A Beer Language Problem…

We have a language problem in the world of beer. I’m not talking about our over-use of four-letter words or an inability to speak after too many pints. Instead, we lack a cohesive and agreed upon central terms for discussing our shared are of passion.

Let’s start with the term whose popularity continues to grow every day, namely craft beer. Brewers, distributors, writers, and industry insiders have been engaged in a long-standing battle over what to call the flavorful, colorful, characterful beers we all enjoy. As with defining pornography, we know it when we see it, or in the case of beer, also taste it. But we still don’t quite know what to call it. Do we define what constitutes a craft beer or just a craft brewer? Can a big brewer (macro? Behemoth? International conglomerate?) make a craft beer? In terms of flavor, is Blue Moon by Coors so different from dozens of other average witbiers made by smaller brewers? Should we instead use the term better beer, and if so, better than what? Anything brewed by the big brewers? Nowadays, even the Boston Beer Company is derided by many beer geeks as being too big, so that hardly seems appropriate.

Having grown up with the term microbrew, many seem loathe to let go of this iconic word and the related imagery of beer made in tiny, handcrafted batches. While many small breweries still operate at least in part by hand, the days of handcrafted beer belong to a different, quickly disappearing era, having been supplanted by much welcomed automation and greater control. And with many once small breweries now producing tens or hundreds of thousands of barrels per year and distributing beer from Denmark to Japan, the micro designation is an anachronism if not a myth.

Beyond these big picture terms, the creativity of brewers also continues to create new issues and areas of confusion. In the last two years, beer geeks and brewers from coast to coast have waged a nerdy battle over what to call dark beers that display strong hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Depending upon which viewpoint you subscribe to, you might tend to call such beers Black IPA, India Black Ale, or Cascadian Dark Ale. With a somewhat murky history, either having first been made by the late Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub & Brewery or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Britain, there is no agreement over what such beers should be called. It does, however, seem a bit ridiculous to call a dark beer with no connection to the sub-continent an India or pale ale.

Perhaps the most troubling and recent example of our parlance problems comes with the American use of the British-based session beer moniker. As discussed in a recent issue, beer cultures are largely not transferable between countries and that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t expect to find a vibrant Belgian beer culture in Cleveland just as San Diego’s thriving beer scene can’t be recreated in Tokyo. While pursuing the goal of lower alcohol yet flavorful beers is a very worthy goal, trying to cross-apply the session label just doesn’t work in the states.

Even the otherwise appropriately named nano-breweries have come under some scrutiny. Just how small does a brewery have to be to qualify as a nano? I’ve recently started seeing the term pico-brewery pop up, denoting something even smaller than a nano, if that was possible. I’m not sure if this involves beer made by boiling the mash in a microwave but it boggles the mind.

As a beer writer, I’ve been struggling with these language issues for a long time, usually with little to no results to show for it. While we generally agree on what we’re discussing, defining these beer-related concepts remains a difficult task. Maybe you’ll figure out the whole craft beer language debate over your next pint.

Then we can get started on gastropubs.

-Article appeared in Issue 55 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Black IPA Problem…

I’ve been loathe to get involved in the growing dispute over what to call dark beers that display bountiful hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Their recent appearances have generated monikers such as Black IPA, India Black Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale. The history and genesis of this style, whatever you choose to call it, has bounced between New Englander’s proclaiming that the Vermont Pub & Brewery, founded by the late Greg Noonan, and its then brewer Glenn Walter, created the first version called the Blackwatch IPA, to Pacific Northwesterners noting that it is their hops that give the style its signature character, to beer historians who point to old recipes from Britain from more than a hundred years ago to shut up the Johnny-come-lately Americans.

Without going into great detail about the sordid history of this interesting and developing style area (I do, however, tend to side with the Greg Noonan/Glenn Walter/Vermont Pub and Brewery as pioneers side), I hope we can all agree that the names to date have been off-the-mark. For its part, the Brewers Association has classified the ‘American-style India Black Ale style this way:

American-style India black ale has medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. The style is further characterized by a moderate degree of caramel malt character and medium to strong dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins may contribute to aroma and flavor.

The first beer I can recall having that tasted like this would either be the New World Porter (first released in 1997) from Avery Brewing or the Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter from 3 Floyds, both of which I think fit the emerging style quite well. I’m not entirely convinced that the simple inclusion of American hops suddenly leads to the creation of an entirely new style of beer or one that should not be properly housed under the Porter banner, as Avery and 3 Floyds have done. That perspective, I acknowledge, is not likely to carry the day in the present climate.

But in looking at the present names for the style, the deficiencies are as obvious as they are myriad. The style, as far as I can tell (in this day and age, you almost always have to qualify historic approximations), has no connection to India. It is also in no way pale. So a Black India Pale Ale or Black Pale Ale makes no conceivable sense except for the connections to the hops. But we use American hops in a substantial number of other styles without the need of bringing the South Asian sub-continent into the nomenclature debate, so why apply it here? Moreover, as hard as they try, the Cascadian Dark Ale moniker also suffers. Despite weak protestations to the contrary, you guys pretty clearly didn’t invent the style. If you guys want to try and lay claim to the American-style India Pale Ale name, have at it. You’re on slightly surer ground there at least.

So what are we left with, except three or four different and confusing ways of saying the same thing?

Well, I believe that styles are important, if for no other reason than consumers can have some reasonable understanding of what they might be getting when they select a certain beer. It is in the hopes of creating some logical détente that I humbly offer the following suggestions for resolving this seemingly intractable debate.

-Dark Bitter Ale (DBA)
-Black Bitter Ale (BBA)
-Black Hoppy Ale (BHA)

or perhaps my favorite, the NBA: Noonan Black Ale. Feel free to vote and let me know your thoughts.


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