Last week, Peter Estaniel of BetterBeerBlog and I had a little discussion about style. No, not about our fresh duds, but about beer styles. It was part of our regular Hopinions piece that we write and tends to create a bit of discussion. This time I got some interesting feedback from a source I respect quite a lot. Instead of mucking up a perfectly good argument, I’m just going to let Brian do the talking.
600 Words About Beer Styles
Bear with me for a few minutes and imagine a different beer world … just a slight twist of plant genetic fate away from what we take for granted today…
Suppose barley had been native to the North America instead of the Middle East. Without barley, beer could not have existed in Europe; it would instead have been brewed in the Americas. Columbus would have sailed back to Europe with barley seeds and news of beer as a revolutionary new beverage, a welcome change from cider, wine and mead. It would be Columbus that European breweries would pay homage to, not Gambrinus.
Moving on a few years, enter a gifted writer named Michael Jackson. He chronicled the existing beers of the world in his books. The bitters of Burton, Kolsch of Cologne, Pilsners of Pilsen, Rauch beers of Bamberg, sours of the Senne Valley, Porters of London, and more. But if barley hadn’t been in Europe before Columbus, these styles could never have developed!
Imagine, then, that brewers on the New World continents would have been brewing beer with barley for thousands of years and today wouldn’t merely be copying beer styles from thousands of miles away in Europe. Imagine just in North America how many indigenous beer styles would have developed that would be completely unlike any we know today. Instead, the World Book of Beers would have been written about the delicate beers of Denver, the hoppy ales of Seattle, Steam beers of San Francisco, roasted beers of New York, herbed beers of Ann Arbor, wheat beers of Kansas, Spruce beers of Alaska, sour cherry beers of the Columbia River Valley, Rye beers of Fargo, and on and on.
Indigenous American beer styles! What a concept! Somewhere in Belgium today, a brewer would be scouring his books for clues as to what made the famous soft beers of Florida, and trying to re-create them. A brewer in Munich would be fretting about having the wrong water to make a Yakima Freshhop. A brewer in Prague would be trying to find that native phenolic yeast culture for that Pennsylvania beer he loved on his vacation over here. It could so easily have been reversed like this.
Look at San Francisco sourdough bread. It only works near San Francisco because of the weather and the wild organisms in the air. Fifty miles away and the dough won’t work the same. What beer styles such as Lambic must be made in one certain place on the planet, and how many of those places and beers are hiding right under our noses-waiting for us to discover them? How can we deny them to thirsty beer drinkers?
A beer style develops for so many reasons. The climate, food, native ingredients, wild cultures, water supplies, taxes, and commerce routes, all play a part. Here in the States, we have all those things in our own unique combinations. What beer style would have developed for the San Diego heat, Houston humidity, or with a Philly Cheese Steak? What would native herbs taste like instead of those in traditional gruit? What wild cultures are in the air in Missouri or Northern California? What is the ideal style of beer made with glacier runoff in Montana or from Amazon water in Rio de Janiero?
All these factors are still relevant today, we just have chosen not to appreciate that they are just as valid forces as why the Alt Beer in Dusseldorf is so wonderful. Maybe if we used our imagination, science, and palate, we could come up with the new old styles that could have been brewed here for centuries. We are a few thousand years behind Europe, but that need not keep us from exploring our options.
I trust that Michael Jackson would have done his part.
Brian Hunt, Moonlight Brewing Co.
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