Are multiplying beer types helping or hindering ale?
Our beer expert, Andrew Nowell, examines the plentiful categories of drinks available today in his weekly column, Hoppy Hour...
If you wanted an illustration of the explosion of creativity in beer production over the last decade or so then you could start by looking at the list of styles drinks are divided into.
As knowledge of international drinking habits have increased and communication and transport makes experimentation and collaboration ever easier, the traditional British labels such as mild, bitter, stout, porter and IPA have been joined by a huge array of others.
Astonishingly one American beer organisation recognises more than 100 sub-categories of ales, all of these coming under 34 main headings.
Predictably, this has started to cause some unease in certain quarters of the beer world. Real ale makers should be shackled, put back in their time-honoured boxes, and all the weird and wonderful cleared from the shelves and bars, goes the most extreme version of this view.
Is such a backlash really necessary? There is no doubt that, especially for the novice drinker, the proliferation of types of beer available can be confusing and even the definitionds we all thought we agreed on don’t necessarily hold water.
Take the India Pale Ale. There’s the historic version of this, a strongly-hopped pale beer which had plenty of alcoholic strength to survive the long sea journey to India to quench the thirst of British soldiers.
There’s also the commonly-agreed British version of an IPA, a hoppy and refreshing session sipper usually around four per cent. Then there’s the US version, which is sort of a hybrid of both, retaining the original strength but adding in the New World hops which fill the palate with notes of citrus and pine.
Then you can cross-fertilise all these different ideas, make them more or less hoppy, more or less malty, and so on. Then there’s the Black IPA, which has strong elements of a session stout such as Guinness before finishing with a shooting rush of hop.
Dark beers can now be Belgian style, German style, US style, British style and a whole myriad of other types. Then there are sour beers and other styles which practically invite brewers to make it all up as they go along.
Does any of this matter? In some cases it is nice to see traditional styles adhered to. It is always very pleasant to find breweries who understand the differences between porters, with their fruity flavours, and stouts dominated by notes of coffee, chocolate and nuts. And it would be nice to see breweries doing more to keep the old brown mild style alive.
Another example which comes to mind here is Jennings’ Bitter, brewed to a recipe from early Victorian times. Sipping this is a good reminder how different from the historic template many bitters today actually are.
On the other hand, brewers should also surely be free to experiment. Yes, some of what they produce might not work at all, but some of it will also be sublime. Surely drinkers should pass judgement.
Marble’s Earl Grey IPA is a bolt from leftfield with its astonishing peppermint tastes. It’s not a standard IPA, but it tastes superb. Cloudwater’s DIPAs are miles from the stuff sent out in the days of empire, but those mango and fruit sorbet and ice cream flavours are luscious.
Cheshire Brewhouse, a more traditional concern, has admitted its Smokehouse Porter is a massive success, featuring date paste and cacao.
Why shouldn’t brewers have a look into the German rauchbier tradition of smoking malted barley, or the hops used in the Czech Republic, or how Belgian brewers do things?
Even at the extreme end of the market, where disquiet grows, things like Thornbridge and Brooklyn’s extraordinary collaboration Serpent or Wild Beer’s barrel-aged, frozen and goodness-knows-what-elsed anniversary beer Iced Modus create headlines and interest. They make people think: I didn’t know a beer could be that.
In short, let ale fans decide what they are going to raise a glass to!