Wednesday, 2 September 2009

80 bob’s worth of style

What is a beer style? Ever since I made what seemed like the enjoyable but career unenhancing switch to beerwriting in the late 1990s I have vaguely followed Michael Jackson’s strictures on the family of beer (and other writers’). Now after years of talking with brewers — both home and away — and others in the business, and reading various articles and blogs, especially Ron Pattinson’s, I am not so sure. Well I am sure that there have to be guidelines but they should be put in place so that you can wander away from them but still use them as a guide. Bit like going off road I suppose, you have to learn to drive before you can rip off over a moor.

When someone says American barley wines are too hoppy so what, rather that than the syrupy o’figs of Gold Label — Greene King call their session beer IPA, does it matter that it is nearly half the strength of say White Shield? Perhaps it does, because IPA is a revered icon and not to be dethroned, or maybe style is distinct from alcohol strength, after all you wouldn’t have a 3% barley wine would you? (on the other hand BrewDog highly hop a mild in How To Disappear Completely). What about lager? Now that is a whole can of Hofmeister? Is Schehallion a decent golden ale or a real ale pilsner (now we’re getting silly)?

Williams Bros 80/- is a case in point — I have been sent some of their beers, they’re good, especially the 80/-. So it’s an 80/- ale but as the only one I know is the Cally one I am not qualified to say if this is in style or not and does it matter? I know styles are also useful for breweries trying to sell their beers to the general public but then on the other hand? Let’s have a look at it.

Dark chestnut brown in colour; espresso coloured head that slowly dissipates. On the nose chocolate, ground coffee plus a hint of resiny hop — a restrained sweetness; almost like a flavoured coffee; there’s the sternness of the coffee bean but a friendlier more fragrant note coming through as well, which I suspect is the influence of the hop. On the palate it’s creamy, mouth-filling, smooth and soothing, mocha coffee-sweetness but also an aromatic vanilla hint, that fragrance again, imagine an imperial version of this — a very luscious beer for its strength, which would be lovely with or in ice cream. I suspect the original 80/- was thinner than this, and with perhaps more roasted notes. Is it in style? I don’t know and I don’t really care.


  1. It's sure an interesting one, beer styles. Is it really useful to have styles when there is so much disagreement about what is "true to style"?

    A madly hopped mild, or a weak and frankly under hopped IPA makes a mockery of it.

    But then I've brewed a dark IPA, so what can I say? Like you, I don't think I care.

  2. The "true to style" question has led the US Craft Brewers Association to produce an ever-expanding list of styles and categories. Woe betide you if you enter your beer in the wrong category for judging at the GABF.

  3. Indeed, the obsession of fitting everything in an impressive array of neat little boxes with clean, sharp edges is a dead end in terms of beer styles.
    Beers have always evolved over time, so that whole families or streams were born from one or two original beers, as brewers experimented with malt, hops, density, fermentation etc. so that new beers don't fit in any neat little box anymore, so you have to fathom new ones, again and again.

    Style classifications such as BA and BJCP guidelines are only ever really useful in the perspective of tasting in competitions, in trying to make sure similar beers are judged together. But then that may be a dead end too !

    Italian national craft beer contest Birra dell'Anno is an interesting counter-example, in that categories are kept really broad, such as "top fermentation, 16 to 20° Plato". That really leads tasting panels to concentrate on what the beer really are about, no on what they hypothetically should be like according to the effing manual.

  4. 80/-? Isn't that just another name for Best Bitter? Maybe I'll be able to say for sure after I've finished ploughing through my latest crop of Scottish brewing records.

    One thing I do know. The number of shillings used to say nothing about the style at all. Usher's brewed a 60/- PA, a 60/- X and a 60/- Mild Ale. And an 80/- Mild Ale.

  5. Laurent
    I think the Italian guys are so out there in what they are doing that any effort to bracket them in a style (or colour!) is fruitless.
    didn’t someone once brew a 100/- ale?

  6. Ron
    cor never heard of that! What strength was the 160?