21 Oct 2010

Bloody styles

I like discussing styles. It's a very rich topic and it usually generates heated debate. Pete Brown the other day started the latest discussion when he published the first and, a day later, the last of the two posts he said he will ever write on the subject. He was followed by other bloggers like Mark Dredge, Velký Al, Stan Hieronymus and a few more that I haven't read yet. All, together with some of the people who commented in their posts, present more than interesting arguments.

As for me. Well, I consider myself a style anarchist, but at the same time, I think knowing your styles well is important for two kinds of people:
  • beginner brewers because it can help them know what to do with the ingredients and what the resulting beer should be like (something like a cookery book for those who are just starting)
  • judges and organisers of competitions, because style guidelines will help evaluations to be more objective and based on more concrete parameters. (of course, to me, competitions and their result are absolutely irrelevant, but that's another thing)
As for us, the consumers. Each person can have their own point of view. Personally, I care very, very little about styles. My purchases are based on more concrete factors like colour and ABV %. Of course, if indicated, the style on the label will help me know that Beer A, a Barley Wine, will be different than Beer B, a Doppelbock, even though both are strong dark beers. But that is based on personal experience, in the same way that I will know that a Cabernet Sauvignon won't be the same as a Pinot Noir.

And since I've mentioned wines...

In his second post, Pete Brown mentions "wine styles" with the purpose of illustrating his point about beer styles. This is something I've seen many times, drawing a parallel between types of wine and beer in order to prove in a straightforward way that our favourite drink also offers a wide range of possibilities.

And yet, the more I think about this comparison, the more flawed I find it. The main problem is that a varietal is not the same as a "style". Let me explain:

Let's say I have a few vines of Malbec in my backyard and that last year I made wine with their grapes. What I have now in my cellar is a Malbec 2009. Quite likely a very shitty Malbec 2009, but nobody, absolutely nobody can argue that this is not a wine made from Malbec grapes picked in 2009. And if I had also made wine from those grapes this year, I would be about to have a Malbec 2010, and so on until I get tired of it.

Now, imagine I have a few sacks of malt (say Pilsen, Munich and Chocolate) a bag with Saaz or Hellertau hops and a flask with a certain kind of lager yeast. Can anyone tell me what sort of beer I will have as a result? No, I still don't know it myself; and I won't until I have put together or chosen a recipe. And even then, I could say that my beer is a Dunkles and someone else, after an analysis, will say it's a Märzen, just like it happened to Gerardo Fiorotto with his wonderful Don Toto Barley Wine, which for a judge was actually an Old Ale.

Wine has it a lot easier, really. Anyone can understand that a Tempranillo 2007 will be different than a Shiraz 2009, they won't even need to drink them. Now, what is the difference between a Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale?

If we want to draw a good parallel between beer and wine (something quite difficult to begin with), then we should not do it by saying that something like Chardonnay is a style. If we keep on doing this we might fall in the same trap as this dude:
I'm one of those that believes that beer offers a wider range of possibilities to match with food than wine. But at the same time, I find the discussion about whether one is better than the other rather tiring and with very little sense, and the table you can see above is perhaps the worst argument in favour of any one of both drinks.

But back to beer styles. I know about them a lot more now than I did a couple of years ago, yet I don't think I enjoy my beer more now than I did back then.

Na Zdraví!

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9 comments:

  1. Even within the "wine style" thing, the name of the varietal is usually the dominant grape rather than the only grape.

    The only thing scarier than beer styles though is people waffling on certain websites that advocate the rating of beer based on said styles when they have no idea what they are talking about. In particular when you get someone describing a well made, authentic recipe Bohemian Pilsner as "hopped up Bud"! Has this person ever actually had a proper pilsner?

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  2. To your point at the end. I know a lot more about both brewing beer and styles than I did a few years before, and more than a few years before that, etc.

    Because I drink more than my share I may notice things others don't - this is not some inherent I skill I deserve a medal for, just a matter of experience. And because I've found out how some of those flavors and aromas ended up in the glass I may appreciate the beer more than I would otherwise.

    That's a good deal for me. In other words, I do enjoy the beer more. But not because of what I might have learned from some style guidelines.

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  3. It's also cheating to just list grape varieties and say they're the "styles" - as anyone who has even slightly dabbled in wine knows, South African Sauvignon Blanc, for example, will be pretty consistently different from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, South American ditto, and Pouilly Fume from France, all made from the same grape.

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  4. Al, when the BJCP or the BA have only one Czech style in their lists, then you have a recipe for trouble when rating something like polotmavý výčepní based on style.

    Martyn,

    That's partly the point I want to make with my hypothetical Malbec, and it's also why that chart above is so silly. If we wanted to say that grape varieties are styles, and even if we didn't consider regional differences, then that list should include ALL grape varieties and/or all D.O.C.'s and not just those this bloke was able to find at his local bottle shop, and then we would probably see that there are more "wine styles" than "beer styles". But that is a whole load of nonsense anyway.

    Stan,

    I think we are seeing things from a different perspective. When I started appreciating beer, i.e. when I started paying attention to what I had in my glass, I had almost no knowledge about styles (I would go as far as to say that I had never heard the phrase Imperial Stout, for example) and I had only a very, very basic knowledge of the brewing process. But I was able to realise that even beers that were in the same category were sometimes quite different from one another, I just didn't know why, but I knew those differences were there and I liked one beer better because it was "more/less this or that than another one". Since then, I've learnt a lot, and I'm still learning, but my reaction after drinking for the first time a really good beer is exactly the same as it was back then. The difference is that now I can understand why I liked it and that helps me be more discerning when buying, which is a great advantage, but it is something that is more the product of experience than anything else.

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  5. Max - I often bring up the one Czech pilsner (and one German pilsner) matter in conversation, but avoid writing about it because rather than cutting back on the number of Scottish ales (the difference being strength) or British Pale Ales we would end up with more categories. Maybe worth it for Czech pilsners, but still the continuation of a not-so-good trend.

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  6. Stan, I really like the Czech approach to "styles", which, actually are clearly defined categories. Czechs don't drink a Pils, they drink a světlý ležák, which is a pale lager with a plato of between 11 and 13° and there's absolutely no discussion on whether a particular světlý ležák is too bitter or not bitter enough for the "style".

    I just hope things will remain like that, at least for most beers. I would really hate to miss the fun of seeing something like Primátor 13% mentioned as a Vienna Lager a Märzen or even a Dunkles when not even has bothered to fit it into any particular style :)

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  7. What an awesome...awesome....subject matter to bring up! Really!

    I think people tend to get too caught up in styles, then things like loyalty towards a certain brew, arrogance towards other styles etc...

    I don't know why or how this has come about, and let's not forget the prejudices that some styles have recently seen cast upon them. For example, thanks to the big macro companies Pilsner are usually frowned upon and never really given a chance...yet there are great craft breweries such as Left Hand that are making some incredibly good Pilsner's right now.

    Then you have those that focus in on just one or two particular styles, call them their favorites, and end up shutting themselves off to everything else around them. I recently read a horrible blog post for a beer blogger that went on about how she would only drink IPA's because it's the only style that not served in "bitch glasses"...needless to say we had some words.

    In short, styles really should never beyond knowing what you're drinking, what you're in the current mood for if that presents itself, what to brew etc...

    Otherwise, try everything, all the time, and even if you prefer one style over the other (which we all typically do, myself included) don't back away from constantly trying everything out there and enjoying it all. You never know what you'll come upon. :)

    Again, great topic to bring up!

    Ilya

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  8. Ilya,

    I'm glad you like the topic. I agree with you that one should try everything (to which I would add, that, after some time, they should try again stuff they DIDN'T like). At the end of the day, though, most of us will stick to just a couple of styles (or kinds of beer, read piece on how this whole "style" thing came out) simply because we like them better. In my case it is světlý ležák and perhaps also tmavé and polotmavé, partly because it is the most readily available, but also because more often than not I simply want to "drink" a beer and not "taste" it, if you know what I mean.

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  9. Styles, just like something Simple,sometimes. Yesterday enjoyed Pictish Brewery,s, One Hop ( Polish ) " Marynka ", 4-5 abv.

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