It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.

THIS is the Definition of Craft Beer

People are stressing over craft beer these days. They’re saying it is irrelevant, or that it’s jumped the shark tank or gone mainstream. All of which is probably true, to greater or lesser degrees, but fails to address the central point. Which is that craft beer is simple to define.

But first, let us look at what craft beer is not. It is certainly not what the Brewers Association defines craft beer to be*, which is to say it has little to do with size or ownership or, saints preserve us, tradition. Craft was never the BA’s to define, so there is no reason we should arbitrarily accept their understandably self-serving definition.

(Two notes: “understandably self-serving” because, let’s face it, their raison d’être is to function as an industry representation and lobby group for small breweries, aka craft breweries. And it was never theirs to define because what is to my knowledge the first verifiable instance of its use, in Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, was published in 1977, long before the BA came into being.)

It is also not “revolutionary,” “honest” or – spare me from this word, please! –  “authentic,” as the fellows from BrewDog seem to think. And neither is it evil-in-a-keg, as the hierarchy of the U.K.’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) sometimes appear to believe.

Simply, craft beer is beer created from the perspective of producing great tasting beer. Not beer that will fit a certain market segment or beer that should appeal to males aged 21 to 29 or beer that will be at its best when served a degree or two above freezing temperature, but beer designed to be full of flavour and character. Period.

Craft beer = birra artigianale = bière artisanale = cerveja artisanal artesanal=  cerveza artisanal = (I think) håndværk øl. It’s beer for the world of beer drinkers who care about the taste and character of what they’re drinking, whether it comes from one of the largest brewing companies in the world or the person brewing in their restaurant kitchen down the road.

Size and ownership and ingredients can have an impact on whether a beer might be defined as craft or not – big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev have consistently proved themselves to be poor stewards of brands brewed for flavour rather than for perceived market appeal – but mostly they are matters of personal politics. Which is not to say that these factors are unimportant, just that they are not specifically what defines a beer as craft.

Centuries ago, brewers produced the best-tasting beers they could manage, hoping that others would agree and thus purchase their wares. When CAMRA fought back against the rise of bland keg ales and lagers, they were in effect defending that ethic, just as early American microbrewery operators were emulating their spiritual ancestors by brewing beers with greater flavour and character than what was flooding the market at the time.

And today, from Seattle to Singapore and Rome to Ribeirão Preto, craft brewers are still supporting that same idea, and in so doing shaking the very foundation upon which the modern beer market has been built. So I guess yes, maybe craft beer is a bit revolutionary, but it’s still principally about flavour.

* Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association wrote me to express the following: “One factual point–the Brewers Association does not define craft beer. The Brewers Association defines a U.S craft brewer.” I countered that it could be argued one begets the other, but his point is well taken. Essentially the BA is providing membership criteria rather than seeking to define craft beer as an entity. This note is added two days after the original post appeared.

Get the Message: Women Drink Beer!

The inestimable Melissa Cole dug into her bag of outrage earlier today and came up with a mighty fistful of sexist bullshit, and bless her for it! Her examples are exclusively British, but the issue with sexism in beer — even more than sexism in spirits, and it’s pretty friggin’ bad over there, too — is widespread and global, and while it’s not as bad as it used to be, it can be still pretty egregious in some quarters..

Go read Melissa’s story over here.

What the brewers of beers like Slap & Tickle don’t seem to understand is that: a) women are beer consumers, too; and b) some men take offense at being treated like adolescent boys.

On the former point, one only has to turn to almost any beer festival, where females often seem as numerous as are males. (Although, to be fair, this is less the case at most European festivals than it is at North American ones.) Go to bars that specialize in beer and you’ll see women enjoying beer, often choosing from the more unusual offerings while the assembled males stick with their chosen brand. Stand outside of any store specializing in craft beer and you will find women leaving with interesting six-packs, perhaps not with the same frequency as men, but in steadily growing numbers.

On the latter, well, before I get comments about what a hopeless stick-in-the-mud I am and how I can’t take a joke,  let me say that among friends I have a  rather no-holds-barred approach to humour. But that’s because they know me and we understand each other. Where public advertising and product naming goes, it’s far, far more difficult to direct meaning or deliver nuance. What is put on display, be it a suggestive, boys-will-be-boys advertisement or a ribald pumpclip, will be judged for what it is, and a large number of mature and reasoned folk of both genders will judge it in the negative.

Worth considering the next time the topic of branding comes up in the brewhouse.


Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.

More New Zealand Notes

As I flip through my notebook post-New Zealand, a few things stand out, such as:

Best Beer Name: Pernicious Weed by Garage Project

Best Beer Story: Red Zone Enigma by Twisted Hop — The Twisted Hop brewery was located within what is now the infamous “Red Zone” in Christchurch, which meant that a conditioning batch of their Enigma barley wine was necessarily left to mature from February, when the earthquake struck, to August, when the owners were finally allowed in to extract it and bottle it up! I didn’t have a chance to try it, but it is by all accounts very good indeed. (And I heard good news from Twisted Hop, too! Seems they’ll be reopening in not just one, but as many as three locations in Christchurch.)

Most Ridiculous Idea (That Actually Worked): The madmen behind Yeastie Boys thought it would be a wise idea to brew a beer with 100% peated malt, thus producing Rex Attitude, which strikes me as what Ardbeg might make if it were a brewery rather than a distillery. If that wasn’t foolishness enough, they then decided to up the alcohol content to 10% in an even bigger, peatier beer, Rex, which oddly enough seems more balanced and approachable than the 7% original.

Best Use of Non-Hop Local Ingredients: The Captain Cooker Manuka Beer from the Mussel Inn is flavoured with tips plucked from the manuka tree. The result is one of the most intriguing spice characters I have ever encountered in a beer.

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Arrow Brewing’s Hop in a Bottle, which, yes, actually contains a whole hop cone. One which flakes apart when the bottle is even slightly agitated, leaving significant flotsam floating in your glass.

Best Marketing Slogan: Moa Brewing’s “Dark and acceptable to all palates. The Will Smith of beers.”

10 Words NOT to Use When Writing or Talking About Beer, Pt. II

6. “Lovingly”: As a youthful scribe, I once wrote that a beer’s foam “clings lovingly to the side of the glass.” I still cringe when I think of it. (And as an aside, this applies equally to label and press release copy. I’ve seen bottling lines of all shapes and sizes in action and I am quite certain that no bottle of ale or lager ever released has truly been “lovingly” bottled.)

7. “Suds”: Is it soap? No, it’s beer. There is therefore nothing sudsy about it.

8. “Hoppy” (without further qualification): Forget that a generous proportion of the beer drinking public still doesn’t understand what “hoppy” means, to use it without adding a sense of what is meant delivers no information to the recipient. I had a “hoppy” beer on the weekend that was spicy and nutty bitterness wrapped in a comforting blanket of caramelly and mildly fruity malt, and another that was a citrusy, piney assault. Both were “hoppy,” but they could scarcely have been more different.

9. “Pretty Good for a…” (with further qualification): Good beer is good beer, period. If it’s only “pretty good for a big brewery beer/brewpub beer/beer from X country,” then maybe it’s not really all that good. (And yes, I know that technically this entry means that I have listed 13 words not to use, rather than 10. Call it creative licence.)

10. “Quad”: Where to begin? That it’s a diminutive referring to a beer that is presumed to be big, malty and alcoholic? That it derives from an ale first brewed in the 1990’s and is now used retroactively to describe beers developed decades before? Or that it’s simply a lazy shorthand with no real meaning? Okay, I’ll take all three!

10 Words NOT to Use When Writing or Talking About Beer, Pt. I

1. “Authentic”: Means next to nothing. Is it a real beer, of “undisputed origin” according to the dictionary? Fine, it’s authentic, and so is every other beer not claiming to be something else.

2. “Genuine”: See above. (Ironically, the one place where this word is most widely used, by Miller for its brand commonly known now as MGD, its use is bogus, since there is little doubt that bottled beer cannot be “genuine” draft.)

3. “Traditional”: There is a brewery in Toronto where barley and hops are grown, wort is air cooled and all fermentation takes place in wooden barrels. THAT is traditional. The ale made on a gleaming stainless steel, computerized brew kit? Not so much.

4. “Cold”: Yeah, like that’s an achievement.

5. “Drinkable”: You know what’s really drinkable? Water! I drink it all the time, but that doesn’t mean I want my beer to taste the same way.

Pt. II will arrive early next week.   

Sh*t Drinks Writers Do (But Shouldn’t)

In fairness

1. Take a knowledge of one beverage and assume it automatically makes you qualified to write about another. Being an authority on wine doesn’t qualify you to offer “expert” opinions on single malt whisky, UNLESS you’ve done one hell of a lot of research and tasting.

2. Judge a release negatively on the basis of one or two sips. Everyone and everything deserves a second chance, so try it again before you lambaste it, or say nothing.

3. Get all attitudinal when someone calls you on a mistake or error of judgement. We all screw up from time to time. Take your lashes and move along.

4. Write your blog as if you are a ten year old because it makes it more “real.” You’re supposed to be a professional writer, even when doing something you’re not paid for. Typos are one thing, but frequent errors in grammar, punctuation and structure just reflect badly on you and your craft.

5. Use descriptive words no one is likely to understand. Noting underlying hints of some obscure Amazonian fruit doesn’t help North Americans to understand the flavours you’re describing; it just makes you look like an ass.

(I hope I’m not guilty of any of the above, but let’s face it, I probably am.)    

More on Barking Squirrel

A while back, I wrote this commentary about the Hop City brew, Barking Squirrel Lager. Honestly, it was meant more as a commentary on what may or may not be defined as “craft beer” than it was a review of the brew, but as it also included a couple of not-so-complimentary notes about the beer itself, it understandably raised the ire of Hop City head brewer, Kevin Gray.

In addition to offering a rather uncomplimentary view of my own abilities — a position he seemed to modify, or at least soften, as our email discussion continued — Kevin made a pair of emphatic points. First, he assured me that Barking Squirrel contains no adjuncts, contrary to what I had guessed on the basis of the beer’s aroma. And secondly, he asserted that since Hop City has exactly two employees, its craft brewing bonefides were well in place.

Further along our email conversation, Kevin expressed his frustration with having to defend his brands simply because of the brewery’s owner, that being eastern Canada’s Moosehead Breweries, a fact he says they “have never tried to hide.” While understanding this irritation — in my long-standing view, beer should be judged by how it tastes, not who owns the brewery —  I would counter that neither has Hop City made any attempt to disclose that fact, since the packaging of the beer is very much in the style of a local craft brewery, with nary a mention of the ultimate owner.

(Whether or not that even matters was part of the content of my previous post and an issue I intentionally left unresolved.)

So, what I wound up telling Kevin is that, when I next had a couple of days strung together at my office, I would reassess Barking Squirrel and see if I draw any other conclusion. Which is how I now find myself at noon on a Friday afternoon with a can of the beer in front of me.

In my previous tasting, I noted that the circumstances were ideal for a crisp, refreshing lager to show well. This time out, on the other hand, I’m in a less thirsty, more analytical frame of mind. So let’s see how it goes.

So far as colour and aroma go, my opinion remains unchanged. Despite Kevin’s assurances that there are no adjuncts used in the brewing of this beer — which I have no reason to doubt — I find the aroma  to be thin and grainy, and not that far removed from what I would expect of a mainstream lager. The caramel notes seem tacked on, rather than integrated into the rest of the aromatics, and aside from what might be soft floral-citrus notes, the “hop aroma” noted on the can seems suspiciously AWOL.

With perhaps a fresher palate, however, I do find that the body offers more than I originally found. It’s still sweet, no doubt, and the “roasty” malt flavours mentioned on the can are quite absent, but I do find more in the way of well-constructed malt appeal and even a bit of drying, slightly lemony, nutty hoppiness appearing in the second half. The finish, as observed in my earlier essay, is less sweet and faintly bitter.

Kevin mentioned in his last email to me that “Barking Squirrel…is actually our least distinctive product” and that “We were trying to walk the line between over the top and saleable, which as you realize does need to happen to stay in operation.” I appreciate that it is the brewery’s least distinctive brand — I’ve sampled others which I’ve enjoyed much more — but in the second decade of the 21st century, I question the notion that a lack of distinction is any longer necessary in a flagship brand. When last I checked, Sierra Nevada was selling well in excess of 600,000 barrels a year of distinctive products, and Stone Brewing has as its flagship a 7.2% alcohol monster. Even in Ontario, where Barking Squirrel is sold, some of the fastest growing breweries make no apologies for the assertiveness of their main brands. The “entry level beer” is, I think, very much a 1990’s concept, and one to which I believe the wise craft brewery owner and manager need no longer subscribe.

Is Barking Squirrel craft? I still don’t know. Does it straddle unnecessarily the line between craft beer consumer and big brewery acolyte? On that front, I would answer yes.


The Origins of “Craft”

One of the hot topics of beer blogger and beer blog commentator conversation of late has been the origin of the term “craft beer.” On more than one occasion it has been suggested that this is purely a North American term — which will come as a complete surprise to all the Italian, Danish, Japanese, etc. breweries which employ it regularly — and it has also been described as a marketing term invented by Americans.

Thus, it was with great interest that this morning I came across the following lines from Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer, first edition, circa 1977:

A weighty heritage…in the Region du Nord [of France] craft-brewing survives, and there are one or two superb top-fermented specialty beers.

There you have it, craft used in direct association with brewing by a British writer referring to a European country, in the book that served as introduction to the world’s greatest beers for an entire generation of consumers, yours truly included.

I hope that settles that.

Again with the Black Whatever

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a tongue-in-cheek link noting the new “black kölsch” just released from the St. Arnold Brewing Company of Texas, and saying that somewhere Ron “Shut Up About Barclay Perkins” Pattinson was popping a blood vessel. (Just joking, Ron. I sincerely hope you weren’t.)

Turn out, it wasn’t Ron who threw a wobbler, but Velky Al. And I’ve got to add, with good reason. Al does note that there is a convention governing what may be called a kölsch, and that even though the U.S. is not bound by said convention, it is, like those governing Champagne and Bordeaux, a matter of respect to do so. More broadly, he duly observes that there is nothing in the convention about a beer being black.

Without getting bent out of shape about it — it is Friday, after all — I must agree wholeheartedly with not just Al’s words, but also what I infer is the sentiment behind them, specifically this obsession with defining new styles and “innovations,” even is such things involve only the addition of a bit of black malt. As Jon Stewart might say, “Brewers, come over and meet me at camera three.”

Listen, I understand that you want to make your beers stand out and that, in the wake of the “black IPA” juggernaut that is sweeping the land, using the word “black” in front of pretty much any traditionally blonde or amber style is one way to do it. But in so doing you are forgetting that the vast majority of the beer drinking populace doesn’t yet know all of the basic beer styles, much less the 100+ offshoots recognized by the Association of Brewers today. Thus, creating more styles, especially faux styles like “black kölsch,” makes matters more confusing for the beer buying public. In short, you’re not clarifying, you’re confounding!

I like new beers. I like weird beers. I like challenging beers. What I don’t like is the seemingly irrepressible need of some, perhaps most craft brewers to create a new beer “style” with every release.