Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why We Should Take Beer Styles Less Seriously

Random photo of beer of indeterminable style.

Get ready for some more opinion-based rambling, folks. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Bear Flavored Ales' Board of Directors.

I suspect this article may make a lot of people want to throw beer bottles at me. Or I don't know — maybe this is actually a common feeling that we just don't talk about much. The Brewer's Association recently released a massive overhaul of its Beer Style Guidelines for 2014, and it's encouraging to see recognition of rapidly-growing categories of beer, but many entries nonetheless make me think that the effort is largely a shell game. Certainly beer styles do get argued about a lot — wars have been fought over the black IPA; drinkers shruggingly accepting that session IPA is a tad different from a boring old pale ale — but generally, we all seem to be working under the assumption of there being a sacred realm of 'classic and traditional' styles that everyone, thank god, can at least agree on. There's the stable ground of history, and then there's these whacky new styles like 'Brett IPA' and "imperial black rye coffee Kolsch" that are just some nonsense the kids are pulling out of their baggy pants at dubstep concerts with which to spike their Red Bull. 

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the concept of beer styles. Sometimes life needs simplicity and guideposts. We need styles, and we like to argue about styles; I just think we often place far too much emphasis on them. Especially from a consumer standpoint, it's very important to have at least a broad guideline, a rough sketch of what I'm going to drink. It doesn't have to be a classic style; it can be a little blurb, a few descriptive words. (For example: I love how much info Modern Times manages to convey on their cans despite a very minimalist design.) When I pick up a bottle and there's no style or description at all, nothing but a cute name and a government warning, I become so annoyed that I will almost never buy that beer. Give me at least an idea of what the beer is — however you want to do that. That's what styles are for: guidelines, shorthand, a marker to let you know how close you are to town. And as long as we're not taking things too seriously, I think it mostly works out.

Lately — and maybe this is just because I happen to be on a binge of historical-brewing literature — I feel like the concept of "brewing to style" is being chipped away at from both the past and the future. There's going to be some unexpected benefit to the genre of IPA spawning a thousand spin-offs, in my opinion. The names might sound silly, but ideally, hopefully, it'll help to enforce the idea that styles are not immutable and handed down from the Heavens on stone tablets: they're coined after the fact, to classify something that looks like it'll be sticking around long enough to need a name.

The thing is, styles and beers change. Everything changes. In fact, I would go as far as to say that most beer styles as we think of them today did not exist 150 years ago. A brewer from the mid 1800's would probably be at a loss, trying to enter a modern BJCP-sanctioned contest. Classic and traditional? Sure, depending when you want to set the start date.

Think about it: around the end of the 1900's, within a couple decades' time, a great many things happened all at once. There was a sweeping overhaul of fermentation procedure thanks to the work of Pasteur. Two World Wars happened, drastically affecting the availability of ingredients and the taxation system imposed upon European and English breweries. Gravities dropped, processes changed. Lager-mania shifted a new generation's tastes, right when mass industrialization was becoming easier than ever. Oh, and let's not forget, there was that whole Prohibition horseshit. American brewing was perhaps the hardest hit by these few turbulent decades, but the rich historical traditions of English and European brewing were drastically affected as well, something that modern drinkers rarely seem to recognize when touting the legacy of international brewers.

I'll pick one specific example, saison, because I was just leafing through Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski again. Something struck me: Farmhouse Ales was released in 2004, following a period where the saison style could have been considered on the verge of extinction. Not so long after that book came out (and this was probably not a coincidence), the style exploded onto the American scene. In 2014, only ten years later, I would say that saisons are one of craft beer's darlings, a style that a significant percentage of breweries brew on a regular basis. As of this writing, there are over 3,000 saisons logged on more than twice as many as any other Belgian style. That's crazy! I had to look multiple times at those numbers to make sure I wasn't losing my mind — how could saisons be twice as common as witbiers, dubbels and tripels? But it seems to be so, perhaps because the style is generally viewed as loose in its guidelines, historically and conceptually open-ended.

But given all that, the vast majority of saisons being brewed today are pale, moderately hopped, highly carbonated, frequently spiced, and fermented exclusively with a Saccharomyces "saison strain." Perhaps no beer defines the modern saison better than Saison Dupont — I mean really defines, in that Saison Dupont, just one example of European saison, seems to have formed the baseline for the entire modern vision of what a saison should be. But Dupont was only one farmhouse ale, one that happened to survive the difficult first half the century with its integrity in-tact, and remain available enough that American drinkers could discover it when they were ready for it. Historically, there were many different farmhouse beers, and they varied quite a lot. Farmhouse Ales describe most as probably being a bit more amber in color due to historic malting techniques, and being either aggressively hopped or distinctly sour. More sour, depending on age, and sometimes blended with lambic, or even spontaneously fermented. Carbonation, before bottling became the norm, was probably low. Alcohol levels were also much lower, because farmhouse ale was largely brewed as sustenance for farmhands working the fields.

In fact, the primary common thread between historic and contemporary saisons is the reliance on a highly-attenuative yeast strains to result in a low terminal gravity; saisons, whatever else they are, should be dry and refreshing. But what started out as a style closely related to lambic is now almost universally fermented by a culture of brewer's yeast, and usually packs a heavy ABV punch. That these strains have been isolated from European saison brewers gives them credibility, but isn't going to match what historic saisons once were. Even allowing for the fact that saisons were varied and open-ended, the general loss of some of their most widespread qualities in modern examples sounds to me like we've basically redefined the baseline of what the style is, to a degree that would cause uproar if done with, say, an American gueuze.

Though it's not on the sour spectrum and its funk is not too extreme, even Saison Dupont still contains a mix of microbes — White Labs found as many 5 different cultures, and other brewers I have talked to (who have done their own culturing) report the same findings. One strain within the Dupont culture seems to lend the vast majority of the character to the beer, however, so this is strain was selected as the "Dupont strain." But does an ecosystem really function the same way when seemingly-vestigial organisms are dropped?

For as fettishistic as brewers are about the purity of other styles, the use of the term 'lambic' or the blasphemy of calling something a 'Black IPA,' I find it little funny that this reincarnation of the saison slipped through without judgement. Especially when Farmhouse Ales probably inspired it, though the book goes to great lengths describing the beer as very different from how most of us are brewing it.

I don't want to sound like I'm just pooping on American saisons (though I would definitely like to start seeing much weirder, funkier, tartier saisons), because it's a style that I (mostly) love regardless of how it's interpreted. To be clear, this is an issue of semantics, not quality. If you brew a monoculture-fermented, moderately hopped, highly carbonated golden ale and call it a saison, you're not doing anything wrong. It is a saison. That's my whole point: we changed what the style it is. Styles are the Matrix, and we are all Neo, #MINDBLOWN #INCEPTIONSOUND

So back to my overall point of brewing to style: how much can it mean when we keep changing what those very styles are? You could run through this whole thing with almost any 'historic' style. Last year I went through this with India Pale Ale: historic IPA, [contemporary] English IPA, and American IPA are all three pretty different things, which makes the sudden proliferation of IPA sub-styles seem a little less ridiculous. I mean, still a little ridiculous in terms of marketing and bandwagoning, but slightly less so.

Everything has basically been tried by someone before and yet everything is new and ever-changing. I'll leave it to future generations to argue about what to call their THC-infused quintuple IPA brewed by a matrix of self-pitching nano-yeast, growler-filtered via cross-secting dubstep vibrational frequencies. I will yell at them to get off my lawn and continue listening to Led Zeppelin.

Taste trumps semantics. I just want my beer to be weird and interesting and tasty and refreshing.

.... Okay, maybe all I'm really saying here is, if I ever have kids, I want them to grow up having very strong opinions about the microbial content of saisons.


  1. We discussed this once on HBT, and I see our opinions are each unchanged. A saison is as themadfermentationist said, "a beer brewed with a saison yeast," which to me implies that it doesn't have Brett, Pedio or a notable lacto presence. Whatever you want to do with grains, hops, spices, etc is fine, so long as the saison yeast is the star of the show. Brett tends to dominate any beer it's in.

    We're in agreement that the styles are useful guideposts, but that the establishment definitions for saison are ridiculously narrow. The BJCP's style guidelines might as well read "Dupont" and move on to the next category. I actually don't really like Dupont all that much--this may be largely a green bottle issue--but I love what its yeast can do to my beers, and I love how wide-open the style is, at least by my definition. You had suggested making saison one of several styles under a broader "Farmhouse" umbrella that would also cover Brett and Sour Saisons. I support this idea.

    1. I don't think we're actually in disagreement. My point is kind of that, as you stated, a saison is now defined as "a beer brewed with saison yeast" and that's pretty much the main requirement. But historically that simply wasn't the case, and Brett (and lacto) were almost always components of these beers, as Farmhouse Ales explores in detail. So my takeaway is simply that beer styles are whatever we define them as at the time, and not set in stone eternally. Nothing wrong with that in either case!

    2. Well historically most beers were not a pure culture. Most beers probably would have had some type of bacterial or wild yeast contamination. Take Old Ale for example. How often do find an Old Ale with any acidic component?

      I do agree that style guidelines are useful to give you an idea of what to expect, but should not be the defining characteristic of the beer itself. When I brew I usually come up with a "style" that I want to drink and then adjust it to my taste.

    3. To me, "a beer brewed with saison yeast" is the definition of a saison. The saison yeast should be the star of the show, but beyond that, almost anything goes. The BJCP has a much narrower deinition. Yours is much broader. But if Bill Clinton can say "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," then all three of us can be right simultaneously.

      Most styles do a pretty good job of describing beers; unless you feel that most beers do a pretty good job of fitting into existing styles. Saison is the one glaring exception, with Brett and Lacto beers being almost beyond characterization in many cases, even if they have historical precedent on their side. I think all of us on the thread are for using styles as a shorthand description of a beer, not as a set of rules we have to follow. A lot of the fun of homebrewing comes from brewing something you can't buy.

  2. Good read Derek & some really great points. I don't find it surprising at all though, the evolution of these styles. It may sound ridiculous, but beer styles, to me, take on a life of their own. These styles evolve over time based on the conditions in the environment, as you say with the examples of scientific innovation and understanding, process development, war, legislation, economic influences, etc. Generations modify styles to best suite their needs at the time for whatever purposes, whether it be economic or taste preference. To me, styles are the name to a story... of what the beer once was and where it is going. I think we are lucky to live in a time of so much rapid change and evolution in the brewing world. I can tell you - you, I, and probably most readers of this blog will be lifelong students of the art & science of brewing & it will be interesting to see where things stand 50 years from now as I bet we will still be keeping tabs on the industry.

    P.S. I like the way Modern Times & Sixpoint label their cans with descriptors. Sixpoint gets a little more nerdy with SRM, IBU, Ale/Lager.. but both do a good job of describing the beer while letting the consumer categorize the style.

  3. I'm usually all for contrarian viewpoints like these (i.e, getting rid of labels), and you make some interesting arguments, but I'd like to disagree just for the sake of discussion.

    For me, the styles are indeed a guidepost (as I'm relatively new to craft drinking and brewing), but more importantly they serve as lens to interpret the beer through.

    I'll make some broad analogies with the music world (something I have a little more experience with), as I often see the two as closely connected. Genre's serve well as guideposts to a novice listener (or at least someone new to a particular style), b/c it helps you contemplate as aspect of the music you might otherwise overlook at first...

    ...and of course, there comes a point when squeezing something into a particular genre is a little forced, limiting, and exhausting....which I think is the crux of your argument...

    ....but the thing I love most about music is reinterpretation of an old style, and sometimes the "genre" acts more like a lens to view the artist through, and really sets off these reinterpretations.

    I grew up listening to heavy music, yet some of my favorite bands today (Neurosis, Faith No More) that would still fall under this classification have stripped away many of the typical 'metal' aspects of their sound, and replaced them with elements like clean guitars, trip-hop beats, long droning rhythms, etc.

    I love contemplating how THOSE aspects might be viewed as "heavy" in some deeper way I haven't thought of before (emotionally, sonically, creatively, etc).

    And the future and the past certainly feed off each other. I'd find it just as interesting checking out the creative turn that resulted in the "black IPA" as I would checking out some of the 'historic' ones you mentioned, and see how they interpret the few common traits they share as part of the style.

    Its evolution fostering both creativity, as well as an appreciation of what came before.


Related Posts-