In principle, beer is incredibly simple: use hot water to coax sugars out of malted barley, spice with hops, and then let some microorganisms gorge themselves. But in practice, the wide variety of available malts, hops, and yeast strains means that brewers have nearly limitless opportunities for creativity and innovation. (And that’s not even to mention decisions about process that affect the character of a finished beer.) Still, it would be paralyzing if all of those decisions had to be made anew every time a brewer sat down to write a recipe. So there are shortcuts, and they’re called beer styles.
What a beer style does for a brewer is provide a general framework for a beer so that they can avoid decision paralysis. Interested in brewing a Best Bitter? It’s up to you which hops to use, but something floral or earthy is probably best. It’s up to you which yeast strain to use, but pick one that produces some mild esters in the classic English tradition. It’s up to you which malts to use, but choose something bready and not too light.
But if style guidelines can be helpful, they can also turn into ruts, since having a general framework for a recipe can make certain decisions seem inevitable. So every now and then it pays to revisit the groundwork of a beer style. That’s how sexy beer trends and new beer styles are born – by making an unexpected decision about ingredients or process, and showing beer drinkers that what seems inevitable isn’t, after all.
Take IPAs, for example. Ten years ago, if you wanted to make an American IPA, there were certain decisions that were already made for you: use mostly standard pale malt, brew to at least 6% ABV, hop aggressively throughout the boil, and ferment with a clean American ale yeast. (Think Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Dogfish Head 60 Minute, and Bell’s Two-Hearted.) And because these were all part of the framework of the style, they started to seem like a package deal, like they somehow belonged together. But innovators are good at challenging lazy associations like this, so it didn’t take long before these were all treated as independent variables that might be worth varying to see what it would get us.
What if we throw in some dark malts but keep everything else the same? Hello Black IPA. And what if we keep an aggressively hopped clean pale ale, but dial back the ABV? Enter the session IPA. (I remember that the first time I tried a session IPA, it was like a revelation: you mean IPAs didn’t have to be high in alcohol? Prior to that I had just assumed that there was some necessary connection between hoppiness and alcoholic strength, not because I had a good reason to think so, but just because it seemed inevitable.) More recently IPA innovators have varied other things: what if we hop aggressively, but use a lager yeast instead? Thus was born the India Pale Lager. Or what if we hop aggressively, but only after the boil is over, and maybe even use a slightly estery English ale yeast instead? #HazeCraze.
IPA isn’t the only example of this, though. Presumably you’ve seen golden stouts, right? Even the recent resurgence of craft light lagers can be seen as an instance of this general phenomenon: just because craft beer started as a reaction to mass-market light lagers doesn’t mean that light lagers are bad! That sounds obvious when you say it out loud, but figuring out how to dismantle traditional associations can be tough. It can also be the key to discovering – or constructing – the next cool craft beer innovation.
So here’s a recipe of sorts for creating a beer trend: (1) think about existing styles and see if you can find groupings of ingredients or processes that feel like they inevitably belong together; then (2) ask whether they really have to go together, after all. If not, then try varying them independently to see what happens.
Of course, following this recipe is no guarantee that drinkers will like the result: allegiances are hard to predict, and it’s hard to say exactly what makes some innovations endure while others are ignored. (Though I’ve got some hunches I’ll write about some other time.) But these experiments in deconstructing style frameworks are useful, I think, even if the resulting beers don’t catch on. They make us smarter about what beer is, and what it can be.