The Changing Definition of Style

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 3
June 26, 2013 By Thomas Sulinski

Each year, the first round of the World Beer Championships is reserved for British and North American ale styles. Following trends of years past, we continue to observe expanding diversion between these two great banners of beer. While British-style ales typically seem to hold a reverence for austerity and balance, it’s here that many American-style ales tend to buck British tradition, becoming beers of their own definition. On either side of the Atlantic, contemporary brewing culture seems to have developed two different opinions in regards to balance. Yes, overall balance is important in regards to most beers, but in the evolution of American styles we’re seeing that balance within a particular style may hold just as much significance. In a short amount of time, American brewing culture has found its own identity in the world, and is adding another definition of balance to the dictionary while doing so.

The “imperialization” of styles beyond stouts is not new. Imperial, or double IPAs have quickly become one of the more successful and well-received styles carrying the imperial moniker. Featuring American hop varieties, these hop-forward beers make even hoppy American IPAs look conservative in comparison. Although hop-forward and ultimately out of balance in the traditional sense, it’s this characteristic that appeals to so many devotees of this style. For these beers, balance is not important, but finding a beer that’s palatable is. Moylan’s Brewing Co. has successfully met this challenge with both Hop Craic XXXXIPA (96 points) and Moylander Double IPA (95 points). Yes, both tremendously hop-forward, but trust me, you’ll be left with more than mouth-coating hop resin after each sip.

Although not to the extent of American-style IPAs, we’re seeing American hops being promoted from extras to featured players in other American interpretations of classic styles. More malt-forward than their brethren of the pale variety, many American brown ales are seeing an increased dose of American hops in brew kettles. Stevens Point Brewery’s Point Burly Brown Ale (91 points) and Excelsior Brewing Co.’s Bitteschlappe Brown Ale (88 points) rounded out the best American-style brown ales from this round.

Remaining much more steadfast to age-old style definitions, English-style brown ales are more malt-focused with toffee, nutty and caramel malt notes taking lead. English hop aromas and flavors provide subtle support in the background, but overall these beers are typically sweeter on the palate with hops taking a backseat to classic English malt flavors and aromas. Taking top honors this year were Rogue Ales’ Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale (95 points), Elevator Brewing Co.’s Dirty Dick’s Nut Brown Ale (95 points) and Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Hazel Brown (92 points).

Although I’ve made some generalizations in regards to American and British ale styles, rest assured that not all American ale styles are hop-centric, with balance between hop and malt components still being an ultimate goal for many brewers. Amber ales are typically incredibly balanced, medium-body ales featuring both malt and hops in a harmonious dance with caramel malt taking the lead. Available nationally, both Double Take Amber Ale (92 points) and Rogue Ales’ American Amber Ale (90 points) took top honors this year for amber ales.

Also, included as part of this first session of the year were seasonal doppelbocks. Originally brewed in Munich as a staple of fasting Franciscan friars, these beers are stronger versions of bock beers. For many breweries, doppelbock-style beers are only offered seasonally, but lucky for us, many of these beers can still be found in these late spring months. Highlights of this year were Capital Brewery’s Blonde Doppelbock (97 points), Fort Collins Brewery’s Doppelbock (97 points) and Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Double Bock (92 points).

The idea of balance for many brewers still holds supreme, but for an increasing number the idea of balance is two-fold. Many brewers are taking balance within a particular style into account just as much, if not more, than overall balance. Hop-forward, malt-forward—what does it matter, right? The important question is would you have another? That’s for you to decide, and we hope the pages that follow will help. Cheers.

Thomas Sulinski
Thomas Sulinski is the production coordinator for the Beverage Testing Institute.