The Trickiness of Beer Styles
I recently received a bottle of The Stoic from Deschutes Brewery (Thanks, guys!). When they first brewed it in 2011, Bend’s finest created a deep golden, 11% ale that was generally well-received, except for one thing. Deschutes alluded to it in a press release:
“Our first bottled Belgian-style Quad generated lots of buzz … mostly for what it was not. Our brewers responded with Not The Stoic in 2014, a slightly dark brew, to soothe those ruffled feather that cried foul.”
The issue? “Quads,” legions of beer geeks inform us, “are supposed to be dark.” Quads are among the hottest property in the beer geek world, with standouts like Westvleteren, Rochefort and St. Bernardus leading the pack. A cursory glance does affirm the geeks’ view—they are all dark. But here’s the thing—beer styles are a tricky matter, and you can’t always trust your lying eyes. It turns out there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a blond quad, and unpacking the reason helps reveal why styles can be so thorny to figure out.
Know Your Style
Like grammar, beer styles have a functional use. They help us communicate. We agree on shared definitions so when we speak, we have a reasonable expectation that people will know what we’re saying. Styles are like this—they help us speak about beer. But what they designate includes history, ingredients, brewing method, national brewing tradition—a lot of meaning is larded into a single word. And, like grammar, there’s nothing inherent in style. It’s a designation that groups together beers that are somewhat alike. But at the edges, there’s always a fuzzy line.
And more importantly, styles change—just like language. You may insist until the end of time that “hopefully,” an adverb, should never begin a sentence—but that battle is long lost. Language moves on, and so must grammar pedants (full disclosure: I am one). Until the 1950s, when they went extinct for a time the witbiers made in Hoegaarden were wild ales, something like young lambic. That changed when Pierre Celis revived them a decade later. So should we insist that breweries are doing it all wrong now?
Style by style, each name can be a landmine, triggering ancient disputes. The best we can say about them is that they are provisional agreements. What we think a style is today may not be operational tomorrow.
Not All Styles Are Alike
Even the word “style” is imprecise. In Germany and the Czech Republic, for example, beer types are determined in part by strength and in part by tradition. There’s not much wiggle room for a dunkel lager or světlé ležák—nor is there any real confusion about what the beers should taste like, how they should be brewed, or what their history is. In England, by contrast, the difference among bitters is … broad. Colors range from straw to near brown, names of the styles vary widely (ordinary, best, special, strong, extra special, premium), and strengths run from weak to potent. A walnut-hued 6% beer and a pilsner-pale 3.5% beer can both be called bitters. (And no one is precisely sure when they went from being called pale ales to bitter.)
In Belgium it’s much worse. Styles are hugely variable in part because, in sharp contrast to the German approach, Belgians try never to make a beer in the way another brewery already has. Individuality is prized, so styles are usually imposed from the outside. Belgians often invent new styles for beers purely to distinguish them from other beers, or stubbornly refuse to identify with any style at all. Except, of course, in cases like lambics, which are among the most narrowly-defined styles on the planet. See, it’s confusing.
Figuring out style means understanding it in context: how is it viewed in its country of origin? Using this rule of thumb, we could fairly conclude that a helles lager brewed with Cascade hops would probably not pass German muster, while a Cascade-hopped black ale with plums could easily be called a saison in Belgium.
So let’s come back to Deschutes. Have you ever noticed how dubbels tend to be brown, tripels blond, and the strongest abbey beers—now usually referred to as quads—are brown again? Isn’t that a little weird? It’s because those strength designations didn’t historically refer to styles at all. The dubbel-tripel system comes from an old way of thinking about beer strengths based on the way they were made. (It wasn’t limited to Belgium, either.) Brewers used to pull wort off the mash without sparging. If they wanted to pull the remaining sugars from the grain, they would conduct a separate mash. Sometimes they would do three or four of these. The idea of weak beers and double or triple-strengthed ones goes back a long way.
So why are they different colors? Mainly because in the 1930s, Westmalle introduced what would become a category-defining pale tripel, a novelty at the time. (The Drie Linden brewery may have actually released an earlier version, but there’s no doubt which has become the standard-bearer.) Most Belgian barley beer has been brown, so strength designations were applied to dark beers. But there’s nothing in Belgium that says a dubbel must be brown or a tripel blond—nor a quadrupel brown.
Finally, it’s important to add this bit of history: “quads” didn’t even exist until 1991. That was the year La Trappe (Koningshoeven) introduced their Quadrupel, the first ever to carry that name. Other monastic breweries have of course made beers in that style—very strong and dark ales—but they identified them by their arcane degree system (Rochefort, Westvleteren) or by brewery-specific designations (Chimay Grande Réserve). That category we now think of as such a hallowed Belgian tradition only really dates back a quarter century.
So add a blond quad to the permitted expressions of Belgian brewing, and give Deschutes a pass. And be careful the next time you describe a beer as “not to style.” That is almost certainly a loaded accusation.