Tuesday 24 July 2007

Are you a Stalinist or a Trotskyist?

Yesterday I touched upon my theory of beer politics. I'll expand upon it today and demonstrate why Leon is your man.

Let's start with an existential question. What is a beer style?

I see it as a consensus between brewer and drinker, a shorthand to describe the essential features of a beer and its relative alcoholic strength. Neither absolute nor immutable, a beer style is in constant flux. At least it should be.

"Give us some examples you loud-mouthed git." OK, I will.

Porter is the perfect test case having the widest distribution (combining both time and geography) of any style. How do we define Porter? Let's start at the beginning.

The first Porter for which we have hard evidence (from Richardson's early experiments with the hydrometer in the 1770's) had an OG of 1071 and was brewed from 100% brown malt. What happened over the next 150 years? I'm glad you asked that. The figures are at my fingertips.

I said that I had the numbers at my fingertips. Not quite all of them. I got confused in the archive over Barclay Perkins "new brewery" documents and consequently have a few decades missing. Next month. Mikey says he'll drive me to London next month. The gaping chasm of 1862 to 1937 will be filled then. (The numbers above are all for Barclay Perkins - who else? - except for 1770.)

Note how the malt bill wanders all over the place. And the hopping rate. Which one is authentic? I plump for 1856. An entry for my Homebrew Challenge matched the 1856 Porter and Imperial Brown Stout. I've tasted two recreations of the 1856 Imperial Brown Stout in the last year. Both were outstanding. Has beer ever been better?

Beer styles, living in the real, unstable and sometimes volatile world, need to adapt to survive. The 19th century is characterised by a rapid change in the ingredients used, especially malt. In the 20th century, strength varied enormously. (I'm talking only of the UK here. Elsewhere, the story differs.)

I've been accused to being a traditionalist because of my opposition to the gulags set up by the BJCP and their like. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Stalinist precision of their style guidelines - like a five-year plan deciding the number of toothbrushes to be produced - stifle natural evolution. That's why I despise them.

Permanent revolution - as Trotsky advocated - is far more applicable. Beer styles change because society, legislation and economic circumstances change. I haven't even started on the effect of geography.

Compiling an all-inclusive, detailed set of style guidelines is a Stalinist fantasy. Every time a brewer successfully jumps over the wire, a new style is born. Pursue that path and you end up with hundreds of beer styles. In 2006 the GABF had 69 categories. Who wants to bet when they will hit 100? Will they stop then? I doubt it.

So what are you - a beer Stalinist or Trotskyist?

I vote for the beard.

Tomorrow I'll explain how Mao fits in.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating figures, these. As used by the Pitfield Brewery for their "historical" porters/stouts..? You've probably already mentioned this elsewhere, but which archive in London are you using?

Ron Pattinson said...

The London Metropolitan Archive is my main source. It's just of the Farringdon Road (conincidentally, just around the corner from the site of the Griffin Brewery, whose records are in the Westminster City Archive).

If you live in London, you're very lucky (in the beer research sense, not quality of life).

Anonymous said...

Interesting. The Westminster City Archive is just round the corner from where I work -- I go there a lot, just nosing around. I posted a while ago about an 80-odd volume set of scrapbooks compiled by a Victorian beer and pub obsessive. There's lots of that kind of thing.

Ron Pattinson said...

I hadn't noticed the scrapbooks. They sound interesting. I was hypnotised by the brewing logs:


Wonderful things archives. Very neglected, sadly.

What a lost opportunity when I lived in London. I never realised what a treasure trove the archives were.

Terry said...

Watch out for the icepicks, Ron ...

The ludicrousness of overprescriptive beer style descriptions is nowhere better shown than in the development in the UK of Golden Ale and how Camra eventually had to take beers such as Summer Lightning out of the "best bitter" category where they had been stuck because they didn't know what to do with them, and give them a Champion Beer of Britain slot of their own, because Golden Ales kept winning the Best Bitter section all the time ...

Stonch said...

Brilliant post!

My favourite yet!

Ron Pattinson said...

I hope the UK doesn't go down the same route as the US. Perhaps the creation of a "Golden Ale" category is just a start. It's a slippery slope.

Stonch said...

Ron, I don't think we will go down that route over here. If you look at the ranges offered by most breweries, they really don't go for a standardised line-up - and I think that's what an overemphasis on style categories would produce. Their ranges tend to be very idiosyncratic.

Much as I like their beers, Sierra Nevada seems to be the ultimate manifestation of "style-conscious" brewing. They just produce a middle-of-the-road version of each of a set number of rigidly defined categories.

I note, by the way, that in his book Beer, Michael Jackson counts "fidelity to style" as a criteria on which to judge a beer. Not something I agree with.

Belgian and British brewers prove their worth by not worrying about all that tosh.

Chibe said...

Yeah, I'd hate to see the UK follow the slippery slope of US style guidelines. After all, that's why you don't see any imaginative, creative or innovative craft beers coming out of the United States.

Ron Pattinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron Pattinson said...


thanks for pointing out the failings of the Amercian brewing scene. I think you're being a little harsh, personally.

Anonymous said...

According to the table, for the years shown between 1805 and 1856, the brown malt in the mash declined. Correlatively, the hop rate increased in this period except for the last year (although the decrease in hop rate in that year is relatively minimal).

Thereafter, the picture changes and the "pattern" is broken, for which there could be many reasons -or maybe there is no pattern.

I'd like to suggest, though, a reason for the inverse relationship between brown malt usage and hop rate in the period mentioned.

In Byrn's 1852 Complete Practical Brewer, he states that the substitution earlier in the century of pale malt for a good part of the brown malt in a porter grist caused a problem in that the "bitterness" which he states was characteristic of porter produced by brown malt was lessened due to the increased use of pale malt in the mash bill. He states that brewers, to restore the lost bitterness, resorted to use of burnt sugar, quassia, "even oppium" (!). Oddly to my mind, Byrn does not state that adding more hops would remedy this default - a seemingly obvious solution. Maybe he felt that the smoky bitter tang of brown malt was not something that hop resins could duplicate.

Still, I find it interesting that for some considerable time in the 1800's, as brown malt went down in the mash bill, hops went up. Perhaps this was done to restore the bitter edge porter lost with the reduced usage of brown malt.