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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 23 Feb 2010 @ 9:00 AM 

Not long ago, in a private conversation about what makes a Classic American Pilsner different than a Standard American Lager, I was accused of getting caught up inside the box of style guidelines. While everything was civil I thought it would be a very interesting topic of discussion, so I present it to you here.

The thing is, he’s right. I DO get caught up in the details of style guidelines. It’s probably the years I’ve spent doing database management that makes me like to see things neatly filed into their own little boxes. Of course, if that were entirely true perhaps my desk, office, and closet wouldn’t be such an enormous disaster area. I would probably have things neatly filed away and labeled in really clear ways: “Non-pink-and-scoogy paperclips.” “T-shirts that still fit me.” and “Pants without holes in the crotch.” That kind of thing. And I don’t. Getting dressed in the morning or reaching into any one of my desk drawers is still a game of Russian Roulette that my co-workers have to pay for on a regular basis.

So, if I can’t figure out where my pants are, why should I get so caught up in Style Guidelines? They’re moving targets, at best. Just this weekend I was discussing with a friend where his beer might fit within BJCP style guidelines for an upcoming homebrew competition. Fact is, it could really fit into a few of them given the width of ranges of most of the style definitions.

Here, take a look at these stats which I have cut and pasted directly from the BCJP site:

OG: 1.056 – 1.075
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 40 – 70
SRM: 6 – 15
ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%

OG: 1.050 – 1.075
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 40 – 60
SRM: 8 – 14
ABV: 5 – 7.5%

Just off the top of your head, which one of these is English IPA and which one is American IPA? The primary difference between the styles is where the hops are grown. From a technical standpoint, it’s also when the hops are added. It’s not like one is a lot stronger than the other or more bitter or significantly different looking or anything, or even different in strength.

As an aside, my favorite one to do this with is Saison and Oatmeal Stout:

OG: 1.048 – 1.065
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 25 – 40
ABV: 4.2 – 5.9%

OG: 1.048 – 1.065
FG: 1.002 – 1.012
IBUs: 20 – 35
ABV: 5 – 7%

(I’ll hold the color measurements and let you decide on your own.)

Now, obviously I’m over-simplifying this. The numbers don’t do any sort of justice for what’s really in the style descriptions. Which are things like:

Color may range from rich gold to very dark amber or even dark brown.

Or

High fruitiness with low to moderate hop aroma and moderate to no herb, spice and alcohol aroma. … A low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma is usually present.

(I like the “low to moderate hop aroma” followed by “low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma” – so low-to-medium that they had to say it twice!)

Barleywine and saison, if you’re wondering.

My point is not that the style guidelines are weird or wrong or too wide or anything like that. If anything, I think they speak volumes to the wonderful variety that is present in beer and what makes it such a superior beverage, especially when paired with food.

No, my point is that getting stuck into style guidelines is:

1) Difficult, since the style guidelines range so widely.
2) Easy, because style guidelines range so widely.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little bit of an asshole, too.

Here’s the deal: The guidelines overlap like CRAZY. I have a chart that I built of all the numbers for all the styles and most of them are practically identical. If you put together all of the “low-to-medium-high” flavor descriptions it’s almost ludicrous how much they sound alike. But I’m here to say that style definitions – and getting stuck in them – serve a huge purpose in craft beer:

They manage your expectations.

Look, the casual drinker on the street doesn’t know or care about BJCP, World Beer Cup, or BA style definitions. They care about being able to pick up something in the store and being able to reliably identify what’s in the package. You want to know why BMC is so popular? Well, go back to the beginning of this paragraph and start over again. Craft beer can learn a lot from this.

So, yeah, I’m stuck in style guidelines. That’s not to say that I don’t do something wildly different every once in a while – I made my own Black IPA recipe up before people started clamoring for this whole “Cascadian Dark” style. I regularly play outside of style guidelines. I love playing with non-traditional ingredients. There’s no other way to move forward than to experiment, play, and indulge in creativity. In fact, that might be the single most important characteristic of the craft beer industry: creativity.

(Honestly? I can’t get behind “Cascadian Dark”. Yes, Black India Pale Ale sounds stupid. But “Cascadian Dark” has the following problems: 1) It suggests Cascade hops. 2) It’s ridiculously regional and totally ignores that 48 other states have breweries and the ability to make dark, hoppy beers. 3) It sounds like it’s made by elves or centaurs or some shit. I could – and may – write a whole column just about this.)

But you need to manage expectations. If someone comes to my taproom/kitchen and pours a beer, I want them to enjoy it. If I made a porter, but I ramped up the roasted grain, gravity, and hop bill through the roof, then I didn’t make a porter. I may have even made an Imperial Stout. But if I give it to people saying, “This is my porter!” then they’re either going to think the wrong thing about porters or think that I’m not very good at making beer when in reality what I suck at is telling them what they’re drinking.

This past weekend, I “judged” at the homebrew festival that I was at. There were no style separations and no information about what kind of beer it was I was drinking. Many times, when I was tasting the beers I was given I found myself thinking: If I knew what style this was supposed to be, I might really like it, but without an expectation built in it’s almost impossible to be able to tell if someone did what I was tasting on purpose or by mistake. It’s hard to tell if something is well-crafted if you don’t know what they were shooting for.

So, touche, sir. You were right. I do get stuck inside guidelines. Constantly. But only so much as I want to tell people what they’re getting. Information helps people enjoy my beer. Part of that information is a concise definition of what they can expect when they raise that glass in front of their eyes, to their nose, and to their lips. If you’re not stuck inside the style guidelines then your customer – the person drinking your beer – has no easy way to appreciate the beautiful thing that you’ve crafted for them.

I’ve heard it said that style labels are a very American sort of thing. That before we started building up all of these style guidelines people just drank beer and they didn’t care if what they were drinking was a porter, a stout, or a brown ale. Style be damned!

I’d like to posit that Americans need to create style definitions because of the breadth of styles we make in our creative marketplace. We’re not bound by regional specialties that are based on what ingredients were historically available in a given area. The American craft beer market is dynamic and exciting and without style definitions I don’t think we’d see nearly the amount of variety we do. Further, I think it’s the very presence of the definitions that allows our customers to appreciate just how dynamic and creative we are, especially when we do play outside the definitions.

Do I think we have to stick to them and get stuck inside of styles, making only beers that meet a certain numerical specification? No. But we need to promote them and use them, because they are the definitions of our success.

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Categories: Brewers Association, homebrew, marketing, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 23 Feb 2010 @ 09 01 AM

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