Hung up on style
Style has always been a useful roadmap, but are today’s craft brewers taking us on unwanted diversions, asks Lily Waite
Tuesday 04 August 2020
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There’s no doubt that the beer world is more vibrant and creative than ever before. Brewers, faced with increasing competition and fewer ways to impress an ever-more crowded marketplace and stand out from the pack, are becoming more inventive and pushing more boundaries. Chocolate Peanut Butter Spread Imperial Stout? Already done. Beetroot IPA? You bet.
While drinkers are spoilt for choice with this glut of creativity, there is a risk that intrepid exploration beyond stylistic boundaries simply merges into homogeneity; what were separate and distinct styles, such as gose and berliner weisse, are at risk of mushing into hazy, juicy, and only-borderline tart similarity. With pale ales being labelled as session IPAs to increase saleability, and the IPA category broadening at a seemingly exponential rate, it begs the question: do styles even matter anymore? How important are they to brewers, and do drinkers pay heed?
Although the differentiation of beer by type is an ancient practice, the concept of beer styles as we know them is a relatively new one. In 1997, the late (great) beer writer Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer, commonly considered the birth of the modern beer style. Eight years later, in 1985, the Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP), whose style guidelines would later become some of the most definitive, was formed to “promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer.”
Guidelines such as the BJCP’s and those of America’s Brewers Association (organisers of the annual Great American Beer Festival and its long-running competition), definitively set out stylistic boundaries, defining characteristics and stylistic quirks, primarily –as the BJCP’s name suggests –for judging at competitions, from those at an amateur level to prestigious international challenges. Despite this specific application, they’re often taken as gospel: providing a framework for stylistic definition across the industry.
As rigid and prescriptive as styles and their guidelines may seem, and while judges in competition settings often must adhere to them to the letter, that’s not to say that the styles themselves aren’t flexible, and capable of adapting as necessary.
“Beer styles are always evolving now, albeit much faster than in the past,” says international beer judge, Advanced Cicerone, author, and cartoonist Em Sauter. “In history, the Czech pilsner’s popularity helped create new styles like kolsch, German Pils, and Helles; coupled with technology in water chemistry and refrigeration.” More recently, notable examples of new styles include those juicy or hazy: in 2018, America’s Brewers Association added “Juicy or Hazy Pale Ale”, “Juicy or Hazy IPA”, and “Juicy or Hazy Double IPA” to its style guidelines.
The idea of a framework of categorisations for the vast spectrum of variation within beer is a hugely useful one. The frame of reference that a codified language gives is so ingrained through decades of use that we’d fail to cope without it. For example, just try ordering a session IPA at the bar without using the words ‘session’, or ‘IPA’.
Within this web of meaning styles afford us, styles offer other benefits than the ability to name beer. “They are a great teaching tool for consumers,” explains Sauter. “I remember when I had my first witbier in 2006 and I instantly fell in love with wheat beers. I did research to find out what other beers were like that which had me jumping into hefeweizens and other Belgian styles. Beer styles are excellent guides to discovering beer.”
Without beer style as a framework to build on we’d have had no craft beer revolution in the first place
Then, too, there’s the benefit for brewers: beer styles can give brewers boundaries within which to work, which can be particularly useful in the case of traditional styles, such as long-established German or English beers. Styles can also give brewers a platform from which to experiment. In a recent Twitter discussion of the use of styles, beverage consultant Aaron Gore wrote that “they provide a common language which allows innovation from an understood framework”. “And without beer style as a framework to build on,” replied author and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery Garrett Oliver, “I strongly suspect we’d have had no craft beer revolution in the first place, at least in the United States.”
But what happens when beers purporting to be of a certain style show characteristics that don’t belong? Do we strike them from the category, scratching out the label on the package, and call for the creation of yet another sub-style? In an industry of continual boundary-pushing, where do we draw the line?
Leeds’ North Brewing Co is no stranger to innovative, boundary-pushing brewing. In early 2018, they released their first triple fruited Gose, a beer “absolutely jam-packed with fruit”, according to the beer’s description on Untappd. “We kind of nicked the idea from The Veil in the US. I guess what they do is a progression of people upping the fruit content of kettle sours and taking it to the logical extreme,” explains head brewer Seb Brink. “The Veil have single and double versions; we just went straight to the triple.” Since then, Brink has brewed a further 13 in this style, prompting other UK breweries to follow suit.
Gose, as a style, is incredibly specific. A historic beer that originated in the small town of Goslar on the Gose River, it died out in the 1960s before a slow revival brought it back in the 1980s. It has, however, changed somewhat since its resurgence.
“I’m a bit annoyed at the way “Gose” has become a catch-all term for a certain type of sour beer, much like Berliner weisse did before it,” says my Ferment colleague, beer writer Matthew Curtis. “When Gose first emerged in craft beer it was a dying style; there were only really two true gose beers left in the world: those produced by Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig and Ritterguts in Borna on the outskirts of the same city. These beers actually feel pretty tame by modern standards, but the first iterations of modern Gose felt like they were at least in some way respectful to these beers. Take Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss as a fine example.
“Now we see beers with the label gose that aren’t gose at all, heavy with fruit so that the subtle complexities that made this native German style initially so appealing, completely eradicated to meet a different demand.”
So why call a beer something it’s not? Perhaps, it’s because the contemporary meaning of Gose has shifted: instead of referencing the historic style it has apparently come to mean slightly sour and slightly salty: “That would be gone in the first round to be honest in a gose category,” says Sauter, of a heavily fruited, lactose-dosed Gose, “though it depends on what kind of Gose category—if you put that in a Leipziger-style Gose, it’s going to get a side eye and be immediately dismissed, but it may work in a style now called “contemporary gose” which accounts for more lactic, kettle sour beers.”
Whilst defining bodies might make allowances given a beer’s prevalence in the market (in the case of ‘contemporary Gose’ categories), this subsequently compounds the change in meaning, further ‘bastardising’ the style. Perhaps, though, a beer is called something it’s not simply because of the cultural value of the style; it serves as a neat, commercially-appealing hook upon which to hang it.
“It’s not really a Gose is it?” laughs Brink. “I guess the only Gose element is the addition of salt in the boil, so it becomes its own thing. Maybe a “very heavily fruited, unfiltered kettle sour with lactose and a bit of salt” would be more accurate, but seems a little clunky somehow. I think with our series, hopefully no one is expecting a traditional Gose, and the list of fruits added on the label gives fair warning they are in for something a bit different.”
There are few styles within the beer world as multifarious as IPA: sub-categories include American IPA; Brut IPA; English IPA; Belgian IPA; Black IPA; New England IPA; Session IPA; Imperial, Double or Triple IPA. Though not quite endless, the list does go on.
A couple of years ago, a Sour IPA, such as many of To Øl’s ‘Sur’ series, like Sur Mosaic, or Lervig’s Hop Drop, simply meant a lightly soured beer, either kettle-soured or with a little lactic acid added, but one that still bore some resemblance to a what we know an IPA to be—highly-hopped, bitter, and perhaps somewhere around 6 or 7% ABV. In the past year or so, Sour IPA has begun to shift. Now, like contemporary Gose, many are ‘jam-packed’ full of sumptuous berry puree and lactose.
“I don’t think about styles or stylistic boundaries too much,” says Theo Freyne, found of DEYA Brewing Company, “although they can be useful in some ways. From a brewing perspective, brewing a Sour IPA, fruited sour or pastry sour (whatever one wants to call it), you have effectively chucked the stylistic referencing out the window.”
Well, quite: beers like Eye of the Duck, a Sour IPA with raspberry, almond, vanilla, and lactose, brewed by DEYA in collaboration with Cornwall’s Verdant Brewing Co, look nothing like ‘an IPA’ on the face of it, despite being highly-hopped and of a similar ABV.
“It’s a tricky one, because IPAs were once judged on [International Bitterness Units] and alcohol,” says Sauter. “But when you are just using a high hopping rate for flavour and not for IBU, what is it then? Is IPA simply used as a selling point because that’s what’s popular? IPA doesn’t really mean what it meant even five years ago: it now means high hopping rate and range of ABV.”
The style can act as a jumping off point and as brewers try and make more interesting versions new styles evolve out of that
“I think these things evolve and take on new meanings all the time, the IPA’s we drink today are completely different from the ones that were drunk in the 90’s, let alone the 1800s,” agrees Brink. “I guess the style can just act as a jumping off point and as brewers try and make more interesting and flavourful versions new styles evolve out of that.”
But if the definitions of beers are evolving in a way that reflects the market, and the market is continually being offered beers that further muddy the waters of a specific style and diverge from the original referent of that style, aren’t styles losing their importance and meaning? There’s certainly a risk of this happening with Gose: the less that iterations of the style reflect its origins, the greater the risk of losing that style completely, beyond history books. Though IPA is at little risk of eradication, it, too, runs the risk of obfuscation.
And then there’s the implications for the drinker. How can you or I know what to expect when we choose a beer if the style has lost meaning? I might be disappointed in a fruited Gose when expecting something more traditional, whilst you might lament the lack of viscosity in a Leipziger Gose.
“I think this is key—is the consumer getting the product that they are expecting?” explains Freyne. “For example, if it’s labelled IPA, they think they are tucking into a bitter west coast IPA, but it has lactose and fruit in it. I think there is a responsibility for both the brewer and the consumer, and not to sound too flippant, but I think brewers and people around beer get way too hung up on styles and stylistic boundaries.”
I think brewers and people around beer get way too hung up on styles and stylistic boundaries
“I think meanings can change and evolve, and I agree the important thing is to give the consumer a good idea of what they are buying so they can decide if it’s the sort of thing they want or not,” confirms Brink. “Having a clear idea of what the beer should taste like and communicating that to the customer is important, and styles help to do this, but beyond that I don’t give them too much thought.”
Regardless of your stance – protective purist or persistent progressive – it’s certainly interesting to watch styles develop in real time, and encouraging to see the creative state of contemporary beer. Only time will tell, though, what this means for the category as a whole: will creativity drive further innovation, or will it further the fractious nature of infinite sub-styles? As Brink says, surely the main thing is that it tastes nice.
“In other drinks such as wine, spirits or cider, the producers have done everything they can to protect terms and definitions, which in turn has often elevated the status of that drink,” says Curtis. “Beer, alternatively, has let this go. Whether or not this will really be to its detriment in the long term remains to be seen.”
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