OK, as far as I can tell there was no Rapture yesterday, so since I am still able to, I thought I should go ahead and blog about the Rapture’s relationship with beer styles – yes, there IS a relationship between the two – well, sort of!
What’s in a style? Well a bit like religion, that depends on who one asks. In the USA the BJCP identifies around 80 beer styles (plus Meads & Ciders), the Brewers Association identifies a bewildering list of close to 150 , beeradvocate.com identifies over 100, ratebeer.com identifies slightly less, and umpteen other organizations all numbers in between and beyond. Even if we could agree on an actual number of styles that exist (which we clearly cannot), we then get into impossible arguments of taxonomy, derivation and historical relationships which can never really be fully resolved. Take a look at this tiny sampling of efforts to organize things (some more serious than others) that illustrate the profound difficulties in attempting to do this.
If you ask a beer historian about the difference between a stout and a porter all hell can break loose. Even the modern (and pretty convenient) categorization of beer into the gross groups of ‘Ale’ and ‘Lager’ can produce heated arguments. Don’t even get people started on Cascadian Black Ales versus (the ludicrous) ‘Black’ IPA’s’, and rest assured there are a thousand and one other arguments that can erupt when discussing the classification of beer.
Amongst the carnage of disorganization in front of us, there is one constant that serves us well when thinking about styles of beer, i.e. the acceptance that at this stage of beer evolution there really is nothing new that can be brewed. Even beers which claim to be the ‘innovative’, first examples of a new style, are really only extensions and bastardizations of the already well-established spectrum. It’s also perfectly clear from the abundance of attempts to classify beer in charts and diagrams, that from their complex, confused relationships, plus the arguments that ensue when this subject is brought up, that there are indeed style boundaries that are not clear and that the blurred divisions between any two (or perhaps even three or four different styles) can vary tremendously and get very fuzzy. HOWEVER…
…despite all of my admissions about the difficulty associated with styles and their boundaries, my firm belief is that there ARE limits, and style boundaries should NOT be an anarchic, free-for-all where anything goes.
It really ISN’T OK to bottle a dark beer that includes roasted malts that has a significant amount of brett character, that results in a mouth-puckering, acidic character and STILL call it a stout; it’s simply NOT OK to load an unfiltered, German wheat beer with a massive amount of hop bitterness, in the process removing all of the banana & clove notes and STILL call it a Hefeweizen; and it’s really NOT OK to humongously over-hop a malt-based, biscuity, subtle English style bitter, make it 10% ABV and STILL call it a classic ESB. It’s misleading to consumers, takes a bunch of liberties with commonsense and frankly abuses tradition.
Of course there’s nowhere on the planet where such cavalier attitudes are applied toward beer styles more than in the US. There is an acceptance (and perhaps in some cases even an expectation) that brewers will, at least somewhere in their portfolio, produce a ‘crazy’ beer that blows away all style conventions and is ‘innovative’ (despite the fact it’s really all been done before). The usual tack for justifying the madness is, ‘if it tastes good, why not?”. OK, fair enough I can live with that to a degree and indeed I have been full of praise for some such brews from breweries like Dogfish Head in the past, BUT all too often it just DOESN’T (taste good)! Too often these beers are in bad taste (in both senses of the phrase) and represent a crass, ignorant reincarnation of a great, traditional style that (importantly) does not add to the genre but serious detracts from it. When brewers start to include bizarre ingredients that make beers assigned to one style simply NOT taste anything like that style, that’s a problem. In fact it actually gets annoying, especially when the beer doesn’t do what it says on the label.
I blame the First Amendment and the mindset that it fosters in the US. For those of you that don’t know, the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States essentially guarantees free-speech. A very noble goal that is rooted deep in well-meaning, but at its heart flawed when taken to extremes. Consider the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful campaign of picketing the funerals of American servicemen that was recently upheld in the Supreme Court of the US. Even otherwise sane Americans will defend this decision saying that it (the right to free-speech) is at the heart of everything, well, ‘American’. Non-Americans that otherwise admire such noble goals as free-speech like myself, will look at that decision with utter horror and simply say that this is NOT the top of a slippery slope and that this simply doesn’t make sense. They will say that people CAN distinguish between genuine free-speech and hateful insanity WITHOUT jeopardizing the whole of the USA and its constitution. That’s why Westboro Baptist Church was banned from the UK!
It seems to be the same with beer styles in America. People defend the right of brewers to play fast and loose with beer styles in the name of ‘freedom of expression’ when commonsense tells us that more often than not, it produces a crazy, nonsensical mess. It’s often covered by the associated, “It’s extreme so it must be good” school of thought (as well as, ‘let ’em do what they like’), but when a beer is created that breaks all conventions within a style but still carries the moniker, then the very history and tradition that got us here is being abused. That’s to say nothing of the difficulty that it presents for the customer as they get the beer home and find something in the bottle that is ridiculously removed from the original style noted on the label. In just the same way, applying commonsense and avoiding the total freedom of associating ANY style monikers with ANY beer will not cause a sudden stifling of creativity amongst American brewers (no matter how much I might WANT that!), but rather it might restore a degree of sanity to certain beer makers and their products.
Now before anyone loses their mind over this analogy I should make it clear that it is made firmly with tongue in cheek, is apropos since we are coming off the weekend Rapture predictions by the Californian Family Radio crowd, and I am most definitely NOT attempting to liken the (according to all reports) most venerable and charming Sam Calagione with the astonishing hateful Fred Phelps, but I am saying that a tolerance of ANYTHING & EVERYTHING in the USA does lead to extreme madness at the extreme ends of ANY spectrum, and that underneath the apparent oddity of the analogy, there is a certain element of truth about its application to beer styles in the US.
I suppose that all of this does provoke the classic ‘American’ question, ‘who the hell are you to tell me (where style boundaries CAN be extended to and where they CAN’T be extended to)?’. My answer is simply, ‘pull yourself together and get a grip’, or less provocatively, ‘be sensible’. There’s no need to equate my appeal for style-restraint with a call for communist style conformity, but I bet it’ll happen!
Although this piece may suggest otherwise, I do not feel like (or consider myself to be a member of) the style police. On the contrary. I’m experienced enough to know that beer style boundaries are indeed flexible, but the beer-sane amongst us know that there ARE limits that make sense, and that speaking up for some of those artisanal cornerstones will ensure the sustainability of beer into the long-distance future. That’s the key. Traditional exists for a reason, and the erosion of, and riding roughshod over, the styles that have brought us to this point in time, ultimately I fear, has the potential to breed a whole new generation of beer folk with no clue about the historical significance of some styles and no appreciation for them. That’s not good, and ultimately I will not paint a bright future for beer in the US even if it doesn’t ultimately mean the end of the world!
Now, where’s that bottle of Unibroue, Fin du Monde?