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Friday, September 11, 2009

Toward Indigenous Styles

[I'm out of town until September 18 and away from computers of all sorts. On the assumption that you won't have read every post from the past 3 years, I'm reposting a few favorites. See you soon.]

I tend to relate to beer styles almost as primordial, as if they sprang fully-formed into their present state. Of course, this is nonsense--beer styles start somewhere and they evolve. Yeast's "house character" arises from subtle changes and mutations over the decades. Even the idea that they are now fully-formed and fixed is a mistake; surely the character of beers will evolve as local environments (less farmland, but perhaps less coal smoke in the air, too) and customs change. The globe warms and barley and hops may change. Who knows?

For the first time since before Prohibition, there's a chance for indigenous styles of beer to start developing in America. The post-WWII beers of America were lighter versions of the beer brewed in Germany--witness the Weinhards and Schlitzes and Busches and Coorses. Only recently have American brewers, freed of their old-world traditions, started to experiment with styles, and although they are among the most innovative brewers in the world, the evolution so far has been one of degree.

When you look around at the classic beer styles, they're almost all intimately connected with the region or even town from which they came. English pale ales were initially strongly associated with the water of Burton-upon-Trent. Bubbling up through sandstone, Burton's water contains gypsum and calcium sulfate ("Burton salts"); these minerals draw out the resins from hops and dry the beer. Scottish ales, known for their creamy malty character, come from a country rich in barley but hop poor. In Germany, smoked beers are obscure except in Bamburg; the same is true of the saisons of Wallonia. It's not quite true that every style was born solely because of the conditions in which it was first brewed, but almost.

What has arisen in the Northwest, and to a lesser extent in American brewing, is a love of hops, particularly those that are native to the US. It's almost impossible to walk into a brewpub in Oregon and find a beer that doesn't use the sweetly citrusy, aromatic Cascade hops. They are ubiquitous throughout the country, but they are native to the Northwest--associated in my mind with our pales almost as strongly as Saaz are to Czech pilsners and Kent Goldings to London ESBs. Of indigenous character, we have already developed. Styles are another matter.

But where will it go from here? In 100 years, will we still be brewing styles with distinct lineages back to the UK and (to a lesser degree) Belgium? Or will the rest of the world brew "Oregon-style" beers?

As a not-quite-avid homebrewer, I started to think what I could brew that would be distinctly native. An idea arose--that in a later post--but as I pondered what makes things native, I came up with a few variables:
  • Ingredients. A Belgian wit is distinct mainly for the use of coriander and Curacao (bitter) orange peel. Until they figured out how to roast malt without burning it, all beers were dark; in the late 19th century in Plzen, brewers cracked this nut and invented the world's most popular style. When brewers added lactose, they created cream ales and milk stouts.
  • Method. Some breweries have funky ways of brewing, and these help define style. The slate squares employed in Yorkshire breweries; the spontaneous fermentation of the Lembeek Valley; the funk contributed by casks at St. James Gate (Guinness) and Roeselare (Rodenbach); or the lagers fermented warm to create "steam beers"--America's only truly native style.
  • Yeast. Many of the world's classic beers emerged from the decades- or centuries-old strains of yeast. In many (most?) cases, yeast strains are connected to locations where they originated and consequently are one of the chief elements that define styles.
  • New Variations. Sometimes styles emerge by remixing the ingredients, methods, or yeasts to produce a beer recognizably different.
  • "Localness." What has guided many brewers through time wasn't necessarily a desire to be innovative, but restraints of locality. They used what they had. In the age before industrialization, hops, grains, adjuncts, and water all had to be local. The character of the beer has historically been a reflection of the place it was brewed. The physical imperative is gone in the age of globalization, yet artisanal beers are still predominantly local products.
In the Northwest, things have begun to show signs of evolution toward native brewing. One example that springs to mind are the Big Reds that have appeared in the last few years. Put these in the "variations" category. They are bitter but not overly strong, sharing qualities of IPAs, ESBs, and the Northwest fascination with vivid hopping. Three popular standards are now readily available throughout Portland: Laurelwood Free Range Red, Roots Red and Ninkasi Believer.

But while these beers have a lot in common with each other, they can't easily be shoehorned into other styles. They're a little stronger than a pale ale, but lighter than an IPA. The lighter body creates a platform for the hops, which though robust, aren't overwhelming. Brewers in Oregon have discovered that the sweet spot for hop lovers is a beer where the flavor, aroma, and bitterness are all aspects of hops; these large reds seem to have been designed to highlight hops at all turns. A native style? Getting there.

Peering Into the Future
The Northwest offers a wonderfully rich natural environment. I can see a number of possible ingredients that could become a part of the brewing tradition--fruit, wood casks from local trees, native botanicals. Breweries have made some forays, notably with fruit, but not in especially novel ways. What makes the krieks of Belgium sing is that they are not syrupy; the fruit is an essence, not a treacly additive. Wood is a big investment that doesn't pay off for years, so experiments have been limited to bourbon barrels (distinctly not Northwestern). Botanicals? Craig Nicholls has experimented with desert sage and juniper branches (from his back yard). Siletz makes a slightly strange spruce ale that is a version or two from perfected.

Yeasts may be the next frontier. Some breweries have developed a "house" character--Widmer and Hair of the Dog, for example. Other breweries will nurture character more actively--coaxing it by mixing strains and so on (Double Mountain seems a likely candidate). Belgian, English, and German beers are all recognizable by their yeasts; perhaps an Oregon yeast is in our future.

Finally, I also wonder if breweries may look to experiment with ingredients that have quasi-hop qualities, or those which draw out hop notes. No one can seem to get enough of the humulus lupulin, so experiments are surely in our future. In any case, it is impossible to imagine native styles developing that didn't play strongly to the zestiness of our local hops. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that zing.


Of course beer styles aren't fixed. They metastasize and change, and from the mutations emerge styles. We live in a very fortunate moment when we're seeing the process happen in real time. I'll try to keep my eye on this development and see if I can suss out any trends. It will be a joy to watch.

Originally posted August 23, 2007


  1. Jeff,
    I have thought and wrote about this a lot over the past three or so years. I know Abe and a select few are trying to make the Black IPA the official beer of Cascadia, even going so far as to calling it a Cascadian Dark Ale. I am actually one of those that like the idea as long as the Black IPA does not taste too much like a stout! I think soon Portland or Cascadia will have some sort of agreement on what is truly our Indigenous Style.

  2. Corey, when I wrote this originally, I was unaware of Abe's epic quest. I would surely have included it in a post written now.

    I do think the coming years and decades will produce some interesting home-grown styles.