22 Mar 2010 @ 3:40 PM 

I will admit to having the same thought while I was brewing. It was a novelty idea: “I want to have a dark beer that tastes like an IPA.”

For me, it was about trying to make something dark where the bitterness wasn’t contributed by the roasted grain, but by the hops. A nice malt backbone, a nice dark kind of chocolaty flavor, but a nice hop profile as well. It was a challenge to make something with a unique, balanced flavor from two essentially distinct flavor profiles and have them meet somewhere in a balanced, drinkable, middle ground.

I brewed it up for Fullsteam’s Backyard Brew Fest, and it got great reviews.

Later, I found out that I had actually been brewing in, what people are saying, is a new style. “Cascadian Dark” they call it. In fact, there are already proposed style guidelines for it. Here, let me show you where that style guidelines surprises, bold emphasis mine:

History: A style that came to prominence on the Northwest Coast of North America in the early 21st Century. Northwest hops play key flavor roles, balanced with malt, roast malts give color and flavor, but body should be reminiscent of an IPA, not heavy like a porter or stout. The style celebrates the hops of the Pacific Northwest, but is commonly brewed in other regions.

Really? That’s a lot of Northwestiness. No offense to ya’ll up in the north-left corner, but this is not only limiting, but a little cocky. You don’t think a Black IPA or an IBA or whatever can’t be made without using hops from the Pacific Northwest? I made mine with Goldings and Fuggles. Should that be a new style, too since I wasn’t celebrating the Pacific Northwest? English Cascadian Dark?

I hear the English Cascades are beautiful this time of year.

And, for the record, let me throw this article out there that puts the origin somewhere around the 1880’s. Also, this article which pegs the idea behind the “style” to Greg Noonan up in Vermont. So, nyeah.

I’ve got a healthy load of snark saved up for the name “Cascadian Dark”, too, but I’ll hold onto that because what all of this really got me thinking was this:

How does a new style come into being these days?

Most of the styles that we recognize have some basis in fairly recent history. Not many of our currently recognized styles go back farther than a few hundred years, and only a very few of them you see are from within the past few decades in which we’ve seen the rise of American Craft Beer: American Pale Ale, American India Pale Ale, American Brown Ale, Dark American Lager, American Wheat, American Stout, American Barleywine. You see a trend here?

In all of these cases, the new style is simply a regional style from elsewhere in the world, but with more hops. It’s very American; not just because of the hops, but because of the multicultural background, co-opting, and re-imagining of the concept.

It’s kind of what we’re seeing going on with Breakfast Stouts, as well, which (I’m told) is defined by the presence of oatmeal and coffee. Someone might have thrown coffee into their Oatmeal Stout because they thought that the flavors would work well together, but once many people start brewing them up at what point does it stop being an Oatmeal Stout with Coffee and start becoming Breakfast Stout? At what point is the critical mass upon which a new style is reached?

Similarly, we’ve got a handful of breweries making Black IPAs. Are they now a presence in the marketplace? Sure. But how many are there? 13? 15? 20? 50? Out of 1500 breweries in the country, is 3% enough to declare a new style? Are we just jumping the gun on this because beer geeks (and especially Americans) tend to be rabid classifiers? Or are we jumping the gun because whoever writes out a definition first has the best possibility of getting that definition followed? I’m looking at you Oregon.

Finally, if someone is jumping the gun and pre-defining style, how does that limit creativity in the evolution of that style? It took decades or longer for some of the styles that we brew to develop into how we recognize them today. Isn’t it a little premature to say that something that’s been marketed for a year or two is a new style? What if it hasn’t finished evolving yet?

I don’t have a good answer.

These questions certainly seem to fly in the face of my previous stance on style guidelines and what they mean for the industry, but I’m not sure they do. Part of me would like to see us hang out with these hybrid styles for a little while to see if they stick around before we rush to put labels on them. Brew them, drink them, enjoy them, and play with them in the creative forum that is the craft beer industry because we label them for posterity. I’m pretty certain people will know what you mean when you say a “Black IPA” for now, the silliness of the name notwithstanding.

What do you think? When is the time to declare a new style vs. a creative trend vs. “I put some new stuff in my beer”?

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Categories: history, industry, marketing, new beer, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 22 Mar 2010 @ 05 33 PM

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