An Ale by Any Other NameThe Arbitrary Nature of “New Beer Styles”

I drank a beer last week called Cult Rider from Ohio’s Hoof Hearted Brewing. The beer is labelled as an imperial black IPA. It’s excellent: a beer that smacks you in the mouth but also has a ton of depth and which cuts a very long and slow track across the palate. But it’s not an imperial black IPA, it’s a super hoppy imperial stout, or maybe it isn’t.

The black IPA is a good example of what happens when a brewer decides his/her beer falls into a given style category that hasn’t existed before. When Otter Creek first brought black IPA to wide attention in the Northeast, most of us were dumbfounded. “Why has nobody done this before?” was not an uncommon reaction. The thing is, somebody almost certainly had. You take a dark roasty malt bill, ferment it with a cleanly attenuating saccharomyces strain, and hop and dry hop the shit out of it. Boom: black IPA/hoppy stout. We tend to think of the two styles as distinct but ultimately they’re just different names for the same thing. Nobody calls them hoppy stouts, because we don’t think of stouts as being hoppy, therefore that label would likely be far less appetizing (not to mention less marketable) than black IPA (which just sounds nifty and inventive).

Peak Organic recently released a “double” version of their dry hopped pilsner (Fresh Cut) which they’re calling Super Fresh. It’s an outstanding beer and it joins a fleet of hoppy lagers showing up all over the place (with due credit to Massachusetts’ Jack’s Abbey, who’ve been at it for a while). We tend to think of IPL (India Pale Lager) as a thoroughly modern style, one with very little to foreshadow its current rise in popularity. Except some guy named Gunther in Anywhere, Germany probably made one 200 years ago, he just wasn’t calling it an IPL. Instead he took his beloved pilsner and decided to try adding copious amounts of extra hops to the boil.

Then there’s lambic, one of the most traditional beers there is. Among the characteristics defining the style, perhaps the most important is its region of origin. Just as aficionados tend to turn up their noses at a wine labelled champagne that wasn’t produced in the titular region of France, lovers of lambic will ardently defend the sanctity of the style and decry any interlopers looking to make a “lambic” elsewhere in the world. That hasn’t stopped breweries from trying, of course. Right here in Maine, Allagash, Oxbow and others have experimented with turbid mashing and spontaneous coolship fermentation, two important procedural steps in the production of lambic. But, out of a reverence for the tradition, they don’t call their beers lambics. Instead they stick with the catch-all of “spontaneously fermented ale.”

I’m not suggesting brewers should stop pushing the boundaries or trying to innovate, but I am suggesting we all come to a better understanding of the fact that, at this point, there really aren’t any truly new styles of beer, just occasional alterations of styles that become designated as styles on their own. Black IPA doesn’t exist, or maybe it does. Either way its moment in the sun seems to be winding down. But fret not, I hear there’s some great hoppy stouts coming onto the market soon.