What Style is That Beer?

Eno Sarris, December 18, 2014

Shakespeare’s rumination on roses aside, we know that the name of your beer is a big deal. Not necessarily the name on the label. The style. It makes a subjective difference what style your beer is, and it makes an objective difference given some of the decisions we’ve made at this site. 

Subjectively, expectations are a big deal. I introduced my mom to sours this past week in San Diego, and she was … not a fan. “It’s salad dressing, not beer.” We agreed that it might be fun to cook with sours, to make an actual salad dressing. If sours weren’t so expensive, I’d jump on that. 

There’s the Master of Disguise by Stone, and though it’s a great beer, I can’t help wondering if it’s trading on this reversal of expectations in a different way. A blonde stout, it looks like a lager or an IPA until you bring it to your lips. The cognitive dissonance can break your brain. It makes for great marketing. I'm not sure I even remember how good it tastes, just the brain-breaking. 

And now comes Mission Beer’s hard root beer. Currently available only at the brewery, Mission now has formula approval, and label approval and distribution is around the corneer. If you think ‘beer,’ you’ll be dissappointed. If you think ‘root beer,’ you’ll be surprised when you’re drunk. If you can clear your mind, you’ll probably enjoy the sarsaparilla, the herby wonder of a root beer. it might still be too sweet for you.  

Data-wise, sours are once again at the center of this decision. There aren’t many sours high up on our top 100. Cantillon’s Fou’ Foune, a world-class beer by acclimation, is 35th on the list. New Glarus’ Serendipity is 59th. Cantillon’s St. Lamvinus, a personal favorite, is 82nd. New Glarus Raspberry Tart is 94th. We’re done listing sours in the top 100. 

That’s because the replacement level for sours is wicked high. 3.76, or the fifteenth-highest replacement level of the 150 styles that we have listed in our database. The average score for sours is wicked high, too: over four stars. (It’s also slightly because there are fewer sours in distribution and so therefore they get less of a boost from quantity of check-ins.) 

Is that high average score for sours because of expectations? Do you expect a sour to be good because of price point? Did it take you so long to get that sour that the worst you’ll do is give it a 3.5 out of 5? 

We’ve talked about this with triple IPAs, and I had a quadruple IPA in San Diego (Hop Wine by Rip Current, 15.7% ABV). It’s only going to get more ridiculous, styles are only going to blend more, it’s only going to get harder to define. 

And yet, I think it’s important to judge the lighter beers with the lighter beers and the darker beers with the darker beers. Imagine just the simple act of having one right after having the other. It wouldn't be fair to put Pinkus Urpils up against Bourbon County Stout in one tasting, why should we do it on our site?

Perhaps we could create groupings — APAs, IPAs, DIPAs, TIPAs (QIPAs), ambers, and barleywines in one group, stouts, imperial stouts, russian stouts, porters in another group, and so on? There will be some difficult decisions — where do saisons go? browns? Because those lighter styles will not float to the top of a dark grouping, or a wild grouping. The heavier sours will dominate the farmhouses. 

Are we talking about what makes a beer? The Rheinheitsgebot in Germany has a very strict definition of beer — no adjuncts, essentially — and that’s had deleterious effects on the German craft beer market. So it’s good that, in America, we call a sour a beer, and a shandy a beer, and a vanilla stout a beer. That means they can get packaged and sold like beers. That's good for business. 

But when you put that shandy to your lips for the first time, and you expect the traditional bitterness of a beer… it can be a shock. And your expectations might change the way your score that beer. 

And then once we sort everything out here on BeerGraphs, we will once again change the appraisal of that beer. So, yeah, a rose by another name is not really a rose any more.