Following the pieces earlier by Mario Rubio and Jon Abernathy, I wanted to add my own two cents to the question of American beer styles. Where Mario wonders about what American beer styles would look like if the US was the center of beer style instead of Europe and Jon covers some of the basic US beer styles, I would argue that there is much more to this discussion than meets the eye. If you put these two discussions together, you are lead towards something that I have long been evangelizing – most beer styles today are American. Even the ones we don’t really think of as being American.
I’ll illustrate what I mean. Consider the case of IPA. This is thought of as being an English beer style. The name IPA began in England, yes. The product that was called IPA when the style originated, however, is not the product that is known as IPA today. Not even close. Martyn Cornell covers the description of IPA – Allsopp’s seminal example for example – is his book Beer: The Story of the Pint. This description is of a strong, relatively pale product that is rich with both malt and hop. The style at the time was called October Beer, a robust harvest brew that was produced to last the entire year through until the next harvest. When companies began shipping October Beer to India, it started to acquire the name India Pale Ale, which eventually stuck. But October Beer, judging from the descriptions of the day, was closer to Lee’s Harvest Ale than anything else I can think of today. Indeed, those barrel-aged Lee’s Harvest Ales might be as accurate a replication of the original India Pale Ale as exists.
So IPA as we know it today is certainly not like it was originally. Today, the name IPA is England is just another name for bitter. This almost certainly dates to the First World War. Prior to the Great War, the alcohol content of all English beer styles was higher. Wartime austerity measures decreased the strength of beer from that point onward. So IPA in England today is bitter, cask-conditioned with a low alcohol content not hopped any more than any other bitter. An archaic trade name, at best.
Which leads me to my point. IPA as we know it today is a purely American beer style. Not English. IPA today bears historical lineage to England but stylistically, there is nothing English about it. The alcohol content, malt bill, hop bill, dry-hopping, the yeast – all of it is American, derived from Anchor Liberty Ale, Bert Grant’s India Pale Ale and perhaps a couple of other early examples.
What about “English IPA”? This is an absolute myth. There is no such beer style. Homebrewers developed the idea, and it has been adopted without any critical thought by most other style guidelines. It’s bunk. What the English call IPA is bitter. What the Americans call English IPA is little more than underhopped American IPA. Yet, it is still of a decent strength, a good 50% stronger than English versions but a healthy 25-50% lighter than any reasonable re-creation of October Beer. Consider also that there is no clear cut line between “English” and “American” IPAs. You can mix and match any hops in any given beer. Map out the IBUs and you’ll see a continuum from the underhopped to the overhopped with no clear break. There may be obvious differences at either end of the spectrum – Alpha King is surely no “English” IPA, but neither are many beers that are classed as such by the style gurus. If the demarcations of two styles cannot be easily and consistently applied, then you do not have two styles.
Even if you did accept the existence of “English IPA”, it is still an American style. It was created by Americans in response to and as an interpretation of Michael Jackson’s writings. A few English examples eventually emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s, but those were in response to exposure to American IPA or brews designed for the American market.
Indeed, the IPA argument applies to a number of beer styles that we consider to be English. “English” pale ale in England is bitter. In the US, it is a distinct beer style. Extra Special Bitter is a beer style in the US; in England it is a brand name used by Fuller’s. Scottish Ale is Michael Jackson’s description of the ales of Scotland. Historical evidence shows that his impressions of reduced hoppiness are unfounded. Scottish ale in Scotland is also bitter. In America, it is a distinct beer style, very easily differentiated from all other beer styles.
The Brits do not understand these styles at all, in the same way that Danes are confused by danishes (a bastardization of a wienerbrød, so from Vienna not Denmark) and Canadians by the notion of “Canadian bacon” (a bastardization of peameal bacon, for which Toronto is famous…go to Carousel Bakery in St. Lawrence Market and you’ll see why). You can see the trend here – these style names are corruptions – ideas that may have originated in England or Scotland but have been altered by Americans to the point where they are no longer recognizable by the English and the Scots. They are American products, just like danishes and Canadian bacon.
The fact is, the United States is the originator of most styles in the United States. Even for styles that do not specifically originate in the US, the beer is often so distinctly American that it would be unrecognizable to a native drinker (I’m specifically thinking about Baltic Porter and Foreign Stout, but Kellerbier is at least one other style and there are probably more). The US is the leader in world beer styles today – it’s cultural. It is not 1987 any more. Beer culture has long since exploded, with the US having more breweries and more beers than any other nation by a wide margin. To think that this has occurred simply by mimicking beers from elsewhere is actually kind of quaint. But it’s unfounded. Most styles in the US are American, even those that typically bear the names of other countries.
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