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The Hassles of Naming Beer

beer101logoOver the years I have spilled much cyber-ink over the issue of styles and the misappropriation of style names. I know I am not alone in my frustration at the confusion created by Alexander Keith’s and other such marketing misdirections. I often get asked why there aren’t any rules around the naming of beer like there are for wine. The answer, of course, is that beer is much more complex than wine and therefore eludes such simple classification. Wine can be identified by region and/or grape variety. Simple.

Beer is a mixture of ingredients and that what defines a particular style – flavoour, appearance, aroma – can be reproduced by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Thus beer styles have evolved from various historical and regional brewing traditions, but not the specific geographic area itself.

None of this is new to most readers of this website. What is newer is that my views on the matter are evolving. I used to rant and rave at how Mr. Keith was making a mockery of IPA – and I still grumble a great deal about it. However, I am starting to let go of my attachment to particular style names and their connotations. I am starting to come around to the opinion that we need flexibility in style naming to reflect the reality of what is going on in craft beer these days.

I expand upon this fledgling position in a recent Beer 101 column (which you can read here). As I indicate in the column, it is the growing popularity of White IPA that sparked my conversion. Now it is no secret I am a big fan of this new style, a Wibier-IPA hybrid. However, if we had the same kind of rigid naming system that wine has, how would be label this new creation? It couldn’t be called an IPA because it lacks the appearance of a true IPA. It is too hoppy to be Witbier, so that wouldn’t work either.

As it works out the moniker White IPA is the ideal solution. It is precise and simple. It accurately describes the beer’s characteristics. Only by allowing for flexible naming was such an elegant solution possible.

The second reason is what I perceive to be a growing tendency for beer geeks to narrow the range of acceptable interpretations for a style. It is particularly noticeable among the hoppier styles, such as IPA, Double IPA and Pale Ale. If a brewery makes a more balanced version, toning down the hops and allowing some malt to shine through, many drinkers are quick to dismiss it with the damning “this is no IPA!” accusation.

I experienced it just the other day at a pub regarding a stout, both of which I will leave unnamed. It was a dry stout with a nice roast but a relatively thin body. The patron next to me proclaimed “this is no stout!” and pushed away the sample. However, it very much was a stout. It had the right colour and an appropriate degree of roastiness. It was from a brewery who has a good reputation, suggesting to me this was an intentional design. They WANTED a lighter body and drier finish to it. Just because it was too light for the patron didn’t make it a non-stout.

That is why my opinion is shifting. I think we need to ensure breweries have the room they need to keep experimenting, exploring and re-interpreting styles. And if it means we get a spate of India Session Ales (a name of which I am not particularly fond), so be it.

This new flexibility does not let Mr. Keith and his brethren off the hook, however. Egregious and obvious attempts to mislead are still not remotely justified. I simply believe consumers are becoming smart enough to know when they are being duped.If your “IPA” tastes like Molson Canadian, you can be pretty certain it isn’t. We don’t need some elaborate system to verify the voracity of a brewery’s naming decision.

At least that is how I feel today. Ask me again in a few months.




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