MOVIES & BOOZE: Fancy a beer this weekend?

Dean McGuinness explores hybrid beers...

Our resident beer expert, Dean McGuinness, joins Sean Moncrieff to look at a number of hybrid beverages...

Beer Styles are meant to make things easier when it comes to craft beer. A beer style should help the beer drinker understand what to expect from the beer that they are about to try for the first time. There is no doubt that sometimes beer styles are excellent to help people in achieving this goal. There is also no doubt that sometimes people find beer styles confusing.

Things go a step further when we have ‘Hybrid Beer Styles’ – a ‘mash-up’ of different beer styles in the one beer. Our two beers today can be described as examples of ‘hybrid beer styles’. Our first beer – Brewhouse Steam Lager from Robinson’s Brewery in England – is an example of an interpretation of one of the original U.S. craft beer styles (Steam Lager – which is a hybrid style between the lager style family and the ale style family). Our second beer is an artistic interpretation of two more unusual styles. Urthel Saisonniere is a hybrid between Belgian Witbier and a Belgian Saison.

To-day, we are looking at what beer styles are, what they mean, how they are defined, and how all of this should translate into us understanding beers better. We will be taking all of thing information and translating it into an attempt to simplify the myriad of different craft beers that are out there.

The Emergence of Beer Styles –

Some people miss the days when ‘beer was simple’. There was ‘yellow stuff’, ‘black stuff’ and some people were adventurous enough to drink ‘red stuff’. Most of the ‘yellow stuff’ tasted pretty much the same (yet despite this, many people drinking the ‘yellow stuff’ could get into quite a tizzy if their particular brand of ‘yellow stuff’ wasn’t available. Things got violent if this was the situation with the person’s chosen brand of ‘black stuff’ – especially if the person was from Dublin or Cork).

People accepted that the choice was limited – after all, what you don’t know about can’t possibly hurt you!

Then craft beer came along, and everything got complicated! However, with all of this complication came the realisation that there were beers out there that tasted different. Now there was ‘yellow stuff’ that wasn’t just a bland mainstream lager – it might be a Strong Belgian Golden Ale; it might be a hoppy IPA; it might be a German Wheat Beer or a Belgian Witbier. With each of these possibilities came a variety of different flavours.

Craft beer lead (some) people to realise that there might be a beer out there that was (a) not available before, and (b) far tastier than any beer that they had tasted before.

Then lots of different craft beers came along. In their desire to be helpful, thousands of craft breweries springing up all across the world, brewed tens and hundreds of thousands of different beers between them. If people were looking for their perfect beer, and if (as the Monty Python people tell us) “We’re All IN-DI-VID-U-ALS”, then all of these craft breweries would make sure that they brewed so many different variants of different beers that beer drinkers would be guaranteed that their perfect beer would be out there – waiting for them – just as soon as they could find it!

However, just as happened with the internet, suddenly ‘having it all’ brought with it its own problems. It became impossible to ‘see the wood for the trees’. Just as the internet was meant to give us all access to any information that we wanted at the touch of a button, the fact that we had to wade through pages of porn and web-sites giving us Kim Kardashian’s top ten tips to ensure that your Celebrity Relationship lasts more than six months meant that we didn’t really get what we hoped for. Likewise, there are so many beers out there that sometimes people can’t find their perfect beer – simply because it is mixed in with so many different beers with which they are unfamiliar.

This is where beer styles come in.

Beer Styles –

Beer Styles should be the ‘Google’ of craft beer. By having a simple beer style somewhere on your bottle, this should come with it a wealth of understanding as to what type of beer is contained in the bottle. If the beer drinker knows that they don’t link strong, rich bodied beers that taste of coffee, chocolate, roast malt and with the possibility of dark fruit flavours, but they do like crisp, refreshing golden beers that have aromas and flavours of coriander, bright citrus fruit and have a zingy buzz of carbonation and a light body, then that beer drinker can steer away from Imperial Porters, and pick out their perfect beer from the range of Belgian Witbiers on offer.

The idea of beer styles was implicit in any writing about beer ever since beer was first brewed. Where a beer became popular, journalists writing about this beer wanted to communicate what was different about this beer. Where other breweries started to brew their own variation of this popular beer, they wanted to communicate that their beer was ‘just like that other popular beer, only better’. Naming the beer style as ‘Porter’ or ‘India Pale Ale’ or ‘Stout’ was a simple way of communicating to people that any given beer belonged in a certain family of beers.

Michael Jackson (the Beer Hunter) was credited with classifying the beers of Belgium in his excellent book ‘The Great Beers of Belgium’. Where Belgian brewers have long sought to express their individuality through their beers, Jackson did an excellent work of codifying and classifying the broad range of beers available in Belgium in such a way that people could understand what was available that little bit easier. Seeing how this made the country with possibly the most complicated range of beers available easier to understand encouraged others to classify and codify all styles available across all countries.

There are different organisations that put together definitions of craft beer styles. The most usual reason for this is to help people organise beer competitions define categories into which people can enter their beer in the competition. The Beer Judge Certification Programme (BJCP) has defined beer styles with a focus initially on homebrewing competitions (after all, much craft beer has grown out of the enthusiasm of home brewers). The Brewers’ Association (BA) also classified craft beer styles, with their classifications used in the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and other competitions. With collaboration work ongoing between home brewers and craft brewers, these two main classifications of beer styles are very much converging, with only small differences emerging between their different interpretations of the styles.

This classification of beer styles defines styles at two levels. ‘Style Families’ are broad groups of beer styles, with usually one defining characteristic qualifying these beers to belong to the style family. IPA’s are all about the hops. Stouts are black beers. Strong beers are (you guessed it) above average strength. Within these style families you can have a significant amount of variation, but should be comforted by the idea that all beers within this style family have this single characteristic in common.

Sub-styles tighten the definition of the beer style. Sub-styles take two or three or four (or more) different key characteristic, and require that the beer adheres to all of these characteristics to qualify for membership of the sub-style. An Imperial Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, for example, would require that the beer be a black beer (stout), brewed with oats as well as malted barley (Oatmeal), or above average strength (Imperial), brewed with ale yeast (implicit in ‘stout’) and with either a distinct flavour of chocolate in the beer from roasted grains or the use of chocolate as an ingredient in the beer.

Not all brewers adhere completely to style definitions, but where they do it does make it easier for people to understand what to expect in the bottle. Instead of having to randomly taste tens or hundreds of thousands of beers, one can now get an appreciation as to whether they like the key characteristics of a style or sub-style, and either experiment more with this style, or avoid examples of this style altogether – according to their own tastes.

Hybrid Styles –

Some brewers argue that styles and style guidelines limit their artistic creativity. Some actively shun the idea of styles. Taken to the extreme, this attitude can result in brewers opining that ‘people just aren’t qualified to drink my beer, because they don’t understand it!’

I know that I’m being a bit over-the-top cynical in describing brewers who shun beer styles in this way. I recognise that there is a balancing act between defining beer styles so tightly that all beers end up the same, and leaving beer style definitions so loose (or ignoring them altogether) with the result that people have no idea what a beer is likely to taste like until they taste it. The ‘ideal’ middle road, in my honest opinion, is to have style guidelines that are prescriptive enough to keep beers within these style guidelines adhering to certain common characteristics, but also allow flexibility for brewers to be creative. Style families achieve this goal, but are relatively broad definitions. The more beer styles are defined down into tighter sub-styles, the more limiting the definitions become.

Of course, brewers are free to develop their own styles, but again if they do, it is most helpful for beer drinkers to have some reference point.

This is where hybrid styles come in. Beer Style Families can be defined extremely broadly such to give brewers significant flexibility within these broad definitions. Brewers can choose to combine one or more Style Families into a ‘Hybrid’ style – taking the essence of each of the style families, and developing from this a different and unique style. This mash-up can be a disaster if the styles clash horribly with eachother – but making mistakes is often what creativity is all about. If brewers succeed in combining disparate styles cleverly, they can develop their own unique sub-style, while still allowing people to understand what it is they were setting out to achieve.

Brewhouse Steam Lager –

Beer Style - Steam Lager
Alcohol by Volume - 5.5% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Robinson’s Brewery
Brewed in - Cheshire, England

Anchor Steam is credited as being one of the original (if not, the original) craft beer in the U.S. Brewed in San Francisco, ‘steam lager’ is their flagship brand, and it is an example of a hybrid style at the most basic level.

There are simple rules when it comes to the flavours that one expects from lagers or ales. Lagers typically give cleaner fermentation flavours that allow the flavour of the grains and hops in the brewing to shine through. With ales, one expects that there will be more potential for fermentation flavours to form a significant element of the beer’s flavour – with ‘fruity’ and/or ‘spicy’ flavours being the broad categories of flavour that one associates with beers brewed with ale yeast.

Here’s the science bit – the development of these flavours in fermentation is more a function of the process that the yeast undergoes than the specific strains of yeast that are used. It is true to say that ale yeasts tend to prefer to ferment at warmer temperatures, and ale yeast fermentations tend to result in greater reproduction of yeast in the beer. Both of these factors can lead to development of fruity flavours in the beer. Likewise, colder fermentations, with less reproduction of yeast can result in beers with cleaner fermentation flavours. This is where the idea of a hybrid style comes in.

Steam lagers are brewed with lager yeasts. However, the fermentation is often carried out at temperatures that are warmer than would be normal for a lager yeast. The result is a lager that can have elements of flavour that are normally associated with ales.

Robinson’s Brewhouse Steam Lager combines malt and fruit with perfumy, floral aromas. On tasting the beer, the sense it is a lager is evident, but the fermentation character is not quite what one would expect. The malt flavour (sweet honey and cream cracker) combines with a distinct stone fruit (apricot) and white grape character (that one might associate more with ales), and this fruit flavour develops into the finish of the beer. The overall impression of this beer is a relatively sweet one – very easy to drink, but lacking a balancing bitterness that might be sought by lovers of IPA’s.

Urthel Saisonniere –

Beer Style - Saison / Witbier Hybrid
Alcohol by Volume - 6.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Collaboration brew between Hilda Van Ostegaard and La Trappe
Brewed in - Koningshoeven, Holland

The Urthel range of beers are designed and brewed by Hildegard Van Ostaden. This female brewer has developed considerable fame for herself in her home country of the Netherlands. While she very much respects and pays homage to classic styles of beer from the regions around her home country, she also expresses her creativity in the beers that she brews.

Urthel Saisonniere is a hybrid style between a Belgian Saison and a Belgian Witbier. Belgian Saison’s are farmhouse beers – the fermentations can involve multi-strain yeasts and/or wild yeasts, and the result can be distinct ‘country’ aromas – fruits, spices, farmyard aromas and a rich abundance of character in the nose. Bitterness in saison’s can range from restrained through to substantial. Witbiers are clean beers that rely on herbs and spices for balance in the flavour (with almost a complete absence of hop bitterness, and relying on spice to provide balance).

Combining these two styles requires an appreciation of the essence of both, and the brewer needs to seek balance in the beer that reflects the best qualities of both styles. This has most definitely been achieved in Urthel Saisonniere.

Aromas deliver all of the characteristics that one would expect from a saison. Spice and farmhouse character are very much in evidence on the aroma – with cracked black pepper and Belgian spice combining with a musty farmhouse aroma. Floral, fruity and herbal character character – coriander in particular (associated with witbier) also come through on the aroma. The beer is medium bodied, and this provides a foundation for a depth of flavour – cracked black pepper plays on the tongue, and fruit and spice develop in the flavour of the beer. There is a crisp underlying texture to the beer of wheat cracker.

The balance in this beer is truly artistic. While there are a range of flavours that sound like the beer could be cloying – fruit and farmyard character – this is not the case, as these flavours are lifted by the cracked black pepper spice and the wheat cracker grain character. This beer is particularly unique, but it demonstrates how adherence to the essence of a style does not have to be limiting to the brewer in terms of their ability to express their creativity.