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What’s in a name? Common language and beer

Now that our TTB application is in and the majority of our equipment has arrived, it’s back to another stretch of little news from Camp CBW. Such is the ebb and flow of starting a brewery, I’m afraid. Fret not! It means that we can get back to some topics I first brought up late last year in Fun With Shouting About English IPAs. This week we’ll delve a bit more into the subject of whether or not the beer we now know as English IPA not having always been called that actually matters. In doing so, I may question the very foundation of American Beer Geekery!

Well, I probably won’t, at least if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

The heart of the matter is to ask what’s in a name. Does an English IPA necessarily have to be called that? It was, as I’ve shown, formerly called pale ale, or pale ale brewed for India, or pale India ale. So? Does that matter?

In this case, not so much, obviously: not unless you’re doing a keyword search of archives and are looking only for items with the phrase ‘India pale ale’ in it. In which case, well, you’re doing it wrong. But hey: I’m a librarian. It’s my job to be snippy about your poor search strategy.

If Deschutes says it it HAS to be true!

More timely is the case of the Cascadian Dark Ale. If you’re in Buffalo and aren’t a homebrewer, this may be the first you’ve heard of the style. If you’re in Oregon then you’re currently derisively curling your lip up at us, because of course that’s a real style. It’s also been called a Black IPA, or any number of other names: it’s dark and hoppy, but too hoppy or not malty enough to be considered an American Brown. Brewers in the Pacific Northwest have evidently been brewing beers similar to this for years, now, though the first I had heard of it was a year or two ago, and I’m still not sure I’ve had an example of the style.

Hey, I’ve never been west of Chicago, okay?

So we have a beer called a Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA), or Black IPA, or what have you: does it need to be its own style? Why do we have styles at all if new ones come in, and old ones change? (But more on that last bit in our next installment)

We have beer styles, frankly, so that we can have a common language. No one, including us, has tasted the Community Beer Works Unnamed American Pale Ale: it hasn’t been brewed yet. Rudy is still hard at work testing recipe variations, and so even if you were to taste an APA brewed by one of us it wouldn’t taste exactly like whatever it is that finally goes on tap.

It will be close, though. We have beer styles because I can tell you we’ll be making an APA and you immediately know roughly what it will taste like. It won’t be overly malty, or thick and chewy, or brown and opaque. There will be hops, but they won’t be dicks about it, coating your tongue and rubbing bitter sandpaper into your tastebuds. If you are reading this site, you’ve had an APA. (Lest you claim this makes us boring, we’ll also be making a saison, which most of you have also probably had, and I wonder if your mouth waters as mine does)

So, we define styles so that someone can tell you about a beer you’ve never had and you can have a reasonable idea of what it will be like. The same goes for descriptors like malty, hoppy, bready, bretty, dark fruits, what have you: the styles are sort of shortcuts in the way that you could say ‘seasoned ground beef, tortillas, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream’ or ‘tacos.’

Beer styles: they’re awesome! End of post. Right? Well…

Is a beer a Northern English Brown or a Southern? What’s the difference between a porter and a stout? How hoppy can an APA get before it’s an IPA?

All of the above are good ways to start a friendly argument at a bar, or to read deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole until your head hurts. There are style guidelines: homebrewers use the BJCP, professional brewers the Brewers Association guide and I suppose some people might use rubrics from outside of the United States but they’re obviously terrorists.

By my count (and I might be wrong; it’s getting late) there are 141 distinct styles in the 2011 Brewers Association guidelines. 141. The rest of the world laughs at us about that, if that matters to you. I would tend to agree that the number is a little high, and that maybe somewhere we could consolidate American Style Pale Ale, American Style Strong Pale Ale, American Style India Pale Ale and Imperial or Double India Pale Ale. Just a thought.

Surely, though, there’s some middle ground between 141 kinds of beer and the light beer/dark beer dichotomy many people seem to believe. Variation is good. Experimentation is good. Minutiae is really fun to quibble about.

Oh christ NO Ron Pattinson RON not Robert beer not sparkles

I’m not suggesting that the BA drastically overhaul their styles. The Brewers Association can do what the Brewers Association wants to do. I do think it’s important, however, that when people discuss the very legitimate and necessary topic of beer styles that they not treat them as Holy Scripture handed down from upon high to Charlie Pope Azian (that’s a pun, that is). Not that anyone I know personally has ever done such a thing, of course.

The same goes for me. Who am I? I’m just zis guy, you know? A commonly accepted and controlled vocabulary is beneficial, if not necessary, when discussing a complicated field. With globalization and the internet and cybertubes and etherwacks and all this newfangled gobbledygoop, we’re seeing far more cross-cultural idea exchange than there ever used to be. British people had British styles and German people had German styles and the twain would meet but not in the way they do now. Of course there are more beer styles than back in your day, and I’ll stay off your lawn and not pretend that adding coffee or chocolate to beer is some magical revelation that makes me an artistic genius worthy of never ending praise and devotion. Okay?

Since I’m just a dude, what do you think? I would hope we could all agree on the need for at least basic beer styles, but where do you draw the line? Or is there no line? Nothing is true, everything is permitted? All beers are their own styles unto themselves, complete with their own style guidelines and a paragraph on the back of each one?