Sunday, March 27, 2011

Black IPA and What Makes a Beer Style

A rising trend in modern craft brewing today is toward an ill-defined beer known as the black IPA, which breaks down into an American-style IPA brewed with darker malts not out of place in porters and stouts. Beginning with a disclaimer, I am not a fan of this trend as the citrusy, pine-resin bite of domestic hops does not sit well on my palate with the dark-roasted malts used in these beers.

However, many do enjoy this flavor combination, which is why brewers are so keen to rush into this brand-new beer style. But this only begs the question: Is black IPA truly a new style or just a variant of an existing category? What, if anything, defines a craft beer “style” as distinct and official? Can such discrete lines be drawn, or are beer styles a squishy continuum that can accommodate most anything used in a brew kettle?

The categorization of beer styles comes down to just two elements, those being ingredients and tradition. Note that prevalence nor popularity is mentioned at this point; neither should be considered in defining a beer style, especially a brand new one. A new style is a new style, whether brewed by one brewer or adopted across the country. The science of grouping beers into styles should be approached as objectively as the senses can allow.

A beer’s ingredients may seem to be the simple part of this formula, but this element is deceptively complicated. It is easy to enumerate the constituents of a craft beer, and not much more difficult to quantify each in turn. However, modern beer styles have been fairly complete and well-defined for decades now—some for centuries—and wedging a new style into the grid is (and should be) a struggle. If defining new styles were an easy task, we would be left with thousands instead of the hundred or so recognized today.

For example, the black IPA has ingredients that are distinct from the American IPA as well as ingredients that are separate from the robust porter, but does that meet the threshold of a new style? Does the flavor profile of the black IPA reside within one of these other styles? Might it be considered a hoppy porter instead, or an off-style mistake that is too dark to judge within the existing IPA guidelines? If “dark” makes a new IPA style, does “light” do the same if using pale pilsner malts? This latter equivalence should hold for both or neither.

More important than the actual ingredients is the tradition surrounding the beer itself. In this sense, popularity does matter but not in the same way as in modern beer-rating website status. Instead, tradition implies a regional origin and prevalence, something identifiable with a particular locale either for cultural or societal reasons. Does a beer have a unique backstory, or does it exist due to some exceptional local demand from consumers? Does the beer stand the test of time, or will the black IPA fade out of our consciousness in a few years?

This last criterion is probably the most critical, and what will ultimately determine if the nascent black IPA style is to be formally recognized. Like adopting words into the English lexicon or scientists evaluating new species, these professionals must make sure that new changes have some true and meaningful persistence, and not minor blips that fade into obscurity within a few years. If it does just this, the black IPA will be remembered as merely a twist on an existing beer style, not something distinct unto itself.

Without splitting hairs to the degree of substyles, varietals and the unending permutations that can be achieved with both classic and modern beer recipes, we must conclude that the black IPA is not a new and distinct beer style—at least, not yet. This subcategory of beer styles will have to be debated by both the brewing and consuming communities, and only years from now can the stylistic determination be made.

Update: Just this past January, the Brewers Association updated their 2011 guidelines to include the American-style Black Ale, but this has not yet been universally adopted.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing About Beer

A few recent comments and feedback received through this website have made accusations about me hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet for my unsupportable attacks against innocent craft brewers. Of course, I find such comments almost comical as I have never made any attempts to hide my identity or contact information, which are both easily available through some competent navigation of this page.

However, these objections do raise a somewhat valid point about beer-related content that is published online. With the advent of free blogs, blogging software and online social media, we find ourselves now saturated with craft beer content on all levels—the good and the bad, the interesting and the tedious and the ignorant, those we agree with and those we rail against. How should craft beer consumers choose whose efforts to spend time reading?

The first and primary requirement should not be about the brewing-centric content at all but about the quality of the writing. Craft beer consumers are quick to discount beers brewed with obvious flaws, or even those they simply consider mundane, yet week after week eagerly follow some absolutely horrible compositions that get posted online. The written language may be a dying art in our modern age, but it is still a skill to be practiced and perfected. Demand at least the same level of proficiency from your reading material as you would your own food and drink.

Another requirement of online substance should be originality. This online medium has made it too easy to repost and link to other meta-content rather than working to create one’s own. Too many beer blogs are not blogs at all but rather collections of connections to other material online, some news items and some of other beer blogs, and some not related to the brewing industry at all. A proper publication (even those online) should have a focus, and should be more than rambling content. If you demand original and distinctive in your craft beer choices, demand the same in your craft beer reading.

Naturally, those writing about craft beer should have at least some working knowledge of the brewing process, some knowledge of the industry and relevant ordinances, and some knowledge of how to properly evaluate the final product. Experts and amateurs alike find voices in online outlets, and both coexist on a stage that levels the grounds for the known and the unknown. Just as some extremely learned professional brewers are unable to compose a simple thesis, you also have talented amateurs that may never have entered a homebrew shop.

Perhaps the most problematic requirement regarding writing about beer is in its evaluation, as this seems the most widely prevalent theme chosen while being the most resistant to objective quantification. Many websites have sprouted that allow even casual users to compose a few lines about particular beers, and many participants choose to go beyond this and construct diaries online to journal their tasting notes. And when everyone’s palate and preferences are wide-ranging, how does one evaluate the evaluators?

Independent style guidelines do exist that are written and moderated by experienced committees both amateur and professional, and these are good as a starting point and as references. Ultimately, the value of someone’s craft beer review lies in their ability to adequately identify the ingredients, convey the flavors they can detect and support their impressions of said beer. A good evaluation should be less about whether you concur with the assessment and more about whether the author has effectively analyzed the beverage and effectually communicated that impression to the reader.

Whatever you choose to read online, regard it as intellectual consumption the same as popping a cap on a craft beer bottle is gastronomic consumption. The goal should not be to always read substance you agree with but instead authors that make you think and extend your opinion, understanding and appreciation of the world that is craft beer. And if you happen to learn something along the way, you are so much the better for it.