Wednesday, 16 December 2015

How We Talk About Beer Styles

This post is a little different from the usual stuff I put up on this blog.  It was prompted by a recent discussion of beer styles in the Saison, Bière de Garde, & Farmhouse Ale Appreciation Society Facebook group, along with some other discussions I've come across online.  Together they got me thinking about the way people categorize and talk about various kinds of beer, and in particular the way ideas about 'style' figure in those discussions.

What follows is a list of four different ways of thinking about 'style' as it relates to beer.  In dividing them up like this, I don't mean to suggest that they are mutually exclusive, nor that one particular approach is superior to the others.  In fact, as I hope comes across in what I say below, I think ideas associated with each approach can both complement, but also stand in tension with, ideas from the others. What struck me as interesting was the ways in which disagreements about 'style' often stem from putting emphasis on different entries in this list.

(1) Flavour-Profile

I'm thinking of this as primarily involving an emphasis on the sensory profile of a kind of beer.  A Pale Ale is a "clean, fresh, hoppy beer with enough malt backbone to carry moderate hop character and bitterness", whereas an Dunkelweizen is a "moderately dark, spicy, fruity, malty, refreshing wheat-base ale" (quotes chosen at random from Brewing Classic Styles).  One of the main purposes of this kind of categorisation is telling a drinker what they can expect from a particular beer, particularly if it is something they are unfamiliar with.  As such its probably no surprise that its become such a central part of the craft beer scene that's emerged in America over the past few decades.  Its a tremendously useful way of thinking about beer, especially when it comes to buying, selling, and marketing it as a commercial product, since it gives the consumer some idea of what they can expect when they buy a particular beer.  Its also essential to BJCP-style competitions, where the idea is to judge the beer in front of you against a general picture of what the style should look, smell, and taste like.  Its difficult to see how organized and wide-ranging competitions could take place without something like this idea in the background.

(2) Process

I'm thinking of this as primarily concerned with the ingredients and techniques involved in making a particular kind of beer.  But one can take this in various directions.

A style-centric approach, which emphasizes my first category, might think of this as whatever process(es) tend to create the proper flavour-profile in the final beer.   Want to brew a pilsner?  Soft water might help, as might decoction, though neither are necessary since you can get the same flavours in other ways.  Want to brew a Kolsch?  You should probably use a Kolsch strain, though you might get by with another neutral ale strain in a pinch.    Want to brew a Bitter?  Better not make it too hoppy or use the wrong kind of hops, because then it will be more like an American Pale Ale.  Whether you agree with my examples or not, hopefully the general idea is familiar.

A further (optional) development of this approach would be to claim that it is particular processes or ingredients that make something belong in a particular category: Saisons are brewed with saison yeast strains, for example, and Bitters are brewed with old-world hops.  This is typically understood in combination with (1), the thought being that this is the best or only way to get the flavour-profile characteristic of a particular style.

A more historical approach, which emphasizes the next two categories, might place more emphasis on the specific processes that were part of the historical production of these beers, whether that be decoction in certain types of lagers, spontaneous inoculation in lambic, or particular processes associated with an indigenous tradition of farmhouse brewing.  To some extent, the question of whether these processes were essential for achieving a particular profile might seem irrelevant here.  And in some cases, processes associated with historical versions of the style would not produce flavour-profiles characteristic of today's versions.  A cursory study of the history of a style like IPA shows this to be true. 

(3) Tradition

These ideas get more hazy as we go down the list, but I'm thinking of this one as primarily concerned with the history of a particular kind of beer, and the practices associated with it.

Again, a style-centric approach tends to put a particular spin on this: beers with a particular flavour-profile emerged at various times from particular locations, often as a result of such things as the quality and kind of ingredients available in that location (water is a typical example here).  Flavour-profile is still central here, with the history behind the beer primarily of interest insofar as it led to the emergence of that profile.  Tradition in this sense is usually a matter of connecting a particular beer to a particular location, and perhaps to particular breweries, understood to have produced characteristic and excellent examples of the style.

As a side-note, its interesting to see how these ideas get taken up in discussions about beer.  For instance, some U.S. homebrewers are quite happy to refer to their beer as a Kolsch, but would baulk at calling their beer a Lambic.  (I don't mean to suggest that there aren't good reasons for making such distinctions; but I do think that they come from emphasising different entries on my list in different cases---flavour-profile in one, tradition and history in the other.)

One might also be interested in the history associated with a particular kind of beer without trying to distill style-guidelines or flavour-profiles from it---and even think that this interest helped one better understand the style of beer in question, where that has nothing to do with setting down strict rules for what counts as an example.  This is especially true when, as is often the case, the characteristics and processes associated with particular kinds of beer have changed (often quite dramatically) over time.  To see this one only need compare historical uses of words like 'Mild' or 'Stout' or 'IPA', and the practices associated with them,  with contemporary beers categorized in those styles.

For many of us, this kind of history is interesting in its own right, without being at all in the service of formulating strict guidelines for categorizing beers.  But it does provide another lens through which we can look at what certain kinds of beer have in common, or what sets them apart.  I'm thinking in particular here of the points that Lars Garshol has made about the continuing existence of a farmhouse brewing tradition in various parts of Europe, and the ways in which it diverges from more industrial traditions, both on a commercial and domestic scale.  As Lars says, this is partly a matter of things belonging in category (2), i.e. distinctive processes that are handed down from generation to generation, or particular ways of using unique ingredients like Juniper or certain yeast cultures.  And it would make sense to think of beers with very different flavour-profiles all belonging in the same tradition in this sense.

As another aside, I have occasionally come across people insisting that the historical versions of a particular beer should provide the guidelines for categorizing a style: only beer approximating C19th IPAs should be called 'IPA', or only beers approximating the (often imagined) practices of French and Belgian farmhouse brewers should be called 'Saisons'.  One thing that strikes me as confusing about these claims is that they tend to involve freezing a beer at a particular point in its history (or worse, imagining what a beer 'must have been like' at a certain point in its history), without any clear argument as to why that particular snapshot of the beer should be privileged.  Perhaps there's more to be said here, but I'm mentioning this because it seems to be an attempt to formulate strict style-guidelines on the basis of something other than flavour-profile.

(4) Ideology

'Ideology' isn't perhaps the best word here, since it tends to have a negative connotation that I don't necessarily want, but I can't think of anything better right now.  In some ways, this is an offshoot of (3), but whereas there I was emphasising the material aspects of beer production, here I mean to be drawing attention to some of the ideas and values associated with it.  If I had to put it in very general terms, I'd say it had to do with the way producers and consumers of beer understood what was valuable or important about a particular kind of beer and its history.

For instance, what does it mean to say that "geuze is a drink of the people”, an idea that comes up a few times in this article, and something which I hope we'll hear more about in future posts from Dave at Hors Catégorie?  How might that be an important element in understanding the kind of beer that lambic is, its history, and what its future might be?  Well, one way of finding out is by asking people who take themselves to be brewing in that tradition what it means to them, or just listening to some of the things they say about their beers.  I'm thinking in particular here about comments made on The Sour Hour by Jean van Roy of Cantillon about the pricing of his beers, and why it was important to him to keep them affordable. I'm sure the other bearers of that tradition have more to say about this.

Perhaps in the same vein are the various ways people talk about Saisons or 'farmhouse beers', where there is often an emphasis on localism, indigenous ingredients, 'using what you have', and so on.  Here I think there is as much frustration with, and reaction against, certain aspects of modern life as there is direct participation in an ongoing historical tradition, and as such it occasionally strikes me as having more to do with nostalgia and fantasy than any real historical knowledge about the production of beers on Belgian farms.  But even if that's true (and I wouldn't say it of all cases), it needn't be a criticism, except perhaps of specific unfounded historical claims.  These ideas have been the source of some really exciting developments in American craft beer over the past few years, perhaps epitomised in a brewery like Jester King in Austin, Texas, and if they are a source of continuing creativity and excellence in craft brewing the last thing we should do is squash them.  (There is an analogy here between the ways in which various myths about the history of IPA played a part in the creation of a popular and exciting style of beer, and the importance of getting the actual facts straight when we make historical claims.)

Further Thoughts

Part of my reason for writing out this list was to get clear on what people were disagreeing about when they argued about a particular style of beer.  There are various issues that come up here, and the kinds of questions one poses, and the way one answers them, often reflects an emphasis on one or another entry in my list.

Here's some examples of what I have in mind:
  • What does it mean to identify something as a particular kind of beer?  
  • What is involved in claiming that one is making a particular kind of beer?  
  • Is it just a matter of flavour-profile and process?  
  • Is it a matter of tradition and history?  
  • Or even a question of the values and ideals associated with a particular kind of beer?
For example: for some people, decoction isn't an important part of brewing a pilsner if you can achieve the same flavours in other ways (presumably if you could not they would embrace decoction).  For others, decoction is an essential part of their brewing, not because it is the only way to achieve a particular flavour, but rather because it connects them to a tradition associated with this beer.  Most people probably fall somewhere in between, partly interested in decoction for any flavour differences, partly interested because of its historical significance.

It also seems to me that disagreements tend to emerge along the fault-lines sketched in this list:
  • 'How can you call that a lambic when its just sour and one-dimensional?'. 
  • 'How can you call that a lambic when it wasn't spontaneously inoculated?' . 
  • 'How can you call that a lambic when it wasn't brewed in Belgium?'.   
  • And maybe even 'How can you claim to be inspired by the lambic brewers and yet charge so much for you beer?'.  
It doesn't fit all 'styles', but you can imagine the same spread of questions for something like 'saison' or 'farmhouse ale', which is what got me thinking about all of this.  For some people, its fine to call something a 'Farmhouse Ale' if it tastes a certain way.  For others, it had better have been brewed on an actual farm.  And for still others, it should perhaps have be brewed in a particular tradition, using particular techniques, and so on.

Anyway, I intended this post to be descriptive more than anything else.  I doubt these kind of discussion are going to end any time soon, and as a home-brewer and enthusiast I'm interested in all of these ways of thinking about beer.  I suppose I think that a really rich and vibrant beer culture will involve all of them, and that discussion about beer tends to suffer when too much emphasis is placed on one at the expense of the others.  Currently, I suspect that is most likely to happen with (1) in my list.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking (not as heavily as you) about this as well! Thank you for putting it in such a logical manner. I think that discussions about style should begin with the groundwork you've laid out here.