Beer styles continue to befuddle…

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In writing my next book, Great American Craft Beer, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about beer styles, writing about them, and revising my thoughts and sentences. And after a few months of these efforts, I’m pretty sure I know less about them than I did when I started this project (and not just because Ron Pattinson and others continue to pull the rug out from under us all). Barleywines versus old ales, export or foreign stouts, and IPA’s versus APA’s. Is there such a thing as an American Stout? And what the heck is a golden ale? Do Americans really know the difference between Czech and German-style pils? Are there any differences? I have no idea anymore. But at the end of it all, deep in my confusion, I get glimpses of light. Such is the case with the delightful Sweetwater IPA. Although listed as an IPA, I think it may be the perfect example of an American Pale Ale, which just adds to the confusion (or fun). I’m looking forward to finishing this confounded project up in a few weeks…

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You Think You Know IPA?

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A few months back I wrote about a gang of revolutionary brewers who knowingly disregard style guidelines in favor of less restrictive pastures. These “free-form” radicals, as I called them, challenge tradition and history in order to expand the way people think about beer. As a lover and defender of brewing history, I somewhat disdainfully shook my head at the whole, disorganized practice.

Countless breweries around the world tout their allegiance to strict style guidelines and traditional ingredients as the basis for their claims of quality and character. In doing so, They vaguely point to hundreds of years of brewing heritage, often in particular styles, to justify their place in the international brewing pecking order.

But what if those beer styles that many others and I have so lovingly written about only exist in our modern imaginations? What if Michael Jackson, Fred Eckhardt, and the other present day keepers of the guidelines’ bible actually had it wrong about the styles we accept as gospel and without question?

Enter Ron Pattinson, a beer writer, historian, and bon vivant who writes a quirky and curiously titled blog called Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. While most beer lovers who give a moment’s thought to beer styles may know nothing of official style guidelines, Ron has developed a passion for debunking beer style myths. He scours old brewing textbooks in a range of languages to discover long hidden secrets about the world of beer. Reading his posts, which often include detailed accountings of brewing ingredients, grist ratios, gravities, and how they have ebbed and flowed over decades upon decades. For beer and history geeks, Ron’s historical research offers a rare glimpse opportunity to gain greater appreciation about the development of beer, recipes, breweries, and the changing palates of beer drinkers over the course of centuries of brewing.

This historical research, and other recent similar efforts, also offers students and guardians of beer styles a chance to rethink the work of those who set the definitions that we have come to know so well in the last thirty years. Think you know the story about India Pale Ales? Of course you do. It’s the one where British brewers sent highly hopped, high alcohol versions of their pale ales to the country’s outpost in India, right? While we can agree that the IPA style started in Britain, a batch of historic evidence suggests that the original versions sent to India were actually a form of beer concentrate, which local brewers then watered down. The old brewing and news texts do not make the well-worn story seem so sturdy. The actual numbers from several British breweries in the 1800 and 1900s suggests that IPA was a relatively weak beer when compared to pale ale.

When IPA traveled from Britain to the United States, Ballantine’s IPA, weighing in at 75 IBUs and 7.5-percent alcohol at its peak, became the standard bearer for America’s version of the style. From that point, the nature and definition of IPA changed and few hopheads have bothered to look back at history. As an example, the Beer Judge Certification Program, which certifies and ranks more than 2500 beer judges for local and national competitions, has developed its own very detailed style guidelines. In its definition of the IPA style, the BJCP instructs judges that “The term ‘IPA’ is loosely applied in commercial English beers today, and has been (incorrectly) used in beers below 4% ABV.” Incorrectly? While the IPA style is now less common in Britain than it is in the United States, does that make our modern take on the original the correct one? That seems a depressingly bold assertion of brewing hegemony by a country that can only boast the creation of a handful of beer styles older than a decade or two.

It is hard to say what should be made of style autocrats who demand rigid adherence to current, written descriptions. It is also sometimes difficult to see the relevance of modern style guidelines when old brewing texts tell us enticing tales of extinct German fruit ales, smoked Berliner ales, and about weiss beers that did not originally contain any wheat at all.
Despite our best marketing efforts and our convincing storytelling, our modern interpretations on the traditional styles cannot be said to be the definitive representation of the historic offering. And while I’m not convinced that free-form brewers decided to reject styles because of a few charts in a dusty, old Eighteenth Century German brewing manual, even the strongest proponents of style adherence have to acknowledge that sometimes its impossible to truly know living, breathing things.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue V of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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