A Question of Style


The Search for Ales beyond the Pale

By Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 5, No.4)

Style guidelines define the playing field of creativity. Brewers, like all artists, must recognize that innovation is meaningless outside of the bounds of tradition.

As he passed me the beer — one more small sample in a crowded beer festival — I asked the brewery representative why he called it a “Belgian raspberry ale.”

Was it made with a Belgian yeast strain? (No.) Did it incorporate whole fruit in the fermentation like Liefmans beers? (No.) Was it meant to emulate the style of the classic Lambic framboise beers? (No.)

“Why then do you call it ‘Belgian’ at all?” I asked.

“Because it’s an ale, and we put raspberry juice in it,” was the answer.

Why indeed? Such a casual approach to the christening of beers today is pretty typical in the craft brewing industry. I’ve had Hefeweizen that tasted more like unfiltered Budweiser, pale ale that was really an amber lager, and “tripels” that had absolutely none of the malty, spicy character of their Belgian namesakes (even the Flemish name was misspelled on one of them, which should have tipped me off). Just how dumb do these brewers think consumers are, anyway? If some current examples of these beers are any indication, how is the typical craft beer drinker to know an Aass from a Hudepohl in the ground?

In fact, “true to style” just might be the most meaningless marketing jargon of all nowadays. Those of us in the United States raised on bland, overcarbonated beers (the same could be said, by the way, for many beer drinkers in Canada, Australia, Asia, Latin America, and even Europe) have no continuing tradition of craft beer styles upon which to develop our tastes. Instead, brand loyalty has been the typical driving force behind most sales in the beer market, and brand loyalty is more dependent on good marketing and advertising than on any real notion of what a good beer — let alone any specific beer style — should taste like. Despite the commendable respect some brewers devote to historical styles and the enthusiasm of their (albeit small) audience for the same, most beer drinkers are settling for what might better be called a “beer substitute” — and I’m not even talking about the “nonalcoholic beer” crowd.

Careful attention to style is not simply a matter of beer snobs splitting hairs over triple decoctions or IBUs, as evidenced by recent developments at Anheuser-Busch, the biggest, most ruthlessly practical brewery in the world. Its new line of “Michelob Specialty Ales & Lagers” acknowledges the significance of the beer customer who buys as much for style as for brand.

Anheuser-Busch’s action is reminiscent of the tactics of Gallo, the giant California winery, which only in the past few years has begun to produce true “varietal” wines made from at least 75% of the grapes for which the wines are named (which hasn’t kept them, of course, from continuing to chug out their deceptively named “Hearty Burgundy”). Gallo’s wines, like the Michelob specialty beers, are generally very broad interpretations of the styles. Yet for those beer geeks who believe that the giant breweries will never have much impact on the overall craft beer industry, this should be a disturbing wake-up call.

If Anheuser-Busch succeeds with its campaign, the result may be, we can only hope, that consumers will gain more overall exposure to different styles of beers. But the danger is that “pale ale” or “Bock” will become even more loosely defined in the marketplace. And if the true craft breweries cannot best an Anheuser-Busch at the specialty beer styles game, why indeed should consumers pay the extra money for micro-brewed products?

An appreciation of legitimate beer styles is fundamental to any kind of discussion of quality in the industry. Only beer drinkers who have experienced styles in their purest form can fairly evaluate the increasingly broad selection of microbrewed beer available on the market. How can anyone enjoy pale ale, for example, without first developing a taste for hop aroma and bitterness in beer? Likewise, any talk about Bock beers is nonsense without an understanding of the aromas and flavors of Munich malt. These are crucial style elements; if brewers ignore them, we might as well succumb to recent advertisements and go back to “good old macrobrew.”

Which is not to say, of course, that styles should be strict formulas of conformity; rather, they are mere guidelines for genius. The world has always boasted a few great beers that don’t seem to fit any category we create; many of the classic styles, such as Bohemian Pilsener and Irish dry stout, were actually born into classes of their own making. Yet without acceptable standards, any notion of styles is meaningless. Mozart shouldn’t sound like Metallica any more than Weissbier should taste like Trappist ale. Creativity needs limits just as music needs a score.

As an artist and a writer, I face the same dilemma with my work that craft brewers do with their beer: how to create something that springs from the best traditions, yet has a life of its own. The challenge is to find the right element for that creation, the right surface for the paint, the right yeast strain for the beer.

This doesn’t mean that only one color, or word, or wort will do, but that within the process of reinterpreting, editing, or reformulating there remains a fundamental commitment to meaning and purpose. I might argue with my publisher about the importance of a phrase just as a brewer might make his case with a pub owner about using a certain hop in a beer (though the brewer has a definite advantage — if he can get the owner to drink enough of the latest “wort in progress,” agreement will probably come more easily). Unless each of us has a strong basis for our argument, though, these discussions are arbitrary or esoteric, and so to will be the final product.

And so brewers with any feel for their craft must take care to honor the standards of those they seek to emulate. Without Fuller’s ESB or Pilsner Urquell to define a style, we would be making beverages, not beer. Variations on a theme will always be welcome as long as the tune is recognizable in the first place. Brewers, like composers, should respect their audience. Nobody wins once IPA comes to stand for Imposter Pale Ale.

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