Styles = Schmiles

By Alan Moen

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 use whole fruit in the fermentation like Liefman's? (No.) Was it meant to emulate the style of the classic Lambic framboise beers? (No.) "Why then do you call it "Belgian" at all? "Because it's an ale, and we put raspberry juice in it," was the answer.

Why indeed? Such as casual approach to the naming of beers today is pretty typical in the craft brewing industry. I've had "hefeweizen" that tasted more like unfiltered Budweiser, "pale ale" that really was an amber lager, even "tripples" that had absolutely none of the malty, spicy character of their Belgian namesakes (even the Flemish of the name was misspelled, which should have tipped me off.) Just how dumb do these brewers think we are, anyway? If some current examples of these beers are any indication, the typical craft beer drinker doesn't 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. For most of us in the United States who were raised on bland, over-carbonated beers (the same could be said, by the way, for many beer drinkers in Australia, Asia, Latin America and even Europe), there is no continuing tradition of craft beer styles to base our taste upon. Brand loyalty has often been more dependent on good marketing and advertising than any real notion of what a given kind of beer should taste like. Even with the commendable devotion of some brewers to historical styles and an enthusiastic audience (albeit small) for the same, most people who drink beer drink what might better be called a beer substitute - and I'm not even talking about the "non-alcoholic beer" crowd.

The sad part of all this is that an appreciation of legitimate beer styles is fundamental to any kind of discussion of quality in the industry. How can anyone enjoy pale ale, for example, without a taste for hop bitterness and aroma in beer? And without an understanding of the aromas and flavors of Munich malt, any talk about Bock beers is nonsense. Of course, there will always be great beers that don't seem to fit any category we create; many of the classic styles, like Bohemian Pilsner or Irish dry stout, were actually born this way. But Mozart still shouldn't sound like Metallica. Creativity needs limits, just as a painting needs a frame.

It is interesting that Anheuser-Busch, the biggest brewing company in the world, has recently begun to produce its "Michelob Specialty Ales & Lagers," acknowledging the significance of the beer customer who buys as much for style as for brand. To me this is much like the tactics of Gallo, the giant California winery, that has only in the last few years began to produce true "varietal" wines made from at least 75% of the grapes for which they are named. Like the Michelob specialty beers, their products 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.

But styles should be guidelines, not formulas. 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 word or wort will do - only that, in the development of a style, there is an editing process that must be undertaken. I might argue with my publisher about the importance of a phrase as much as a brewer might make his case with a pub owner about using a certain hop in a beer (although brewers have a definite advantage: get the owner to drink enough of the latest "wort in progress", and agreement will probably come more easily.)

In our brewing, we should be careful to honor the others who have created the standards we seek to follow. Without Fuller's ESB or Pilsner Urquell to define a style, we make beverages, not beer. There is always room for variations on a theme, as long as we know what the tune is to begin with. Nobody wins when an IPA tastes more like Imposter Pale Ale.

© 1997 Alan Moen