Article By: Andy Crouch
From the earliest days of commercial brewing, consumers have relied on an informal patchwork of descriptions to differentiate the beers available to them. If one brewer’s beers were deemed too smoky, people knew and told one another. If another brewer had managed to produce a stable product capable of lasting an extra few days, it was worth telling your friends. As brewers experimented with different herbs and spices or different means of drying or heating malts, the flavors in their beers changed. Over centuries, with much taking place in the last 15O years, historians, writers and brewers have endeavored to capture and convey these differences in meaningful ways for consumers.
While styles were developed out of wondrous accident, others were born of necessity, and some through experimentation and tightly scripted production. Brewers have developed new beer styles from the earliest marriages of grain sugars and hidden airborne yeasts. In the modern age, the fruits of brewing devolve into two main groups: ales and lagers. For the sake of simplicity, ales are made with yeast strains that rise to the top of the fermentation container and require warmer temperatures during fermentation. The resulting flavors are generally fruity and high in esters. Representative examples include Porter, Stout, India Pale Ale, Barleywine, and Wheat beer. Lager beer yeast falls to the bottom of the fermentation vessel and benefits from lower temperatures. The resulting beers are typically clean and less estery and include Bock, Pilsener, Dunkel, and Dortmunder. In each of these families, dozens of individual, needy yeast strains demand very specific circumstances in order to produce the desired results.
In terms of beer guidelines, many beer drinkers have an enduring belief that the reason German beer is of such quality is due to a law protecting its character. This law, the Reinheitsgebot (literally translated as ‘purity regulation’ or ‘requirement’), created as a cross between a taxation law and a way to protect bakers’ ingredients, has long dominated the German beer scene. German brewers and drinkers alike proudly tout the regulation as singular proof that their brewers top everyone else. The history, meaning and practical effect of this historic regulation, however, are far from clear. In reality, the Purity Law is a convoluted, confounding and even antiquated idea – the intricacies of which even German brewers do not always seem to comprehend.
In contemplating the differences in beers from around the world, critics and historians eventually sought to better define them. The controversy stemming from this decision still rages today over how to classify the world of beer styles, with little agreement on all the specifics. While many less than comprehensive beer style lists have been suggested, the most widely accepted standards today stem from the works of the Brewers Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program, each of which draws heavily upon historical research and defining examples from world-class breweries. The Association’s present list contains nearly 15O different styles, each of which include a short description of the expected criteria for a properly styled beer: color, body style, aroma and taste flavors, hop bitterness and aroma levels, and ester levels. The guidelines also provide a mind-numbing array of statistical data, including the acceptable style ranges for the beer’s original gravity, final gravity, alcohol level, level of bitterness, and color.
While the style guidelines are intended to help give brewers guidance and historical perspective for the creation of their recipes and reviewers some objective criteria for the judging of beers, they offer little help to everyday consumers. And while you can certainly have some geeky fun with the numbers, all the average beer drinker requires is a passing knowledge of the differences between beer styles in order to better prepare themselves to find the right beer for themself.
In recent years, the conventional wisdom behind beer styles has started to take hits from new critics, including those who believe its underpinnings to be historically inaccurate and others who believe they restrict creativity and should be abandoned altogether. Some well-researched beer historians now contend that many of the classic narratives writers have been retelling for years, including the Three Threads tale of the invention of porter and the English practice of sending highly hopped pale ales to India (IPAs), are nothing but fictional, feel-good accounts that constitute pub trivia malarkey. While the history lessons surrounding the origins of beer styles and the specific parameters of early examples are interesting, they are perhaps less relevant than the agreed-upon modern representations. Accordingly, this touches upon history where it is relevant and reliable, but always strives to define styles in their modern context, in the way the majority of present day brewers, writers and drinkers understand them.
The more lively debate, however, can be found amongst the brewers themselves, with young, upstart brewers questioning the old guard’s affinity for convention and traditional practices. Led by a group of nihilistic radicals, this quiet rebellion seeks to overthrow the way brewers categorize their beers. These free-form brewers eschew traditional restriction and want to change the way people think about tasting beer. In focusing their scorn on the beer style guideposts most brewers use, this small band of brewers refuses to adhere to traditional style parameters in the brewing or labeling of its beers. These brewers have suggested that style guidelines place oppressive and arbitrary restraints on their boundless creativity.
While the nihilists quietly conspire around the fringes of the brewing world, traditional brewers remain steadfastly dedicated to promoting the importance of brewing within existing style network, which they note is pretty massive in scope. Regardless of who will eventually prevail in this debate, beer styles provide a necessary check on the beer industry, allowing consumers to judge a particular beer’s quality against similarly styled beers they have had. While pushing the envelope of beer is a defining characteristic of the American craft brewing revolution, so is respect for tradition. The constant push and pull between tradition and invention serves the industry and consumers well and we all get to benefit from the evolution and ever-changing nature of the American palate.
RETURNING TO TRIED AND TRUE BEERS FOR SPRING
The classic and popular Kölsch style hails from the brewing city of Cologne (‘Köln’ in German), on the Rhine River in Germany’s northwest corner. Still brewed at several locations in the city, the Kölsch (pronounced ‘kull-shh’ or ‘cool-shh’) style was eagerly adopted in the early days by craft brewers seeking to make an inviting crossover beer for flavor-wary customers. Most American varieties claiming to be of this delicate yet impressive style are usually lighter and less flavorful than those found in its home city. Possessing a light, radiant golden color and a sizable, well-sustained white head, true Kölsch beers maintain a subtle balance between dryness and sweetness, with soft but not cloying malts, and a touch of fruitiness that makes for one of the world’s most drinkable and refreshing styles.
alcohol content 5.O% ABV
Presenting with a dull straw color and a waifish off-white head, this Kölsch smells and tastes firmly of clean malt and a touch of grassy earth. The nose starts with a partially grainy blend of wheat and a floral and mildly spicy hop earthiness with a fleeting touch of lemon. The appropriately named Summer Beer’s taste is surprisingly hoppy at times, but never overpowering considering the style. An untoasted grain flavor melds with a slightly sweet hint but continues dry through to a drawn-out and pleasantly zesty and bitter finish.
COPPER HILL KÖLSCH
The Cambridge House Brew Pub
alcohol content 5.1% ABV
The Cambridge House seeks to bring top-notch ales to the otherwise beer desert of northern Connecticut. For new entrants to craft beer, Cambridge House suggests a bit of a bait-and-switch with its deceptively complex Kölsch. With a pale straw color, a moderate white head, and its clean and balanced aroma, Copper Hill looks innocuous enough. The flavor, however, distinguishes this beer from other attempts at the style. A light pale malt sweetness parades forward followed by a lightly fruity hop charge and finally a crisp crack of spicy hop bitterness, managing the rare achievement of accessibility and flavor-forward power, all at once.
At one point or another, it seems as if every American craft brewer sold an Amber beer of one form or another. Often treated by brewers as a catchall class of beers, encompassing everything from smooth, malty lagers to bitter, hoppy ales, the American Amber style described here focuses on balanced malt sweetness. These beers are differentiated from the Irish Red Ale and Vienna Lager styles by their use of American hops and less focus on continental European malt varieties. American Ambers can be ales or lagers, will range in color from light orange-amber to deep red in hue, generally medium bodied, with low to medium bitterness. The defining characteristic of the American Amber style is its dedication to toasted, caramel malt flavors. Some examples might posses light fruit hints, depending upon the hops used, but the sweet, biscuity malt flavor should predominate in a pleasant, smooth experience.
Otter Creek Brewing Company
alcohol content 5.4% ABV
A style bending beer from a stalwart New England brewery, Copper Ale presents with a glowing golden amber color and a sustained cap of white foam with tight carbonation. The aroma tends decisively towards a nuttier malt quality, with touches of caramel and toasted malt playing against predominating nutty tones. Despite its reliance upon caramel malt additions, the flavor is dry throughout and finishes long and dry on the palate. Sometimes advertised as an Alt beer, Copper Ale is a bit of a style hybrid that bridges several gaps but properly finds its home in the American Amber style.
CALICO AMBER ALE
Ballast Point Brewing Company
San Diego, California
alcohol content 5.O% ABV
Amber ales from the West Coast generally tend to offer a fast head fake towards the malty side before quickly defecting for hoppier pastures. Ballast Point’s offering chooses to showcase some American hops but not before giving long attention to its sweeter, maltier roots. Pouring with a radiant, deep reddish amber color and sustained off-white head, light citric notes mix with pale caramel malt tones, creating a playful toasted cotton candy sensation, rounded out by a light acidic tang. Fluent in both hop and malt dialects, Ballast Point’s brewers translate the aroma into a blend of toasted caramel malt sweetness with an overlap of subtle earthy bitterness for a quixotic and highly drinkable amber ale.
Another expansive category, Brown Ales encompass the classic English variety, which focuses on toffee, nutty and dark caramel malt flavors, and its slightly hoppier American descendent. The English variety dominated the early days of the craft beer movement before giving way to the stronger, maltier and hoppier American version. Brown Ales range in color from dark copper to deep brown with ruby hues, all with a normal level of head retention. The aroma is strongly of sweet, bready malts, with hints of chocolate, toasted malts and caramel. The Brown Ale’s classic silky flavor focuses entirely on the beauty of malt, from mild, sweet caramel to modest roasted hints, with color imparted by darker malts. American versions may veer into hoppier grounds but generally stay close to this tried-and-true formula.
Abita Brewing Company
Abita Springs, Louisiana
alcohol content 5.6% ABV
With its robust ruby brown frame and wheat, pillowy head, this unusually named Brown Ale emphasizes a touch more dark and roasted malts than your average, flabbier version of the style. Starting with coffee and dark chocolate notes mixed with a cashew nutty quality, a slight residual sweetness hides deep within the dry confines of this beer. Playing off its darker elements, the flavor corresponds to a roasted Stout crossed with a chocolate and caramel candy factory. The dry, nutty quality returns towards the end, smoothing out the edges and ushering in an easy, creamy finish, marked by traces of caramel malt sweetness.
HAZELNUT BROWN NECTAR
Rogue Ales Brewery
alcohol content 6.2% ABV
In a class by its own in terms of aromatics and flavor, Rogue’s all-encompassing entrant into the Brown Ale category has a roasted auburn color with a dense, creamy crown of foam. The aroma is where things start to get interesting, with an intriguing mixture of cocoa cream, vanilla, mild almond nuttiness, and caramel toffee. The flavor continues with an amaretto-like nutty quality over a creamy base, all with a light roasted malt character. Complex and curious, Hazelnut Brown keeps you guessing with each sip.