Since the first style medals were awarded in 1987 (from the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in 1982 through 1986, awards were decided by popular vote rather than professional judging), the number of styles has exploded nearly sixfold.
The Brewers Association (BA), the Boulder, CO-based trade group that runs the festival, may tweak one or two style definitions a year or as many as a dozen. “The trick is to stay relevant,” says Charlie Papazian, president of the BA, explaining that the guidelines try to reflect the innovation taking place in the brewing community while preserving traditional styles.
This past year, the BA added two new styles to the guidelines, Adambier and Grätzer, sometimes called Grodziskie or Grodzisz.
Typically, a style addition or a change doesn’t draw much of a response from the brewing community. However, when Grätzer was added to the guidelines, the style definition process turned into a public, sometimes loud, debate.
Grätzer/Grodziskie dates to the 1700s or 1800s and is a smoked wheat beer style made in the area around Poznan, Poland, and, according to some, northern Germany (which annexed Poland more than once). But it was a style that passed into the history books when commercial production in Poland ended around 1994. Just as that was happening, beer writer Michael Jackson described it in his Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, as “perhaps the most unusual beer” in Poland. “It has an extraordinarily sourish, sappy oak character.” Jackson, among the first in the English-speaking world to take note of the beer, said it was produced in the town of Grodzisk, near Poznan, with malt smoked over oak with some wheat content and some wild yeast influence.
In recent years, American brewers have rediscovered the style, and today Grätzer/Grodziskie is popping up on draft lines and in bottles around the country.
But the adoption of guidelines for Grätzer/Grodziskie/Grodzisz got some folks bubbling hotter than a brew kettle at full boil.
Complaints about the grain bill, the IBU level, the gravity of the beer and, yes, its name and origin bubbled to the surface in letters to the BA and online commentaries. The complaints were echoed during brewers-only sessions at the BA’s annual Brewers Conference last March in Washington, DC.
Among the most vocal critics was brewing historian Ron Pattinson, who has worked with brewers in the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe to recreate beers from the past and who writes about his interests in his blog Shut up About Barclay Perkins. Pattinson, who claims to be obsessed with Grodziskie/Grätzer, wrote shortly after the guidelines for the style were released that nothing that the BA had written was correct and laid the blame on Papazian, the initiator and arbiter of styles at the BA.
Separately, a group of Polish home brewers in an open letter to the BA in March wrote they found misleading information in many descriptions of Grodziskie beer, particularly the misnomer Grätzer. “If you choose to prioritize the German name of Grodziskie and classify it as a German beer style, you will be subscribing to the legacy of colonization and unwittingly re-enacting its symbolic violence in the 21st Century,” they wrote. “Grodzisk was always the only place Grodziskie was ever produced. There are some claims proffered by beer experts outside Poland that there were possibly other towns that made this kind of beer. There is no truth to those claims.” Grodzisk, they noted, only became Grätz during the 19th century, when Germany took over and sought to colonize western Poland (while Austria and Russia took the south and the east, respectively). Grodzisk became Grätz again when Nazi Germany occupied Poland in 1939. “Apart from these painful historical episodes, the town was always Grodzisk, and its beer always Piwo Grodziskie,” they wrote.
Before the 2013 GABF and 2014 World Beer Cup, Papazian and company decided to revisit the guidelines sooner than planned. They sought new input several times from brewers and beer judges, including some in Poland, before finally settling on the current guidelines.
“We encourage people to comment on the guidelines,” Papazian said.
In the end, the BA did change what it had originally proposed. Among the changes, it decided to use the Polish name for the style (which it dubbed Grodzisz) and to specify a grain bill of 100 percent oak-smoked wheat, as opposed to 50 percent in the original guideline.
“The [latest] guidelines [for Grodzisz] are much closer to historical norms,” said Chris Swersey, the BA’s competition manager. “We feel a lot better about it.”
Also judged for the first time was Adambier—a slightly smoky beer that originated from Dortmund that is medium-to-full bodied and “a strong, dark, hoppy, sour ale extensively aged in wood barrels.” The published guidelines also state: “a kolsch-like ale fermentation is typical.” However the guidelines did not receive the same amount of scrutiny.