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A plea for styles

Posted February 12, 2013 | 5:38 pm, by Mirella

(an open letter to breweries)

I came across a beer last night and it brought to mind a concern that I’ve often shared in my beer classes but never addressed in writing… Here’s what happened:

I was leaving my local bar and the bartender flagged me down. She let me know that a new beer had just come in and she was curious to hear my thoughts because it was brewed in a style that she wasn’t familiar with: India Pale Lager. She poured me a sample and I stuck my nose in the glass. The beer in question was not an India Pale Lager, it was a Pilsner. It might have been an Imperial Pilsner. Based on my initial reaction to the beer, the bartender assumed that I hadn’t enjoy it. A long conversation ensued…

Now, although I am a National Level BJCP Judge, I’m not a style stickler by any definition. I’ve enjoyed beers with smoked meat in them, 100% brett beers, crazy hybrids and beers that defied definition, shattering every concept of what I thought a beer should be…. That’s one of the fantastic things about beer: it can take on many aspects. Having said this, I do find it problematic when a brewery states a style on the label but puts something different in the bottle. At the end of the day, it’s the brewery’s decision, but I wanted to take a moment to share my perspective:

One of the things that I’ve learned through my guided tastings (and it’s common sense, if you think about it) is that the best way to introduce someone to a new beer/style is to explain to them what they will be drinking before they dive in. I tested this theory when I was teaching sensory evaluation at Niagara College. I served the students a beer without providing any context and they disliked it (it was a light lager.) Later on during the same class, I took the time to provide a detailed style description of the beer and had them sample it again without telling them it was the same beer. This time, the response was quite favourable. Some students were shocked to learn that this was the same beer as the one they’d had before.

Now, I have the luxury of explaining beers in person when I’m presenting them during a beer tasting or class. Breweries, however, don’t have the possibility to address every potential consumer. All they have is the label, which might include a beer description and often prominently lists a style name. Listing a style on the bottle is a simple, straightforward, effective way for the brewer to communicate to the consumer what to expect. This was the point I was trying to share with the prospective brewmasters in my sensory evaluation class at Niagara College.

Of course, catchy names do sell booze, and there are some catchy beer style names out there. Some, like ‘India Pale Lager’, are still obscure enough that many people don’t know what they mean. In the 80s, when craft beer was brand new, some breweries chose to use a pre-existing style name and assign it to a completely different beer style. This has, and still does cause quite a bit of confusion. I outlined a classic example of this confusion in an article I wrote addressing the inconsistent use of the term “Cream Ale” in the Canadian provinces of B.C. and Québec.

We’re living in a different time now, though. There are many more educated consumers out there and an even larger number of people who are interested in learning about craft beer. Misrepresenting a style is not helpful for anyone. Here are four potential outcomes of misrepresenting a style to the customer, as far as I can see:

  • Someone who is not at all familiar with the style and not particularly interested in beer might enjoy this beer. When they come across another beer with the same style name and find that it tastes completely different, they will be confused and/or reject the second beer. This will not pose an issue until they happen to voice their preference to someone who is familiar with the style…
  • Someone who is not familiar with the style at hand but curious about beer will research the style (either before drinking it, or when they come across another example that tastes completely different.) This consumer will learn that the original beer was misrepresenting the style and likely no longer trust that brewery.
  • Someone who has had another example of this style but isn’t an avid beer drinker will taste this example and simply assume that it’s off.
  • Someone who is very familiar with the style will be disappointed with the beer (and, perhaps blog about it)

All of the situations above are less than ideal and three of the four are bad for the brewery.

In the case of this specific beer, I understand that the term “India Pale Lager” is not a classic and/or BJCP listed style (and neither is an Imperial Pilsner, for that matter.) Having said this, the term is composed of familiar words and does set up certain expectation in the educated beer drinker. The first time that I saw an ‘India Pale Lager’ on a menu was five years ago in San Diego. I was intrigued the name and ordered one. Based on the name and location, I thought it might be a West Coast IPA brewed with a lager yeast, which is exactly what it was. I was delighted with the concept and with the beer. That brewer successfully communicated his beer to the consumer, using traditional terms. I’ve had five India Pale Lagers since, and they’ve all been similar in their flavour profile.

The beer in front of me last night, however, was brewed with European hops. It was golden in colour, with a pronounced bitterness and clean, crisp character. I struggle to see how it was different from a Pilsner. The alcohol content and hopping rate might have been on the high side. If this is the case, then perhaps the terms “Strong Pilsner” “Export Pilsner” or  even “Imperial Pilsner” (just to be more catchy) would have been a lot more appropriate. Even though it’s not an accepted style name (and some people find the widespread use of the term “Imperial” to be inappropriate – but that’s a different story,) the term “Imperial Pilsner” does clearly communicates what’s in the bottle: a bolder version of a Pilsner.

Why did this brewery choose to label their beer otherwise? I’m not sure. That’s not really the point. This brewery is far from being the only one out there to have chosen to mis-represent style names. Interestingly, I had an extended discussion, three years ago, with an American brewer who released an “Imperial Pilsner” which I feel should have been labeled “India Pale Lager” because it had a bold American hop presence… I admit that this can all seem very confusing, but it shouldn’t be.

At the end of the day, we are living in a time where many new people are embracing and exploring beer. Doesn’t it make sense for brewers to try and make their journey as clear and accessible as possible?…

5 comments

  1. Great points Mirella. I too get annoyed about the misuse of style designations on beer labels. Many brewers rail against styles as constricting and limiting, yet they are nothing more than a part of the brewers’ lexicon, useful for communicating to the customer what the brewer’s intent is. If they are not what you want your beer to be thought of, just modify them or omit them altogether. Misusing them is just misleading.
    How would the brewer feel if the load of Maris Otter malt he purchased ended up tasting more like Vienna malt? He’d be pretty ticked off. He shouldn’t turn around and tick off his beer drinkers with the same sort of deception.

    Comment by Terry Felton on February 12, 2013 at 8:59 pm

  2. Hello preacher, choir here…

    But actually, in the case of the India pale lager, I believe you might be overthinking this one a bit. You know IPAs; you know British IPAs and you know American IPAs; you also are familiar with all the variations and bastardizations that go on. You are a BJCPer — but I forgive you for it — and a Master Cicerone.

    The average punter, however, has much more limited experience with IPAs. (Assuming someone beyond the Keith’s stage here. Those poor souls simply don’t stand a chance.) The average punter knows likely two or maybe three things about IPAs: They’re hoppy; they’re stronger than pale ales; and they came from a time when the British were sending beer to India and yada, yada, yada.

    For that person, the India pale lager description is actually quite useful. It’s a lager, so kind of like an IPA but not really. It’s stronger than an average lager. And it’s considerably hoppier than a Steamwhistle or even a King Pilsner. Do they know of American vs. European hops? Maybe, but probably not. Do they know that the Czechs have been making this kind of beer since before the first wise ass American brewer who called his beer an “Imperial pilsner” was born? Almost certainly not. But they know, from the “style” alone, that it’s strong, hoppy and a lager.

    I think that’s pretty close to the mark.

    Comment by Stephen Beaumont on February 12, 2013 at 10:43 pm

  3. I do see what you’re saying, Stephen, but at this stage there has been such a buzz around the IPA style in the past three years that many people have close aroma and flavour associations with that style name. Due to the current beer landscape, this association will be with the West Coast IPA style, in other words a bold bitterness accompanied by citrus/resinous/tropical notes. They also know whether this is a style that they appreciate or not. In fact, someone just commented on my Beerology Facebook Page stating that she knows she likes Pilsners and doesn’t like IPAs. This person would probably have really enjoyed the beer in question but would likely never have tried it based on its misleading name. It also became clear in reading this person’s comments that she would greatly benefit from breweries taking the time to clearly state whether their IPA is brewed in an American or British style…

    Also, if a beer tastes like a Pilsner, I don’t see why it is helpful to anyone to give it a different name… While I understand that most beer drinkers aren’t able (and/or couldn’t be bothered) to distinguish between hop varietals, I feel like the average drinker might more easily spot the difference between beers brewed with Czech vs US hops than detect a difference of 1% ABV & 10IBUs.

    Comment by Mirella on February 12, 2013 at 11:24 pm

  4. There’s only one IPL around these parts that I know of. If it’s the one I’ve had it did not resemble a pilsner, imperial or otherwise. It actually fit the name fairly well. I’m not a lover or a hater of it.
    If it is the IPL I’m thinking of, perhaps they are playing around with the recipe it or was the wrong keg actually put on that line?

    Comment by Brock on February 22, 2013 at 2:08 am

  5. Hi Brock. I suspect we are talking about different beers, but the beer in question wasn’t really the point of this blog post…

    Comment by Mirella on March 1, 2013 at 10:18 pm

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