Friday, 5 October 2007

Style evolution

Beer styles are not fixed. They evolve and mutate over time in reponse to fiscal, economic and technological changes in the society around them.

You may have noticed that I'm quite interested in the history of British beer styles. That's why I spend so much time fiddling around with old documents. No-one else can be arsed to do it, so it's up to me to do the research.

English IPA
A common complaint is that modern British IPA's aren't true to style. That brewers have just pinned the name onto an ordinary Bitter. IPA should be a strong hoppy beer, the argument goes.

Like other British styles, IPA has changed considerably over time. In the the 19th century it was 6% ABV or more. Which would make it a strong beer today. But hang on, let's have a look at some other styles in that period. Mild was between 5.5% and 8% ABV and Guinness 7.5% ABV. All British styles are far weaker than they were 150 years ago. IPA is no exception. But in the 19th century, not only was IPA not a strong beer it was actually one of the weakest beers. Its relative psoition in the hierarchy of beers strengths is little changed today.



Take a look in the table. It shows Whitbread Ales for the period 1881-1933. Only two beers were brewed throughout the whole period: X, the standard Mild, and PA, Bitter. IPA only appeared in 1901, when it was slightly weaker than X and considerably weaker than PA. By 1933, IPA was still a good bit lower in gravity than PA but had nosed in front of X. Between 1901 and 1933 the gravity of X dropped 46%, of PA 25% and of IPA 36%. In other words, the decline in IPA gravity was roughly average.

Let's look at the situation today. Mild averages around 1034, Best Bitter around 1042 and ordinary Bitter around 1037. If it were still brewed, you would expect Whitbread IPA to be about 1035. I would argue that a modern IPA's that are around 1037-38 are actually stronger than they should be.

So have brewers deliberately brewed beers that aren't right for the style? One thing's worth considering: beers like Greene King IPA wasn't invented yesterday. It's been around for an awfully long time.

It makes me smile when people accuse Greene King IPA of not being an authentic IPA. In my opinion it is. It's true to the style as it has been brewed in Britain for about 100 years. It's not an authentic 19th-century style IPA. But if you judge British beers by this criterion, then the only authentic beers brewed in Britain are Harvey's Imperial Stout, Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, Hardy Ale and Whitbread Gold Label.

Why insist that IPA be brewed like it was in 1850 but not other styles? It would be equally true to say that Guinness isn't an authentic Extra Stout, that Young's isn't an authentic Bitter and that Bateman's isn't an authentic Mild.

I could equally argue that American IPA's aren't authentic because they are too bitter, use the wrong sort of hops and aren't attenuated enough. That's if I were to decide that the 1850's English version of IPA is the "authentic" one. But of course that's a ridiculous basis for criticising beers.

22 comments:

Josquin said...

Once again, bravo, Ron. I don't know how it is in the U.K., but in the U.S., people generally seem to have this mindless, moth-to-light-bulb attraction to anything deemed "authentic" or "the original." You see this in the homebrewing world, in which the world's brewing traditions have been reduced to sets of specifications. At best, these "styles" represent mere snapshots of historically dynamic brewing practices that are shaped by all of the forces you mentioned at the beginning of your post (I would add climate, politics, and culture). The brewing industry (particularly small brewers) would benefit greatly if this understanding of beer were more broadly embraced and if the more common conception of styles were less dominant.

Stonch said...

Fantastic. A cast iron argument, that exposes yet more conventional wisdom as being totally wrong headed.

Ron Pattinson said...

josquin, one of my biggest problems with rigid guidelines is the dynamic nature of styles "out in the wild".

One of the first things I noticed when I started looking back into the past was not only how different beers were from now, but how quickly they had changed.

The last 50 years has been one of the most stable periods for British ales. Yet there have been noticeable changes even within my drinking lifetime (about 35 years).

You can pick anything you like as being "authentic". Look at Porter - depending on which date you select you can choose a gravity between 1027 and 1071.

The loose European view of beer styles copes with change much better than that of the bjcp. What would the bjcp have done during a period of rapid change like WW I?

Josquin said...

I don't know what the BJCP would have done then, but I suspect that they would have been most dogmatic about it. I get the sense that some people have the strong need for little boxes within which to think and understand the world.

Ron Pattinson said...

Josquin, I used to be just as dogmatic as the bjcp. Research was a revelation. Especially when I didn't find what I expected.

One day, I hope to write a definitive history of Porter. That was what prompted me to start diving into the archive in the first place. But there's so much more to investigate. I keep getting distracted.

My real aim is to make more real facts available. I don't want to come up with all the answers, just provide material for informed debate.

Stonch said...

As you can see, though, some people don't want to see the facts: http://beeradvocate.com/forum/read/1110520#1110701

Josquin said...

Stonch, of course they don't. As best as I can tell, the ones who are being so defensive are U.S. homebrewers. Those guys have probably invested tons of time and energy into mastering the BJCP, and they aren't going to let go of it lightly. Unfortunately, sometimes there's more at stake for people than truth. There's also the sense that what one does is worthwhile and significant.

Stonch said...

Yes, with some people it's all about their personal belief systems. It doesn't matter what the subject matter is.

Never mind.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Ron , you screw me up. At one level I agree with you , your argument is strong and your method watertight. Still the low gravity IPA's just seem so wrong, its my problem not your arguments I realise but ...

terrycollmann said...

Rather "dirigiste" stance from Mr O over on Beer Advocado, I thought, especially from a man who only a week ago was telling a bunch of English brewers and beer writers about how he was maturing stout in ex-Jim Beam barrels - how authentic is that, fergawdsake? Anyway, I've stuck my beer historian oar in, under another of my too many pseudonyms, and I'm on your side, Ron ...

D W said...

In defense of the BJCP: those are style guidelines for homebrewing, NOT for brewing beer commercially. In order to judge how competent a brewer is at making beer, you have to have some guidelines drawn, and the BJCP folk have done what they could to delineate ranges for styles *as they tend to be today*. How else can you help amateur brewers to improve their technique and recipe formulation?

Ron Pattinson said...

D W zei, that's what they always say - they are just for homebrewers. Yet people keep applying the bjcp guidelines to commercial beers. The Brewers Association (the one for professional brewers) have style guidelines that are clones of the bjcp ones.

I need no style guideliunes to determine if a beer is any good or not. You don't even need strict style guidelines for competitions. The longest-running competition for professional brewers has very vague style definitions.

I agree with Brian of the Moonlight Brewery on the best way to learn how to brew a beer to a particular style. First you drink as many authentic examples of the style as you can. Then you try to reproduce them. When you can do that, you add your own personal twist on the style.

Reading the bjcp guidelines will not teach you how to brew a Mild. That's as a damning a comment as I can imagine.

Loren said...

"I agree with Brian of the Moonlight Brewery on the best way to learn how to brew a beer to a particular style. First you drink as many authentic examples of the style as you can. Then you try to reproduce them. When you can do that, you add your own personal twist on the style."

Brian doesn't brew for anyone but himself, mostly. And he doesn't enter his wares into competitions. If he did would he brew to any set style(s)? Maybe not...but with his talent I think he would fit a square peg in a round hole regardless.

Arguing styles is so much fun. Especially when someone overseas is arguing about US styles.

Why do you care?

:-)

Ron Pattinson said...

Loren, that's a paraphrase of what Brian said to me when I met him last year. His point was that a brewer's starting point should be real examples of a style, not a written description.

Arguing about US styles? I thought I was discussing British beer styles. They are all I know. I didn't realise you had styles in there in the US as well.

Loren said...

US styles? Bah...all brewers do here is take what everyone else has created and Double, Imperial or barrel age it into our own improvisations. Or brew silly, basic, by-the-books styles that you guys over there started in the first place. US brewers are just doing it better.

:-)

D W said...

"His point was that a brewer's starting point should be real examples of a style, not a written description."

And what's at the bottom of each style description in the BJCP guides? Yep -- the classic beers for that style. So a newbie homebrewer/brewer can drink these recommended benchmark beers to get a feel for the style that the BJCP describes.

Just because people "keep applying" BJCP guidelines to commercial beers doesn't make it appropriate, just like fat people wearing midriff-baring tops doesn't mean that was the intent.

And you can damn well brew a good mild AS THE STYLE EXISTS TODAY using the BJCP rules of thumb. Note that the BJCP does not produce recipes, only gravity, strength, color and bitterness ranges (based on commercial examples of the style) and an overall look/aroma/taste description. The BJCP guides are not supposed to teach you to brew a mild, so you're going to need a different damning statement.

Ron Pattinson said...

D W, I quote from the bjcp Mild description:

"Fruity esters moderate to none. Diacetyl and hop flavor low to none."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've had Milds with all of those flavours.

saison brewer said...

D W, I quote from the bjcp Mild description:

"Fruity esters moderate to none. Diacetyl and hop flavor low to none."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've had Milds with all of those flavours.

Ron, what's wrong? The way I read it, the guide says that diacetyl, esters and hop flavor exist in some milds but at lower thresh holds.

Ron Pattinson said...

saison brewer, what I mean is, I've had Milds with lots of those flavours.

My guess is that I've drunk more different Milds than all the bjcp guideline writers have between them. I spent the years 1975-1982 drinking almost nothing but Mild.

nextweek said...

Nice blog! There's some great stuff here.

I'm not actually sure I buy the argument of this post, so I'll go ahead and play devil's advocate and you can try to convince me I'm the devil. If I bread two german shepherds and call the result a lab, I've not really called it the right thing. Similarly, if I make a beer just like you make a bitter but I throw the label IPA on it, I'm not sure I've labeled it the right thing. While I agree that beers are simply weaker now than they were a century ago, I don't think that means IPA gets to bleed into the category that we've called "bitter" for so long. Maybe I'm ignoring important historical facts, but unless we want to collapse all pale ale together into a single style, it's hard to argue that these low gravity IPAs are, well, IPAs.

nextweek said...

Also, quick note on your final point about American IPA being inauthentic because they use the wrong hops: Bass used American hops in the 19th century.

Gavin said...

Here! here! I have noticed recently that Camra guidelines on style for the CBOB have pushed the strength of the Mild category up to 4.3 ABV. This is of course in keeping with the current trend of some brewers to produce stronger mild ales. Recently, a fellow drinker in my local commented that Adnam's Old Ale 4.1% was not a true old ale but a strong mild. Such a lack of historicity is all to common in the discussion of beer style. Another trend is to critasise pale ales as not being true to style because they are not the pale gold of a Camra defined Golden Ale or an American style pale ale. Conversly I suppose that such opinion is part of the process of change. That said a modern extra pale ale will always be just that, a late 20th Century- early 21st Century product, true to style in its place in time only.