Wednesday 11 August 2010

The Origins and Fashions of Style

I’ve been reading a lot about style recently, in particular in relation to Michael Jackson. I’m interested in how they developed, where they came from, who drinks them and how they evolve and change. Thinking about this I was reminded of a post written by Brian Hunt, from Moonlight Brewing Co., on Mario Rubio’s Hoppress blog. Brian wonders what things might have been like if barley was native to the US and not the Middle East. He asks what pilsners would be without Pilsen, what IPA would be without Britain, how different lambics might be now. Instead he supposes that these beers might have originated in the US in what is a wonderful the-US-is-the-centre-of-the-universe type idea, but it’s still an interesting thought:
The World Book of Beer would’ve been written about the delicate beers of Denver, the hoppy ales of Seattle, Steam beers of San Francisco, roasted beers of New York, herbed beers of Ann Arbor, wheat beers of Kansas, Spruce beers of Alaska, sour cherry beers of the Columbia River Valley, Rye beers of Fargo, and on and on.
On the back of this Jon Abernathy posted about indigenous US beer styles – California Common, Pumpkin Ale, Wild Ales, Light Lager, American-prefixed Everythings (an Americanization of established styles by adding loads of American hops) and Imperial Everythings.

Many styles are - at least in their origin - inextricably linked to place, the beers the people there wanted to drink and to the ingredients readily available where they came from: Burton ales and Pilsners are famous because of the local water, lambics get their unique flavour from the airborne yeasts in the Pajottenland region, American IPAs get their huge fruity bitterness by being stuffed with American hops. This then flicks the switch in my mind to the beers styles which are uniquely British - pale ale, mild, bitter, porter, stout and barley wine, among others. Why did these styles develop and last in Britain? What do these styles say about Brits? Every American brewery needs a great IPA to stand out as their flagship beer but what’s the British equivalent that they need in their range? Best bitter, pale ale?

The globalisation of beers and styles, plus the ready availability of different ingredients, means that any beer can now be brewed anywhere. The origin of a style is telling of the time and area it first came from, while the developments it goes through show the current drinking fashions (look at India Pale Ale 200 years ago, then look at it 100 years ago, 50 years ago, then when it was adopted by the US, when North West hops were added freely, then it went Imperial, then Belgium found them, then back in the US it went Black...). It’s easy to look around now and see that we have British lagers, Belgian IPAs, Italian wild beers and American saisons, styles which have evolved and changed to suit different tastes and influences. It’s also good to look back sometimes too, to understand where they came from as there’s often a great story at its core. The origin of a beer style, whether it’s 2,000 years old or just two, is a fascinating insight into people (brewers and drinkers) and place at different times in history. How important is place to a style, old or new? How telling is the fashion when it comes to style? What styles will be next to get the US treatment or even the British touch? London lambic? Sheffield saison? American mild?

Image from This post asks more questions than it answers and that's the point - I think style is a really interesting subject and it's something I'm trying to understand better and wrap my brain around. This is more a train of thought post than anything else.


  1. Styles is something that I have been thinking about as well and recently did a post on my blog about beer styles and the part they play in homebrewing. It is a subject with many differing opinions, but is an enjoyable one to dissect over a beer. Blog post is here:

    In Ireland we have a good few new microbreweries and they all seem to be focussing firstly on the Irish styles (red ales and dry stouts) but there are some exceptions. The Galway Hooker Brewery produces what they call an Irish Pale Ale which is very good.

  2. Don't forget the role "social factors" can play. Such as taxes - leading, for instance, to the crazy mashing regimens in Belgium in the 19th century. Or, in the case of the U.S., Prohibition.

  3. Another big influence in style development in the UK were the First and Second World Wars - taxes and shortages of grain (as well as the ongoing consideration for profit and costs) did for faltering styles that were already in decline, and dramatically changed others.

    With the British beer styles, just look what we're left with now - Stouts that are often weaker than porter and with generally different flavour profiles (instead of being "stout porter" which is where the phrase probably developed); milds are now generally 1030-odd instead of 1060-odd; and there's that "IPA" made by Greene King...

  4. The more fundamental question, Mark, may be over whether style even matters anymore. The BA has greatly surpassed 100 styles, including "American-Belgo Style Dark Ales," whatever the hell they are, and "Session Beers," a style category that precludes the very styles which define session beer, like mild and bitter. Styles such as dry stout and pale ale and pilsner still help novices understand beer, but really, "American-Belgo Style Dark Ale"?

    Another question: Have you ever seen the phrase "Belgian IPA" on a beer actually brewed in Belgium?

  5. They used to say that the French drink wine and the English write about it. Style guidelines are the same sort of codifying and it's important to realise that they're an interpreted model of reality, not reality itself. Style guides are a bit like those songbooks with guitar tab for beginners. Really experienced musicians just play.

    You look at the European Beer Star categories and they categorise beer quite differently than the World Beer Cup, due to starting with a different cultural bias. Michael Jackson's work was a fairly good snapshot of what beer was like in the 1980s, but serious problems occur when people start extruding that snapshot backwards and forwards in time. Bitter hasn't always been brown, mild hasn't always been weak, etc.

    And brewers themselves will happily put anything on the label if it moves the beer. I've seen Harviestoun's Old Engine described on the label as "Dark Beer", "Black Ale", and "Porter" at different times.

    Personally, I don't even know what style some of my favourite beers are supposed to be.

  6. One thing that is clearly important in the development of beer styles is the use of local ingredients and not tampering with the local water source by stripping the minerals out and then putting stuff in to replicate the water profile of Burton, Plzen or wherever the beer style you are brewing is from.

    Water is at the very heart of why certain styles are linked to certain places, the hard water of London lead to Porter, the soft of Plzen to pilsner, they even said once upon a time that Munich would not be able to brew a pale beer because of the water.

    Perhaps I am being iconoclastic about this, but I would love to see more local beers being made that respect the nature of the water available, rather than breweries just churning out whatever happens to be the latest fad.

  7. I think beer styles today are a by-product of both style and place. IPA (plus variants) is the hot style at the moment. And because hop-forward beers are what everyone is currently excited about, in the UK we see hoppy beers filtered through the local sensibility of drinkable session ales - call them mid-Atlantic pales ales if you want.

    But it hasn't always been so. To use Michael Jackson's writing as an example, his Beer Companion (2nd ed., 1997) has a scant few pages (and some scattered references) on IPA, and that's it. Brown ale and kolsch get more coverage than IPA - hard to believe from the 'enlightened' hop-head age we know live in, isn't it?

    I'm not a style slave, but I like to be able to vaguely pigeonhole a beer, and usually it's not that difficult. I don't think a beer is better if it defies classification, but neither do I have a serious problem with a system that has over 100 style guidelines. Equally, I'd never use a points rating system for a beer, other than a binary one - do I want another of those, or not?

  8. Interesting comments...

    Stephen, good question about the Belgian IPA... I want to say Alvinne but I'm not sure. I do see your point about the relevance of style, especially as there are SO many, but I think for many (beers and people) a style is important. It's like anything - there's a desire for things to be labelled so we know exactly what they are.

    Barm, nice comments. It's a moveable playing field, always looking forwards and back, evolving. I find the whole tracking of styles fascinating to see how they change.

    Al, the trouble with the water is that not many places have the luxury of deep, natural water wells - if only! I get your point though - some of the most famous beers are famous because of the water at their base.

    Zak, I've got a post in-waiting about 'mid-Atlantic pale ales'. I hate that term... Anyway, IPA is the vogue right now, but what was it 10 years ago and what will it be in 10 years time? Will styles continue to develop (melding into one undefinable mess) or will they simplify. I quite like to know the style of what I'm drinking to see how the brewer has interpreted it, but at the same time I'm not a stickler to having to know and I will drink something with no knowledge of style because, like you say, the important thing is 'is it good?'

  9. Speaking as a scientist I would say that classifications should be there to help us and when they start to cause confusion they're a waste of time.

    So for example I can see 'Black IPA' as being useful, despite the daftness of it, because it gives you and idea of what you're going to get. I can't see 'American-Belgo Style Dark Ale' being much help to anyone.