lines

Is it an uber pale ale, an imperial pale ale or just nomenclature madness? This has been on my mind lately and I've got no good answers.

Included in the 'swag bag' that was passed out for participants of the National Homebrewers
Conference this year was a bottle of Stone's 'Double Black IPA'. A beer that comes in strong not only in flavor and bitterness but also alcohol. As I drank in the bold flavors I began to wonder why one wouldn't call it a Russian Imperial Stout? I'm making an assumption here but, when using brewing ingredients that have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, it's been tried before and the beers that we are enjoying today are because they have withstood the test of time. The recent exception is the Cascadian dark ale (black IPA) but (as in the above example), when you amp it up to a double, it then becomes another style. I looked up the style guidelines from the BJCP online resource and did some comparisons.

It's bigger but is it the same?

The style guideline numbers for the RIS are 8%-12% abv, 50-90 ibu's and 30-40 srm. This compares very closely with the Stone's double black IPA which is 9.9% abv, 110 ibu's with a color of 40 srm. This extremely rich ale has not only the flavor components of a Russian imperial stout but includes the international bittering units as well as the higher alcohol percentage. As I drank and enjoyed this beer, and I did enjoy it, I was struck by the similarities between the two styles and I started thinking about other beers that blur the lines between styles and how popular it has become to qualify a beer with a new name as a first of its kind when in fact it may already exist under its more common name.

Is there an already existing beer style that satisfies the 'new and bigger' version of itself? Could a big Munich lager be considered a Maibock or be a doppelbock? Surely the Germans, with their 3000 years of brewing history have proved that if it's a good beer it will stick around and if it's a bigger version of itself and the people enjoy it, that it will become defined as its own style.

Do we come up with these uber names like Double black IPA because the beer we made doesn't fit the style, and rather then try again or say what it really is, we develop a new name and marketing strategy?. Is it a 'guy' thing? It can be confusing, this nomenclature madness. My ultra new black lager that I'm calling 'The black pearl' could simply be a Schwarzbier. After looking at the definitions and names of some new beers on the market, it becomes clear to me that a cross over genre is being born and unfortunately, it may just be for the names sake.

Case in point, I was offered a beer that the brewer proudly proclaimed as an imperial pale ale. I asked, 'you mean an India pale ale, IPA?'
No, he insisted it was just a very 'big' pale ale.
So what keeps it from falling into the IPA category? I asked. It even has the same initials.
He poured his beer and we sat down to sample some. It was obviously more bitter with a higher alcohol level and tasted just like an IPA. What make it a unique pale ale? The name.

I think it's important to step back and consider what makes a classic style classic. History, for one thing puts a beer in that category. If a beer withstands the test of time and continues to be appreciated and preferred by the public, it seems that that is enough to qualify. Of course, a style doesn't continue to be brewed without the demand, and it stays in demand because people like it. It tastes good.
Along with tasting good, another reason for a style is the origin of the ingredients, regional yeast varieties and to a larger degree the influence of the water chemistry that makes the taste unique to an area. Burton on Trent and Czech Pilsener come immediately to mind. Further, modified improvements to a classic that are needed in order to withstand the elements like India pale ales and Russian imperial stouts. How about the desire for a beer that satisfies the need to refresh the drinker in warm climates and heavy work like the French Saison and light lagers like the Mexico's ubiquitous Corona.

The criteria goes on and on. Is it pleasing, affordable, repeatable, is it unique to other styles?  Can a significant number of brewers and beer drinker or the general population come to a consensus and agree in its value? These are important questions and ones that will separate the 'fad' beer that relies on the name, from the new and clearly classic styles. In any case, the Cascadian dark ale may be a good example of creating a new style using traditional ingredients, however, in my opinion the real test will be its longevity. Will it be a flash in the boil pot so to speak or will brewers 100 years from now still be brewing it or dusting it off for a new launch for a new audience? Is it a fad, or a new style?

Often times, as homebrewers and also craft brewers, it feels like we're trying to re-invent the wheel. Desperately brewing beers that push the envelope of taste. I suggest, when going to your brewery with the intention of making something delicious but unique, the first step should be to discover if it already exists as a classic style, examine your recipe and compare. Chances are, it does and accept that it's good and repeat to style. But if it doesn't, that's probably because you're brewing with unique ingredients rather than trying to make something stronger or more bitter or a different color. Uncommon Brewers and Jolly Pumpkin Brewing are good examples of breweries that are thinking outside the box by utilizing specialty ingredients to come up with fresh and innovative ideas. I'm suggesting that the cutting edge of brewing at this time in history is the recognition and utilization of new ingredients that are enjoyable in beer and fill a void that could become a new classic style. Sadly, even as I wrote that last sentence it occurs to me that there are no new ingredients and at some point in time it's already been tried and put away as a success to become a classic or it was a failure that faded from memory.

It would be interesting to hear from the readers of Beer Diary... that have specialty beers you brew that don't fit into any of the classic styles and you feel may define a new category. Is your imperial mild at odds with itself? Leave a comment.

1 comment:

David said...

In regards to the RIS vs Cascadian dark issue, generally when I think cascadian dark or black IPA I look for a distinctly american hop profile (think "c" hops) and a more aggressive malt profile than one would find in an ipa, whereas RIS I generally think malt forward with a balancing bitterness, however the style is loosely defined by bjcp and such, making the difference between the two (on paper) difficult to discern.

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