(Beer) Style Points - Nothing is Set in Stone

This is actually a conversation I had the other day (mostly...)

Chris - "I don't think I've had an Imperial Brown Ale before."

Other guy - "What!? It's a classic American style of craft beer!"

Chris - "No."

Whilst my response may have been a little blunt, my point was rooted in logic and remains true. I'll probably stick to my guns on this one because it's simply not a "classic" American style of beer. Frankly, there are very few "classic" American styles of beer out there, and it brings to light an interesting idea I've been thinking about lately. Folks (myself included) have a tendency to try to wrap a neat definition around almost everything in their lives and put it in its place, whether that be a fellow human, societal norm, idea, stereotype, or...literally whatever you're able to see and feel. It's 100% understandable why we would do this, and we'll return to this idea in a moment.

Let's head back to that Imperial Brown Ale for a second. I really enjoyed drinking it if I'm honest. It had this dark, earthy note that punched me right in the back of the mouth amid a wash of bright, yet humble, hop aroma. Great beer. It was also 10% ABV, which probably contributed to the aforementioned bluntness in a considerable way. When the other person in that conversation said what they said, my incredulousness was palpable and probably a result of many people saying something to that effect over the past few years. That guy was just the poor soul who laid down the final straw...he'll be fine.

American craft beer has seen it's fair share of relatively new styles of beer forming over the past 30 years. We (somewhat) recently invented "American Imperial IPA's" and "american amber ales", etc. These styles have become stalwart contributors to the american craft beer scene in recent years, and many of our favorite modern beers will fall into one of these newer buckets, quite often an evolution or variation on the classic styles we've seen in Europe for 500 years.

But I think that our need to define every aspect of the human experience, and on a smaller level our beer styles, is becoming a problem. I think we should take a step back, and realize that the label isn't that important. The label only means something if it's attached to a significant feeling, or experience (don't worry, you haven't just walked into a marketing course at your local community college). I have a great anecdote for you.

Stone Brewing Company created a beer in 1997 that has carried its brand into the annals of craft beer legend, and when they made that beer, the first sentence of the slogan was "you probably won't like it". Arrogant Bastard Ale defies description with its traumatizingly interesting palate, yet the greater beer community essentially created the "american strong ale" beer category for this beer. We needed to define this beer, even though Stone has (im)politely asked us not to many times.

I have a challenge for you. Next time you drink a beer, I dare you not to do any significant research on the beer before you drink it. Your, of course, more than welcome to look at the SRM, ABV, OG, FG,  IBUs, and any other acronym irrelevantly posted on the packaging if you'd like, but don't look at the style too closely. For the pendants out there...If you know you hate porters, and you've given them a fair swing in the past, then don't order the darn porter. But for the rest of you, focus on the flavor, and the story, and the experience of the beer, before you try to stick into a slot and call it done.

Beer novices and experts alike should avoid the label, and avoid the beer for the sake of the style. Build your next beer adventure as an attempt at making great beer (whether that's successful or not is another story) and see where it goes from there. Beer styles, like almost everything in our lives, can certainly be categorized. There are merits to this approach, and don't get me wrong, I would say that it's a great idea to understand the fundamental beer styles, both for your own sanity when speaking to a crowd of beer people, and to build your foundational knowledge of beer. BUT...don't get bogged down in the details. As I stated in our Beer Styles page, nothing is set in stone, and I never want to drink a beer because it's a certain style. I want to drink a beer because I enjoy drinking it.

I don't mind that it was called an Imperial Brown Ale. Call it what you want. But in this day and age, when craft beer has blurred every traditional style line out there, don't tell me that it means anything more than that.

- Chris






Chris McClellan