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Monday, September 12, 2011

Sage and the Nomenclature of "Spiced Beer"

Over the weekend, I finally got around to drinking some of the Deschutes-Boulevard White IPA.* It's a bit different from the version that was pouring when I tried it several weeks ago, and also different from the different version available in the Portland brewpub. But it is very closely related and shares the key ingredient they both featured: white sage.

Not all spices work well in beer; I would venture to say most don't. Herbs seem to do better (a subtle distinction but hang with me). Whenever a brewer adds an ingredient banned by Reinheitsgebot, she has to decide how much that flavor will compete with or complement the innate flavors in the beer. Spices are intensely-flavored and few have much in common with beer. I love cardamom, for example, but have never liked it in beer. Too sweet, too prominent. Cinnamon in small doses is quite nice--it's a bit woody and tannic and can accent other flavors. Maybe coriander's success demonstrates the point; over the centuries, all other spices have been abandoned.

Herbs, on the other hand, are more gentle, more subtle, and more like hops (itself an herb). Sage is a great example. In these white IPAs, it is a perfect bridge between a stiffer dose of hops and the sometimes aggressive notes of coriander. It's a perfect marriage, and I despair to think that these experiments may never be repeated. I could drink sage beer all day long.

Relatedly, as more an more breweries toss in the odd herb or spice to accent a beer--and many times, we're talking about very subtle accenting--we must contend with a very unwieldly and inelegant style designation: "spiced beer." Or less elegant: "herb or spiced beer." I would really love to come up with something less clunky and misleading ("spiced ale" calls to mind mulled wassail, not a lemongrass IPA). Anyone think of a better name? Something with a bit more poetry and accuracy? Anyone?

*Alan McLeod posted an interesting rumination on the importance of history in beer appreciation, noting in comments "I want the direct immersive experience when I am tasting. I still think beer history is an excellent thing. But it takes away, for me, from the appreciation of the beer if I overlap one with the other." This beer is a good example of why I always want to know more, and why appreciation for me begins with a beer's story. The collaboration between the two breweries began just after Deschutes finished Hop in the Dark, their black IPA.** Larry Sidor and Steven Pauwels wondered, "what would a white IPA look like?" Then they wondered what contributions breweries from their regions of the country might make to fuse regional particularlities into the beer and they came up with Conflux #2/Collaboration #2. To me, the story made all the difference in understanding how you'd get to a beer like this.

**Not only are my footnotes threatening to gobble the post, but I've footnoted a footnote; perhaps the first such instance on a blog. Thank you very much. In any case, I acknowledge the manifold problems with the phrase "black IPA," but I used it in the previous footnote because it obviously leads into the story of white IPA in way CDA*** just wouldn't do.



  1. I wholeheartedly agree that sage is great in beers and I am glad that Los Angeles has a couple good examples that really showcase it. Craftsman in Pasadena makes a Triple White Sage and El Segundo Brewing is working on a Sage Pale Ale by the name of Sand Dune.

  2. I am very curious to try it. I have tried a few sage beers and I haven't found one I enjoyed yet. It seems to be too strong in all the ones I have tried. I live in Sacramento, so I hope they have made it up here. I will take a look soon.

  3. I've seen these complaints about the name "black IPA" but they are very dumb. Acronyms become words with meanings separate from their constituent peices, so we say ATM machine and PIN number and any number of other illogical things. Language isn't logical.

    Semantic shifts don't even need acronyms for it to happen, and here's one in beer: Next time you drink an imported dunkles weissbier, remember that you're drinking a "dark white beer."

    Not to say that the idea of it being a style isn't silly. I've yet to understand why they aren't just hoppy porters.

  4. Stillwater (the gypsy brewers) brew a Saison with sage that is very nice.