Dean McGuinness joins Sean Moncrieff...
Our resident beer expert Dean McGuinness reviews two farmhouse ales...
Craft beer has become a staple part of our lives, and with this a lot of new terminology has come with it. When wine started to become popular in Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, people became concerned with whether they understood the difference between a Sancerre and a Chablis, or a Bordeaux or a Beaujolais. When New World wines – wines described by varietal – came along, understanding the difference between different wines became easier. We are coming into this situation with craft beer – terms that are new to people, and a desire by people to understand these terms. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that difficult – you just need to have the right attitude!
Today, we are looking at a style of beer that has become synonymous with craft – the IPA. We are going to look at how this style has evolved, and how to understand it. We are going to use this to give us an idea as to how to understand styles generally, and from this, how to use styles to pick out beers that are more likely to suit our palate. While doing all of this, we will be tasting Brave New World, an American IPA from Tempest Brewing Company in Scotland and Hopbot IPA, another American IPA from Hop City Brewing Company in Canada.
Beer Styles and the Evolution of IPA –
The first thing to understand about beer styles is to understand the difference between a beer style and a wine varietal. A beer style comes from a recipe designed by a brewer, and the desire by the brewer to call his beer by this style. A wine varietal is defined by the genetic signature of the grape whose juice has been fermented to give the wine. The name of a beer style is subject the decision or whimsy of the brewer. The varietal of wine that is put on a bottle of New World Wine is not subject to interpretation – it is not a Chardonnay unless the winemaker has used Chardonnay grapes.
We can understand this in a different way. Let’s have a look at a chef in a kitchen. If that chef cooking up a dinner that consists of vegetables, potatoes, beef, a gravy-like sauce and this concoction is being made in an oven in a pot, the chef might opt to call this a casserole, a stew or a hot pot. The specific thing that the chef decides to call his dish is subject to the decision (or whimsy) of the chef. There are limitations – the chef could not call this dish ‘chicken teriyaki’ without people looking askew at him, but there is an amount of flexibility for the chef. This situation is comparable to beer styles.
If we drill down into the chef’s recipe and look at the type of meat that the chef is using in his dish, the name given to the particular cut of beef will depend on the part of the animal that this meat has come from. If the meat is rump steak, then it is rump steak because it has come from a specific area toward the back of the animal. Calling it fillet steak would only be valid if the meat had come from that part of the animal that fillet steak comes from. This situation is comparable to wine varietals – trying to convince people that a cut of meat is fillet steak when it is rump steak would cause issues for the chef if he was caught out. There is no ‘Recipe Police’ that is going to string up a chef for calling a stew a casserole or vice versa.
Why is this important?
When it comes to a beer style, there is no ‘Beer Style Police’ that will come down on a brewer for describing a beer according to a specific style. Brewers cannot be accused of misleading the customer (in any legal sense) by calling their beer an ‘IPA’ even if the beer might better be described as a ‘bitter’ or ‘pale ale’. In a perfect world, the brewer should be using terminology to help their prospective customer understand what is in the bottle. However, style guidelines are just that – guidelines – and different organisations differ slightly on how they define a style. Just like one chef’s casserole is going to be different from another’s, so too do beer style guidelines need to take account of these variations while still giving people an understanding as to what to expect from a beer.
So why waste time with style guidelines if they can be so imprecise? If we look at where specific beer styles come from, this can make a bit more sense.
Up until a few decades ago, style guidelines were not a ‘thing’. It was really only when beer writers such as Michael Jackson attempted to describe an array of beers in terms that might make things easier for his readers that style guidelines started to ‘formally’ evolve. In his work ‘The Great Beers of Belgium’, Jackson took on the task of putting into boxes the beers of a country of brewers who, to a person, don’t like to be put into boxes. By doing this, he introduced a whole new slew of people to Belgian beers – and at the same time, presented a challenge to Belgian brewers to come up with previously undefined styles – win win!!
Styles start in history. If we go back far enough, styles were irrelevant because beers were particular to a brewery in a geographic location. Before the Industrial Revolution (where brewers started brewing beer on a larger scale, and the ability to transport this beer across significant distances became a reality), there was little ‘copying’ of beer styles between brewers. Each brewer brewed his beer to the best of his ability, and each beer was its own ‘discovery’.
As the world became a smaller place, and better communication, transportation and globalisation became a reality, brewers started to try to understand what beer drinkers liked. If a particular beer was very popular, other brewers would do their own version of this style. Before long, there would be multiple versions of a beer with similar characteristics, and a beer style is born.
Looking at the IPA (originally called India Pale Ale), this style was only possible when maltsters developed ways of lightly kilning malt. Kilning is a drying process that happens at the end of converting barley into malted barley. If this drying is done at high temperatures, the malt takes on colour, and this colour is transferred into the beer. By working out how to kiln malt very lightly, brewers were able to get malt that was pale in colour – the ‘P’ (pale) in IPA became a potential reality. In England, brewing with these pale malts, and using a significant amount of hops to further add to the flavour, resulted in a particular style of beer. George Hodgson’s Bow Brewery was credited as the pioneer that developed this style, and because this beer was being shipped to the Indian colonies, it became known as India Pale Ale.
In England, the broader style family of ‘pale ale’ grew out of this, with brewers brewing styles with lower alcohol content – these styles were later named Ordinary Bitter, Best Bitter, Strong Bitter (or Extra Special Bitter – ESB), Pale Ale, and later Golden Ale. While initially, hop character was usually a key feature of these pale ales, in some cases brewers opted to reduce hop character to appeal to drinkers looking for more malt character in their beer. Again, at the time of the evolution of these styles, the styles themselves came afterwards – first brewers brewed beers that they thought might be appreciated, and later beer writers attempted to group these beers into styles, and describe their groupings.
Over time, beer styles can drift and evolve. In the U.K., a number of larger brewers have brewed beers that they describe as ‘IPA’s, but they bear little resemblance to what would be considered ‘normal’ for the style. In some instances, beers with alcohol content in the range of 3.0% to 4.0% would better be described as ‘Pale Ale’s or ‘Ordinary Bitters’, but the marketing departments of some breweries (where the operation of the brewery is more dictated by accountants and salespeople) opt to slap ‘IPA’ on the label because they believe that “IPA’s sell better”. Nobody is there to say that they can’t, but one has to believe that the beer drinker hoping for a 6%to 7% a.b.v. beer with the character and flavour that one would expect from such a beer would have to find themselves disappointed with a beer at 3.5% a.b.v. and much less character.
As American brewers sought to identify styles that had been popular (and sometimes ‘lost’) they looked into history for inspiration. Classic beer styles – particularly ones that had been enjoyed by the more well off (such as weissbiers – Germany – and IPA’s – England) were of notable interest. Creative American brewers sought as much information as they could find about these beer styles, and proceeded to brew their own interpretations of them. In some instances, they had to work out how to ‘do the best they could’ – without access to English hops, for example, they worked instead with hops grown in America. The result was a beer style true to the ethos of the grandfather style of IPA (above average alcohol content, significant hop character and pale in colour), but stretched to make the particular character that is achieved from American hops a central feature – the American IPA was born.
One might notice, that I have slipped into consistently abbreviating “India Pale Ale” to “IPA” – this is not for convenience. As American brewers wowed beer drinkers with their American IPA’s, they started to stretch things further. Red IPA’s, Brown IPA’s, Rye IPA’s, White IPA’s, Black IPA’s were the result – and once brewers had gone as far as black ‘pale’ ales, some brewers recognised the fundamental oxymoronic nature of this proposition. The abbreviation “IPA” was acceptated as the style family designation, and through abbreviation, “pale” became a less essential element of the style family. Other countries opted to further adopt the style – Belgian IPA’s became a ‘thing’ as Belgian brewers opted to combine the particular character that can be achieved with Belgian brewers’ yeast with the distinctive flavours that can be achieved with hops.
Organisers of beer competitions spent time on providing guidelines for these different sub-styles, and in so doing, helped people to provide a base for what they should expect. In parallel with this, brewers continued to opt to put on the label a description that fitted with what customers were excited about rather than a description that was dictated by what was in the bottle – naming some Irish Pale Ales as “IPA”s (with an insistence on using the abbreviation) has caused confusion in some instances where the beer in question might better have been described as a pale ale from Ireland. However, as is always the case with use of style names, there is no prohibition on this.
Ultimately, beer style guidelines exist to provide people with a benchmark. People selling craft beers in pubs and off-licences will ideally have a thorough understanding of these style guidelines, but equally will understand that every brewer is not required to adhere rigidly to their definitions. By having an “epicentre” for a particular style guidelines, people helping people buy their perfect beer can describe the beer being proposed relative to the “centre” of the style – “this is an American IPA, but you might find the bitterness a little low compared to other American IPA’s with which you might be familiar.”
Whatever the case, the most important thing is not to get overly hung up on the detail of style guidelines – they are there to help people find beers that will suit their taste more easily, but the most important thing is to enjoy the beer!
Brave New World –
Beer Style - American IPA
Alcohol by Volume - 7.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Tempest Brewing Company
Brewed in - Tweedbank, Scottish Borders, Scotland
Brave New World is an American IPA brewed in Scotland. A blend of North American hops provides the essential hop character on this beer, built on a base of pale malt (Golden Promise) and caramalt. At 7.0% a.b.v., and with 60 bitterness units (IBU’s), this beer has all of the essential elements that one would expect from an American IPA – the brewers have brewed a beer that one would have to describe as being solidly in the centre of style, and yet, this beer has its own individuality as an interpretation of American IPA.
In appearance, Brave New World pours with a bright, straw gold colour. A tight white head forms on pour, and this head holds well as one drinks the beer.
Hops are at the centre of the IPA style, and hops can deliver flavour through aroma / retronasal flavour and through bitterness. The aromas of Brave New World are everything that one would hope for from a classic American IPA – pine, tropical fruit and citrus combine with the background of malt in the aroma. As one drinks the beer, the tropical fruit develops to give flavours of mango and pineapple. This combines with the citrus fruit character in the beer (grapefruit). Soft, stone fruit flavours further develop – peach character joins the party – and resiny green grass is also present. Overall, the fruit character in this beer is superbly juicy with an array of different fruit flavours in evidence.
With bitterness of 60 IBU’s, Brave New World is firmly within the range considered ‘normal’ for an American IPA (BJCP Style Guidelines would put the range for the style between 40 and 70. Balance is an essential feature of any beer, and the sweetness of the fruit combines with malt character that comes through as biscuit / malteser. In terms of balance, the bitterness of the beer is complemented by the pine character from the hops and a further dimension – a distinct black pepper spice that plays on the tongue and further lifts the mouthfeel of the beer. With a complexity of flavours, this spice character joins with the juicy fruit flavours to give a bright and lively taste experience, while the pine and bitterness combine to extend the drinkability of the beer and the beer rounds out with a slightly dry finish.
An argument against defining beer styles tightly given by some brewers is that it limits creativity. Brave New World puts paid to this argument – it demonstrates that a brewer can brew a beer that is very much to the centre of a style definition, and still establish individuality (and amazing character and flavour) for the beer. By practicing their craft to the highest standards, and introducing a subtle twist (a suggestion of black pepper spice to complement the bitterness and pine), Brave New World presents itself as a world-class example of the style.
Hopbot IPA –
Beer Style - American IPA
Alcohol by Volume - 7.1% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Hop City Brewing Company
Brewed in - Brampton, Ontario, Canada
An interesting thing can happen when a brewer nudges up towards the edges of a style definition.
In technical terms Hopbot IPA is a particularly bitter IPA (70 IBU’s with the suggested range for American IPA’s being 40 to 70 IBU’s). By practicing the brewing craft in a clever way, balancing this bitterness with malt character can result in a beer that is amazingly drinkable, packed with flavour, and, in a strange way, just as much in the ‘centre’ of style as a beer that aims to hit all of the technical style parameters at their average values.
Brewed with a blend of five West Coast hops – Citra, Centennial, Mosaic, Summit and Willamette – hop character comes through in abundance on the aroma in the form of tropical fruit (in this case, mango, apricot and kiwi) and citrus (grapefruit, with a distinct lime character). True to what one would expect from an American IPA, pine is in evidence as well.
The colour of Hopbot IPA gives a clue that a little bit more coloured malt has been used in the beer. The malt base of Hopbot gives chewy toffee, caramel and a suggestion of cocoa. This last element – the cocoa, combines and complements the high level of bitterness in the beer, but it is the sweeter malt flavours – caramel and toffee – that provides the balance that is required because of the high bitterness. More sweetness in beer serves to reduce the perceived bitterness of the beer – while Hopbot IPA is firmly at the top of the IPA specification in terms of bitterness, this bitterness is by no way overpowering in the beer. Instead, the bitterness balanced against the toffee/caramel serves to ensure the drinkability of the beer, and provides a different foundation for the fruit flavour that is coming from the hops.
The result is an American IPA with a depth of flavour – the flavour is rich and layered – which is still incredibly drinkable because of the balance provided by the bitterness. The malt cocoa character adds a further dimension of complexity to the beer – cocoa can have a bitter character, and while the cocoa in this beer is not (by itself) overtly bitter, the combination of the hop bitterness and cocoa malt character gives a finish in this beer that is reminiscent of plain chocolate.
Both of these beers are superb examples of the American IPA style. In both instances, the beer drinker that had selected the beer would not be confused as to why the brewer had described his beer as an American IPA – they fit squarely within the style guidelines. At the same time, these two beers are distinctively individual – a person who had picked up these two bottles would not be left with the impression that they had wasted their time, and had just picked out “another two IPA’s”. Each one is individual and distinctive, and worthy of their individual label.
While brewers are free to stretch style definitions to their limits and beyond, if an explanation has not been provided by the brewer so that the customer understands what they are getting, confusion can result. Brave New World and Hopbot IPA demonstrate that beers can stay within their style guidelines and still surprise, excite and delight the beer drinker!