Tag: beer styles

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In February I was in Chicago for the US Cider Conference. It was massively exciting, because craft cider in America is where craft beer was twenty years ago. It’s impossible not to draw some parallels between the two drinks. 
Because of the way the two scenes have grown in the States – with all the energy and hunger of new discovery and a bold ambition to push flavour into new places that sometimes, just occasionally, outpaces the brewer/cidermaker’s level of skill – they are much closer than they are in the UK. 
Sure, over here CAMRA represents both beer and cider to some extent, but at the craft end of things the two scenes seem quite separate – almost hostile to each other at times, as I have discovered since I began straddling both. 
In the US, craft beer and craft cider walk hand in hand to a much greater extent. Many ambitious young cidermakers have a craft brewing background. The growth of dry-hopped cider is only the most visible example of this. 
But cider still has a way to go, and that’s what makes it so exciting. 
One session we had at the conference was titled “Defining cider style by flavour.” It as based around this booklet:
by a guy called Dave Selden, who runs a beer blog and creates these stylish publications for a range of drinks. I enjoyed hanging out with Dave at the Cider Summit – a public event the day after CiderCon finished – talking among other things about how you define style.
This is something that obsesses Americans more than anyone else. In beer, before there was a debate about the definition of craft beer, there was a debate about beer styles that was just as tedious and pointless. I ridiculed it and said my final word on beer style back in 2010, but anyone who thinks there are nearly 200 different styles of beer (or is it even more now?) has far too much time on their hands.
On the other hand, I have to agree that cider needs more style definition than it currently has. The whole point of writing World’s Best Cider was that no one had looked at cider from a global perspective before, comparing the different traditions that exist around the globe. With a few exceptions, everyone has been defining cider within their own cultural frame of reference. The good thing about the Americans getting involved is that they instinctively look everywhere they can for inspiration and education. America already has a better range of international ciders readily available in craft bars and good bottle shops than you’ll find in any other country. A little bit of that rigorous analysis of style – not too much mind – might be very useful.
So back to the event where we were using Dave’s new cider booklet to try to analyse style by flavour. 
It was an open session, with each table sharing several different ciders and trying to agree on what they were like. The booklet gave us a flavour wheel and a bunch of other classifications for pinning down what was in the bottle.

It was improvisational, spontaneous, and very enjoyable. One cider was described by one table as a ‘porch’ cider, because it was the kind of thing you wanted to drink on a rocking chair while watching the sunset. The guy from Angry Orchard was clearly miffed when few people agreed that the cider he had brought to show was ‘French farmhouse’ in style. (To me, it was nowhere near tannic enough and had a hint of Spanish-style sourness.)

The highlight of the session though was when we got to one table who, after some conversation, pronounced that this cider should be classed as ‘Imperial’, with little explanation as to why. Immediately, various other tables rolled their eyes, sniggered and said, “Huh, brewers!”

It was a perfect moment: highlighting the various different factions that exist within craft cider; craft brewers parodying themselves by showing how utterly meaningless the ‘imperial’ classification is when divorced from its context; and revealing that none of us really had a clue about what to call this decent, drinkable but unmemorable cider.

By the end of the session we had picked various faults in the tasting wheel (which can be easily fixed). We were no closer to a framework of cider style by flavour. I wasn’t sure that Dave’s approach was right, but the session had convinced me that my own attempt to devise a set of cider styles was hopelessly inadequate – a mishmash that defines some styles by their region of origin, others by production methods or ingredients, and still others by flavour.

Back to the drawing board for all of us then. But taxonomy has never been so much fun.

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My final post on beer styles

I’ve been swayed by some of the really interesting points in response to yesterday’s post – but also reaffirmed in my conviction not to stay in these murky waters any longer than I have to. There is no right answer. It’s fascinating that on one side, you have people arguing that an obsession with beer style liberates craft brewers and inspires them to be more creative. And on the other you have equally qualified, equally talented people arguing that it stifles creativity. I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that one any further.

But the very debate there brings me on to my second observation on beer styles – the argument changes entirely depending on whether you focus on the brewer, or the drinker. So…

2. The drinker doesn’t need 133 beer styles. Or 70. Or even 30.
Most people who cook have only seven recipes in their repertoire.  Even if they have shelves full of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, when it comes to planning what the family meal is going to be that night, research shows they revert to a list of no more than seven or eight choices. If they learn a new favourite dish, they forget one of the regulars they used to rely on.

Hold onto that thought – I promise it’s relevant.

On Monday night, in a very engaging defence of rigorous beer style definitions, Meantime’s Alastair Hook repeatedly made the comparison between wine and beer.  Wine, he argued, has triumphed over the last twenty years by focusing on style and educating the consumer in that style spectrum. Beer is lagging behind, and needs to do the same.  I think he is absolutely, 100 per cent right in this.  I couldn’t agree more.

Allow me a little thought experiment. I drink a lot of wine as well as beer.  I love it.  I’ve done a ten week wine tasting course.  I’m now going to name as many wine styles as I can think of off the top of my head.  Ready?  Here goes:

Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc.  Cabernet Sauvignon.  Merlot.  Shiraz.  Pinot Grigio. Um…

I do know some more, but those ones came easily.

Let me think a bit harder:

Bordeaux.  Burgundy.  Claret.  (Are those styles?  Isn’t Claret the same as Burgundy?).  Cabernet Franc (I only know that one because of the course). Sauternes. Viogner. Rose (!?) Chablis? (No, that’s a Chardonnay).  There’s an Italian red I like, begins with P… no, it’s nearly there but… and what’s the really famous Italian Red?  Hannibal Lecter – Chianti!

No.  I’ve been sitting here for thirty seconds and that’s as many as I can get.  I’m having to work harder and harder to get each new one.  Of course I know more styles – I probably have at least twenty in my cellar.  Under hypnosis I might get to thirty or forty.  But as a knowledgeable consumer of wine, that’s the limit of my short term, top level, easily accessible memory.

How many did I get spontaneously? Six.

How many recipes can we store in our heads at an accessible level? Seven or eight.

You can see where I’m going.  Wine is indeed a useful comparison if we want consumers to engage with craft beer.  But it shows you how simple you have to make style.

Let’s take Chardonnay as an example.  As I mentioned, Chablis is a Chardonnay.  So is Blossom Hill Chardonnay.  There couldn’t be two more different wines, but from a consumer point of view, they’re both Chardonnay.

Maybe behind the scenes, the wine guys behave in a similar fashion to craft beer geeks.  Maybe Chardonnay breaks down into New World Oaked, New World Unoaked, Old World Unoaked, Old World Oaked Premier Cru, New World Single Estate, and so on.  But if it does, then as a heavy wine drinker and passionate adorer of good Chardonnay, I have no awareness of it.

From a brewer’s perspective, if you’re going to have 133 beer styles, why not knock yourselves out and have 500? If the system inspires one guy to produce one amazing beer that he otherwise would never have come up with, then it’s worthwhile.

But please, don’t foist it on me, or anyone else who doesn’t want it.  And don’t foist it on beers that are obviously more one style than they are anything else but ‘not to style’ according to a definition that’s meaningless beyond the circle of enthusiasts who created it.  (The comment about Fuller’s ESB not being ‘to style’ makes me want to reach for a shotgun – of course it’s a fucking ESB.)

Learn from wine.  Of course there are more than ten wine styles.  But I would hazard that most wine drinkers wouldn’t be familiar with more than that number.  Keep it simple.  Keep it relevant. Think about it from the point of view of the time-pressed, information overloaded consumer.  This is one of those occasions when I realise the marketing guys have something to contribute.  Sometimes, the reason they simplify stuff and reduce it down is because they understand that most people give a fraction of a second to each purchasing decision they make, and things have to be simple in order to register.

Beer styles help inspire some people to better brews.  I’m very happy about that.  But that’s ultimately meaningless if it doesn’t help – or in some cases even prevents – turning more people onto great craft beer.

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Beer styles: the first of only two posts I will ever write on the subject

Really interesting night last night at the magnificent Old Brewery in Greenwich, where the Guild of Beer Writers held a seminar on beer styles.

There was some entertaining and thought-provoking stuff which I’m not going to summarise here, partly because I can’t really be arsed and partly because the cream of British beer blogging talent was there, and I’m sure lots of other people will be providing a full and frank account – they were certainly making more notes than me.

Why can’t I be arsed? Because talking about beer styles makes my brain itch.  This is why I’ve stopped trying to get on judging panels for international beer competitions – I’d much rather judge a beer on whether I like it or not than whether it is brewed ‘to style’.  When I wrote Hops & Glory I poked a bit of fun at the US Brewers Association because they believed there were 70 different beer styles. That was three years ago.  They now think there are 133 different beer styles.  If someone invited me to judge at the Great American Beer festival – which they never will – I would honestly have to decline.

I have two things to say about beer styles, and two only.  It used to be one, but the second one emerged last night after talking to Meantime’s Peter Haydon about the aforementioned 133 beer styles.

In this post, I’m talking about the first point:

1. Style is not fixed – it evolves
Take India Pale Ale (as a random example plucked from the air).  No one knows what the true style is because it evolved from something else, and no one actually called it India Pale Ale until at least 50 years after it was first recognised as a pale ale brewed for consumption in India.

Historians of IPA claim that Hodgsons was the first IPA, and then go on to explain how Burton brewers like Allsopp improved upon it.  OK, so right there you have two quite different beers – London IPA, which was described as ‘muddy’ and bitter, and Burton IPA, which thanks to the water achieved a condition that made it bright and sparkling.

May IPA brewers today tell the story of how the beer changed on its journey to India, and in the same breath claim their beer is an ‘authentic’ IPA, despite the fact it has not been on that journey, and therefore not undergone that change.  If I were a pedant I would argue there has only been one genuine, authentic IPA produced in the last sixty years, and the dregs of it are in a keg behind the bar at the Deputy British High Commission in Calcutta.

Today many English brewers believe authentic IPA should only contain English hops, and that US IPA is some kind of inauthentic, brash cousin.  But brewing records from places like Bass and Hook Norton show American hops, which sometimes gave the beer ‘an aroma of blackcurrant leaf’, were in widespread use in the 1870s because there weren’t enough British hops to meet demand.

And at the same time, we had a change in taxation that incentivised brewers to cut the alcoholic strength in their beer.  By the mid-twentieth century there were hundreds of IPAs in the UK, and pretty much all of them would have been 3.4-3.5% session beers.  That twisted genius Ron Pattinson has shown that even in IPA’s heyday, there were some lower strength beers going out to India under this name.  The most popular IPA rant these days is that Greene King IPA is not a ‘real’ IPA.  OK it’s not authentic if you take the 1830s as your point of reference.  But if you could talk to any British brewer in the 1940s, he would have said Greene King was typical of the IPA style.  It’s no less valid – it’s the same beer at a different point in brewing history.

The problem (it’s not really a problem unless you’re trying to define beer style) is that we’re now so interested in all the facets and possibilities of beer that something which had been quite happy to evolve over time now finds itself being pulled out of its timeline at various points, and offered up in the present. It’s like those old episodes of Doctor Who where you’d get three or four different doctors all meeting up. Every beer I’ve described above is a genuine, authentic, traditional British IPA – they should ideally all fit in the British style IPA category in the Brewers Association style guide.  But we’ve got:

  • London style 18th century IPA
  • Burton style 19th century IPA
  • American hopped traditional British IPA
  • Fully matured, warm conditioned and agitated IPA
  • Nineteenth century low strength IPA
  • Twentieth century session beer strength IPA

Six beer styles where there used to be one.  And if you were being responsible, you’d cross-reference things like the warm conditioning with the other ones to create even more.

But who would that help, apart for giving a stiffy to some guy in the Brewers Association?

They’re all genuine IPAs.  They all taste quite different.  Most of them are more similar to each other than they are to other beer styles.

I hope this demonstrates why beer style may be useful to a point, but if you pursue with the relentless classification and sub-groupings, it only leads to insanity or absolute indifference.

I’ll tell you my other thing a bit later unless you tell me to shut up about beer styles.