Matters of style and taste

Modern beer debate has its scope aimed right between the eyes of “what is craft beer”. Anyone reading this will have seen the articles and probably have a formed opinion. My opinion is largely unchanged since 2012 and I don’t wish to add further.

I would like to question, however, why there is little debate focussed on what brewers are calling their beers and whether or not that is leading to confusion or inaccurately named beer styles.

I guess the biggest reason why that isn’t discussed as much is that:

what brewers are calling their beers and whether or not that is leading to confusion or inaccurately named beer styles

just ain’t as catchy.

Putting a style on your beer, be it IPA, APA, Stout or anything else, should signal intent to your customer base. Most people now expect IPA to mean America-style and saison to mean Saison Dupont. But why; and more to the point, should, that be the case?

Before we start unpacking those two terms, I should point out that I have no issue with either beers being labelled as such or the expectation that most modern drinkers have around those. To put it simply as possible: it’s good to have a name for things; but the reason I’ve chosen these styles as an example is they are quite a long way from their forefathers.

Once upon a time, saison simply meant a seasonal beer. Fermented for the warm summer months in a farmhouse/barn it was likely to contain some wild yeast, or at least strains of yeast unique to their place. The expectation for a modern saison is quite different. While drinkers are increasingly tolerant of variations with wild or unique yeast it is usually labelled accordingly with most people expecting anything labelled saison to be more in line with a Saison Dupont than a bretty or lactic beer.

So that begs the question, does a beer brewed in a stainless steel modern brewhouse using a cultured yeast strain, probably bought off the internet, truly reflect what a saison started out as?

That being not so much a style but rather an approach.  Once you lose the farmhouse, the unique yeast, and more importantly the seasonal nature, are you really left with a saison?

Two recent blog-posts have focussed on the word “Farmhouse” and what it means to the modern beer world. One from Lars Garshol suggests Saison (and Biere de Garde) have been taken and modified from the world of farmhouse brewing to the world of commercial brewing. He points out the strong farmhouse traditions still alive in many parts of Europe.

The loss of some styles (like saison and bier de garde) to the commercial world, he argues, isn’t a loss of place or uniqueness but rather a gain for the drinkers who can now taste them, and he hopes that more styles can make that leap.

The second, from Food Republic, takes a look at what it means in the modern-American brewing world along with farmhouse vs farm breweries and their difference (including legal definitions for some states).  It’s interesting to get an American take on the issue but after reading that I’m still not really sure what it means for the beer in my glass. And to me that is the root of the issue.

The labels being discussed and debated still leave the drinker no-more the wiser, in many cases, as to what the beer is that they’ll be drinking. You could put a beer in front of me and tell me it’s a farmhouse ale and I probably couldn’t tell you the colour, let alone what I expect it to taste like. If you said it’s a saison, then I would have more of an idea based on the modern definition – but would be much happier if there was something a bit more unique than a cultured store-bought yeast strain.

Recently on the Good Beer Hunting podcast, Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead (currently the Ratebeer #1 ranked brewery) discussed his take on the issue and, to paraphrase, he doesn’t think beers not brewed on farms and in farmhouses should be labelled as saisons or farmhouse beers. He prefers to call his beers “Farmstead” made and instead focuses on clear descriptors for his beers rather than pre-defined styles.

Closer to home here in Australia, Ashley Huntington, owner, farmer and brewer of Two Metre Tall in Tasmania, has a very clear stance on the issue. He focusses on farm grown produce to be used in their farm-brewed beers and is experimenting with natural and wild yeast. He told me, when asked on the issue,

I despair the increasing use of “Saison” even more than I despair Australian brewers simply copying style monikers (and recipes, know-how & yeast) from other countries…. I am a Tasmanian farmer and, out of sheer respect, refuse to lazily bastardise their creativity, work and intellectual property for my own short-term profit!
Saison and farmhouse are obviously divisive terms, so let’s discuss IPA.

India Pale Ale is a pale ale that became associated with shipping beer to India at some point in history (I’m being intentionally vague here lest I feel the wrath of pedants determined to shout “MYTH” at any mention of IPA origins)

The association with hops is a close one and brewers at the time were using more hops in many export beers. Now, through the passages of time, the word India has come to indicate a beer with a more pronounced hop aroma.

The modern reimagination of the term in the USA is also debated somewhat, with Ballantine’s IPA leading the way for the style as a pre-cursor but-not-quite-a-modern-version. Then came beers such as Anchor Liberty, Sierra Nevada Pale (which have many hallmarks of the modern IPA, just not the label) and finally in, 1989 Bridgeport IPA. All displaying a hop-forward aroma and more pronounced bitterness than other beer styles.

From then until now there has been any number of styles getting the “India” treatment as India has become synonymous with “American style hopping”. The distinction does still exist, however, between an American and an English IPA. Beer drinkers would expect the latter to have less citrus and pine hop aroma, and more earthy and floral aroma with a bigger malt backbone and less bitterness. Also, some what counter-intuitively, given the history, most drinkers nowadays would expect English styles to be labelled as such with the American style being front and centre of modern beer.

And even within the term American IPA there are looser definitions around “West Coast” and “East Coast” IPA, and now even some calling to adopt the term “Vermont IPA”.

Here is where things get tricky (well, trickier).

Given the lineage and determination for brewers to apply ubiquitous style-labels to beers we end up with any number of bizarre combinations. It wouldn’t be unusual, for example, to have an Australian brewed, Belgo-West Coast-American-style India Pale Ale, made with only New Zealand hops and German malt.

The situation is laughably absurd when you look at it.

And that is ignoring the obvious “Black IPA” (Black India Pale Ale). While many have tried other names for the style, which combines dark roasted malt with modern American style-hopping, BIPA looks like it has stuck (although probably worth noting is that no one seems to care about the style any more…).

Personally I actually don’t hate the term India being a catch-all for hops. While we’ve arrived here via a round-about way, it actually signals the intent of the brewer quite reasonably.

However while I’m not convinced either way with saison, and am ok with India, there is another style being adopted into the lexicon that the beer world hasn’t quite agreed on yet.

Lambic…

Well, the beer-rest-of-the-world hasn’t agreed on a name.

Belgium, along with the European Union, have agreed to a name but that is for a specific thing. With the rest of the world finally cottoning on to, and making, soured ales; the name lambic is a tempting one to put on a beer.

The reason why “most” brewers shouldn’t call their soured beer a lambic is the style (along with Gueuze/Oude Gueuze) has “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” status. Not quite as serious as AOC protection for products such as Champagne or Roqufort cheese, but still an agreed legal-definition as to what “lambic” is.

By the definition, lambic needs to be a naturally cooled, spontaneously fermented beer, with specific final gravity, colour and bitterness (specifics can be found in the TSG application.) There is also a Belgian Royal Decree regarding the name which states it needs to have at least 30% unmalted wheat. While it isn’t bound by geography, like AOC protected products, it does still need to have the yeast strains Brettanomyces Bruxellenes and/or Lambicus. Two naturally occurring yeast strains named from Lambiek (a Belgian town) and Bruxelles (Brussels). Whether or not a brewer in Australia or the USA could pick up the same strains is something I don’t think anyone has looked at too in-depth. And whether or not if you just “inoculated” your brewhouse with it first by spraying it on the walls is probably a bit of a grey area. Considering Cantillon, seen to be the benchmark for many lambic styles, has done that very thing for their new building may suggest it’s ok?

There are also problems around the term “unblended lambic”.

It’s a name used by legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, Author and American Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian, and it’s even a category in the ubiquitous BJCP beer style guide (17D).

The problem with that is, while unblended lambic exists, it doesn’t “really” exist… if that makes sense.

I’m not the one to take you through the finer points but any beer lover with an interest should check out this amazing piece at how the term came about and why it isn’t the right term to use. 

While this all may seem a bit pedantic, the term lambic is one that portrays to the drinker something unique. Something unlike many other modern beers and something so special it has a royal decree, a High Council, and a European Union definition.  For me, I think that is worth protecting to some degree at least.

So what should brewers call their lambic-influenced-beers that don’t meet lambic requirements? No one is really sure and there are a few terms kicking round such as Sour Ale, Soured Ale, American Wild Ale (something I really hope we don’t adopt lest we end up with another American IPA situation), Wild Ale, Koelschip Ale (named for the large cooling vessels lambic brewers use), Coolship Ale (English translation) and a number of other terms.

And like lambic-influenced styles, there are a number of names for saison/farmhouse or India influenced beers outside of the accepted names discussed above. Often the names, such as “Pacific Ale” or “NZ Pale Ale” can give us a bit more insight into the brewer’s mindset or approach and as a consumer, I often prefer those labels over anything else. I don’t want to pick up an IPA and be disappointed that it doesn’t really meet the definition of the style. I’d rather brewers told us their actual intent rather than putting a label on something that often doesn’t fit.  Or in the case of lambic, made sure they knew the history of the beer they were brewing.

It’s amazing to see how some beers have come to define the styles we now see as universally accepted. Saison Dupont and Bridgeport IPA didn’t exist until recent memory and now they are the definition of their style. The same can be said for Fullers ESB, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and even beers such as Budweiser and Fosters are listed in the BJCP as good example of a style.

If brewers keep ploughing forward putting the widely accepted taxonomy on things, we may end up losing the character that made those things special in the first place. And that may be much worse than missing out on a few sales by not having “India” or “lambic” on a label.

Alternatively, having that agreed taxonomy has definitely helped grow segments of the market or helped brands get those extra sales they needed to buy new tanks or build a new brewhouse.

Ultimately, I think it’s up to the brewer and what they personally think their beer should be called. Whether or not it is meaningful to their customers and more importantly, themselves.

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4 Responses

  1. India is a terrible term to indicate hop aroma.

    For new drinkers it makes no fucking sense. They have relate it to beers we drink today based on a fairy tale that we all tell ourselves about the thirsty British colonising India. Every craft brewer loves to tell you how genuine they are but they continue to tell us a story that at best is extremely embellished.

    We settle for India to describe anything hop-something. It doesn’t talk about the origin/type of hops, the processes around the hop farming, the use of hops in the brew process, type of aromas or the types of flavours.

    Why can’t we just improve the descriptors for these factors instead of a bad catch-all descriptor?

  1. April 11, 2015

    […] And, finally, a long piece on beer style descriptors from Luke Robertson we would have included in a round-up last week if we hadn’t been on holiday: ‘Most […]

  2. June 28, 2015

    […] I wrote this lengthy post about what constitutes a “saison” and soon after saw a mention of this beer on social media. I suggested “Saison Duval” […]

  3. December 10, 2015

    […] In Belgium and Germany,  where many of these styles originate, the styles are defined clearly based on process and ingredients and in the case of Lambic/Gueuze and Berliner Weisse have a legal definition within the EU (you can read my take on the naming of lambic and gueuze at the bottom here) […]

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