The year is 1538. You’re a beer-conscious, yet weary soldier travelling in what is today rural Belgium. In the distance, you smell the familiar scent of beer being brewed at a local monastery and decide to head that way for some much needed respite.
You’re greeted by monks that welcome you with a glass of their freshly-brewed beer from a large oak cask. It’s dark in color, has a towering frothy head, and looks to be the perfect meal in a glass. All of the illustrious ingredients come from the monastery’s grounds, the grains malted and roasted to perfection onsite. Only recently were the hops hand-harvested.
While you glance at the glorious brew, one smiling monk saunters over, “Great crop this year!” You thank them and ask the smiling monk, “What do you call this divine beverage?”
“Ale. Our traditional monastic offering to God who, despite these dark times, gives us the glory of ale,” a monk replies.
“No, like, what style of ale is it?” you question.
The monks look puzzled as you sit there, refusing to take a sip until they answer your simple question. Another monk proudly states, “This has been brewed according to the recipe passed down generation after generation, with a single one of us knowing the recipe at a time.”
You’ve had every style of beer ever known. You’re beginning to get a little impatient with these beer novices. Inquiring further, you ask again, “Is it a Dubbel? Abbey Ale? Quadrupel? Brown? Stout? Barley wine? What are the IBUs?”
“Sir, I do apologize but we don’t know what any of that means. This is our monastery’s Traditional Ale,” the still smiling monk replies after conferring with his colleagues. Incredibly frustrated, you get up to leave. “A brewer should know their styles” is the advice you part with.
The full beer sits alone on the table as you begrudgingly exit the monastery, still thirsty.
Sure, I’ll bite. Our latest seasonal beer, Synthesizer, could be called a Belgian American Double India Pale Ale. It’s 8.21% alcohol by volume, has 76 International Bitterness Units, is brewed with Pacific NW Simcoe and Mosaic hops, and fermented with our seasonal Belgian yeast.
However, it’s brewed with oats, rye, and wheat in the mash, boiled long with late addition hops, then it’s dry hopped twice, all leading to a natural haziness common to en vogue New England Style India Pale Ales. So, you could call it a New England Style Belgian American Multigrain Double India Pale Ale and you’d be a bit closer to defining the beer in the glass.
So, a particularly good question from someone who just ordered this lovely brew would be: “Well, what is an India Pale Ale then?”
“Oh, I kind of glossed over that part, didn’t I?” I’d say. “Well, you see, during colonial times, the British used to send casks of beer brewed in Great Britain to their troops in India. To survive the long journey by boat, the brewers would use more malt and hops in the brew to preserve the beer, thus creating the India Pale Ale style.” I go on more about the specific characteristics of British hops, malts, and yeast before I’m cut off.
“Wait, I’m confused. What’s a Pale Ale then?”
“Damn. I guess I kinda glossed over that part too, huh? A Pale Ale is a traditional British beer style that’s made from pale malts, English hops, and is lower in alcohol and bitterness than its India Pale Ale counterpart.” I go on about the historical similarities of the style, the famous brands that fit these style guidelines, and launch into the history of India pale ales vs. pale ales vs. milds and bitters before I’m cut off.
“So why doesn’t it say British India Pale Ale in the style? Also, what makes it double? And American, for that matter?”
Pandora’s box has been opened. Modern American styles have completely decimated our understanding of traditional styles – so how do I explain this concisely?
We’re not even close to the end of this discussion and the glass of beer that I poured has now lost its head. It’s warmed up a good 15 degrees, losing many of its fresh hop flavors and its carbonation. It’s a totally different beer now than what was fresh poured. This, sadly, is not my intent as a brewer.
And, finally, we arrive at my point: beer styles do not matter. I would argue that historically they have never mattered. They have always been in flux. Styles have always been snapshots in time, informed by the past and looking to the future – and that’s only referring to when beer became categorized into styles in the past few centuries. The moment a new trend comes along in brewing, so too do new styles that branch off into new trends, to new styles, to new trends, to new styles ad infantum. Our concept of beer is ever-evolving and it’s the brewer’s task to be pushing boundaries to find characteristics not yet found in other beers – and thus potentially the entire history of beer.
To categorize a beer brewed today while encompassing the past styles that influenced it gets us into a history lesson that, while interesting, doesn’t actually encompass the flavor, ingredients, and intent of the Brewer who made it today. For instance, the modern American IPA is laughably unsimilar to the original IPA, and is easily the most diverse beer in appearance, flavor, and aroma across the world’s brewers who make it. Yet we carry on the 3 letter moniker despite its irrelevance in defining the beer in the glass.
To keep it PG, I just say phooey to all that nonsense. Hence our beer menu – I want you to define our beers by tasting them, no matter your beer knowledge.
So, sure, you can call our newest brew a New England Style Belgian American Multigrain Double India Style British Pale Ale and you’d be close to defining it, if you care to know what all those words mean.
just call it Synthesizer.
Lastly, and most importantly: I really hope you enjoy it. That’s why I brewed it!