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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Style, Method, or Tradition?

There is nothing so necessary and inadequate in the conceptual terrain of beer as "style."  Or contentious.  Something is necessary because beer is so diverse--we can't have any meaningful sense of "beer" if we don't distinguish among the various products produced across Europe and, lately, parts of the new world.  (It's not an especially old concept and for a history of the issue, I will refer you to instructive posts here  and here.)  But style stymies: the structure is neither as precise as its defenders wish but also far too detailed. 

I'm supposed to chat with some homebrewers tonight, and I've been thinking of why "style" fails, and I think it's because it captures only one dimension in what should be a more complex taxonomy.  Forthwith, I'd like to offer a new structure, with examples.  When thinking about what makes a category of beer worth carving out from the herd, it's useful to consider not only style, but brewing method and regional tradition.  Take saison and biere de garde, often lumped together as "farmhouse ales."  Speaking as a matter of regional tradition, this makes all kinds of sense--they come from a single source.  But in terms of style, it's absurd; biere de gardes have evolved into something closer to lagers, while saisons have clung to their rusticity.
  • Method.  Some categories of beer are distinctive because of the way they're brewed.  British and American ales are often constructed identically in the brewhouse, but when the former are pulled from fermenters a shade before terminal gravity and packaged in casks, they become quite different from the latter, force-carbonated in kegs.  Similarly, Belgians make tons of beers designed to go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle.  
  • Tradition.  The best example here is the (tiny) group of beers people have called oud bruins, Flanders brown, Flemish red, or (the worst) Flemish red/brown ales. The beers don't really share a style, and they certainly don't share a method, but the reason people try to group them is because they do share a tradition.  Until the past few decades, brown ales were the standard in Flanders, though every brewery had a different method of producing them.  As they have slowly died out, we're left with a disparate collection that don't look or taste a hell of a lot like each other.  Yet it still makes sense to group them together because of their shared regional tradition.
  • Style.  For the most part, styles are an effective framework.  When we say kolsch or cream ale, we know what we're getting. Styles have been built on the chassis of method and tradition, and are usually decent enough proxies. 
Where styles fall down is when they're stripped from tradition and method.  If American breweries have erred in picking up the beers of other countries, it's that they think only of the finished product.  Styles encourage this kind of thinking.  Like varieties in an ice cream shop, the only thing that distinguishes a lambic and a stout are flavors.  It leads breweries to do things like dump lactic acid in Berliner Weisses.  The product may have the superficial appearance of the style, but lacks the character and complexity you'd find in a beer made by a brewery using methods specific to the style.  That beer may fool a punter or even a judge, but it's not actually the same beer as a Berliner Weisse made with souring microorganisms.  If you only care about the way a beer tastes, fine.  If you care about what the beer is, you have to think a little more deeply.


  1. This is perhaps the most sensible thing about styles I've read in a long while.

  2. I would agree this is the most sensible thing written about beer styles that I have read to date. Can't wait to here more tonight at Portland U-Brew's Brewer Collective meeting.

  3. The long comment we were planning to post is turning into a blog post, I think.

    Short version: if it has the same colour, the same level of acid, the same bitterness as a Berliner Weisse, however it's made, isn't it a Berliner Weisse? Our gut instinct is, perhaps not, and that what's missing are the tiny, barely perceptible, almost-not-there flavour contributions from the process.

    It's why a lab-produced flavouring which is 99% chemically identical to, say, vanilla, doesn't taste quite like real vanilla.

    We are still thinking this through...

  4. But what if one of the originating brewers of a "style" chooses to make process/ingredient changes? For instance, using hop extracts for bittering, increasing fermentation temperatures/shortening lager times, fermenting in CCTs vs. horizontal tanks, using lactic acid? (And you can't taste the difference.)

  5. This is an interesting thought. It does bring us back to authenticity as well. How true to process are we when we try to emulate a "traditional" style?

  6. Stan, how else would traditions evolve? (They all have.)

    Jon, this is the really sticky part. If a brewery wants to give its customers the flavors of a style--gratzer, say--and they don't happen to operate a mid-20th century Polish brewery, what is their alternative?

    There's no good answer to how we arbitrate these issues. As late as the 70s Rodenbach used a coolship. Are they now making inauthentic beer? (This gets to Stan's point.) There's no bright line.

    When I talk about beer styles, I like to point out the way it is done wherever the style originated, if such a thing still exists. It's useful to understand the tradition and lineage. Then, if the brewery remakes the beer using ingredients and process similar to that tradition, we evaluate it one way. If they ignore those traditions and recreate the flavors with different methods, we evaluate it another way.

    Alan McLeod has a different view on this matter than I, so you can see it argued two ways. It's an interesting discussion either way.