Friday, October 7, 2011

Beer Rant, English Ales

I came across this horror story of post that I had made a long while ago. I wrote it after attending a very bad, local "English Ales" tasting that was hosted by a bunch of beer geeks posing as BJCP judges. All the beer samples were old and oxidized Fuller's products with a splattering of American "C" hop bombs that were supposedly spot on representations of what English beer was 'really' like. As someone who tries to replicate English style beer for my own enjoyment and to get others to begin to appreciate them, it is often frustrating to see English beer continually put down by beer snobs as uninteresting or pedestrian. And it is even more frustrating to see the practical end of BJCP judging have such limited parameters for what an English bitter/mild/porter/ect should taste like. I must say it is somewhat ironic then, that I am now studying for my BJCP exam this winter.

                                                                ---------------------

As I sit here waiting for my NHC score sheets to arrive, I thought I would take a moment and rant about one of my favorite beery topics: Why Americans and our lovely homebrew affiliated BJCP, continually misrepresent English beers. For those of you readers who are not familiar with the wonders of the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), it is a non-profit organization that exists to "promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills." This roughly translates as: We, the enlightened beer nerds of America, know more about other peoples national beer styles than they do (that means you Europe!) and to prove it, we made up a bunch of imaginary beer styles and the criteria for which those styles are to be judged. If you think I'm joking about this, take a look at their website's FAQ's.

Q: "Who gave you the right to tell me what a given beer style is like?"

A: "Actually, it's part of the BJCP's Mission Statement...The BJCP has been operating since 1985 and has been publishing guidelines for much of that history."

That pretty much says it all. They've been around for 26 years and have a mission statement that allows them to make stuff up.

Ok, so what exactly is my problem with the BJCP and their interpretation of English beer? Well, it really boils down to one issue: Most of what Americans and American beer judges know about English beer has either come from incorrect secondhand information, old/stale/oxidized bottles from the UK, or from American craft-brewers shoddy attempts at brewing "authentic" English ales. As a result, the BJCP has formed a very narrow set of parameters of what English beer 'is' and should taste like. Moreover, considering the level of apathy towards English beer in the States and the overwhelming enthusiasm for huge IPA's and Belgians, English ales (bitter in particular) have been pigeonholed into a stylistic straight-jacket that only recognizes the most general characteristics of the style. Given the rich history, varieties, and flavors found in English beer, it is a damn shame that most of the English ales entered into competition follow the flavor conventions of one or two well know examples; anything dissimilar is discounted almost immediately.

Fuller's. There's your shining example of what English beer in general should taste like. In particular, Fuller's is listed as the first example in the BJCP guidelines for Ordinary Bitter, Special Bitter, Extra Special Bitter, and Brown Porter. And for those 'styles' that have no English commercial examples readily available - such as Mild, Brown Porter, and Southern English Brown - the BJCP gravitated to a quintessentially American interpretation of the style, best summed up by the phrase "beat them unconscious with the flavor hammer." Never mind what those styles may actually taste like. Therefore, if a homebrewer wants to brew an English bitter and have it do well in a U.S competition, they would need to brew a low-gravity Fuller's ESB clone and ensure it was adequately oxidized and cloyingly malty as to best simulate an old bottle Fuller's. Whatever you do, make sure there's not much hop flavor. If brewing a mild, make a low gravity robust porter. The more likely the beer is to cause palate fatigue for your judges, the better.

If the BJCP wants to pretend to have some semblance of authority on what these styles should taste like, shouldn't they at least try to make an effort to authentically represent the gamut of flavors that such styles contain? How can a beer judge adequately know what an English bitter tastes like, if he/she has only ever had one or two examples, both of which aren't even particularly authentic to the narrow BJCP style?!

This brings me to my second main gripe. American "C" hops and ingredients do not combine to make an English style beer. Most of what people and/or our craft breweries call an "English _____" are not even English in the sense that they use similar ingredients. Take for example, Deschutes Batchelor E.S.B. This is a good beer, it won a lot of awards under the English Bitter category at the GABF and other competitions. However, when we look at the ingredient list we find: NW 2-row pale malt, crystal malt, dextrine malt, and munich malt. Hops are amarillo, EKG, and galena. Typical of an English bitter, no? Even the list of commercial beers the BJCP provides for each style are misleading. On one hand they have authentic English examples that 99.9% of Americans will never get to try and on the other hand list a bunch of Americanized examples that fit the style only in that they contain the word "bitter" or "ESB". Ah, but none of that matters. If it doesn't taste like a Fuller's, it's not going to win in a competition.

I guess my problem isn't so much with the BJCP as an organization per se, but rather of the guidelines they have set for their English pale ale/bitter and porter/mild categories. I understand the BJCP needs a tight set of style guidelines to allow for competitions to take place, but I don't see why it can't provide a more accurate stylistic baseline if it intends to have any sense of accuracy. A quick glance at CAMRA's or the GBBF beer style guide for English ales, after reading the BJCP one, and you'd think they were talking about completely different styles. I think the Brits might know a bit more about English bitter, porter, or mild than some BJCP guy. I dunno, maybe I'm over reacting.... actually, I definitely am. It is very narrow minded to think we can stylize a few centuries of English beer history into a few pages of flavor descriptions. Rant over and out.

6 comments:

  1. The English style descriptions don't look so bad compared to the fantasy of Scottish "styles". Barely a true word in the history, ingredients or flavour descriptions. Laughably bad.

    And don't get me started on the Lager styles. Not a fucking clue. The only "official" Czech style doesn't really exist and another 12 or 15 seem to have escaped their notice.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ron,

    Your latest posts about Scottish brewing have been quite enlightening. It's nearly criminal how we've made Scottish beer into something it never was. Oak, peat, and smoke?! Bollocks.

    I'd love to hear more about these forgotten Czech styles, if you can even call them 'styles.' Are they still consumed in the CZ?

    ReplyDelete
  3. There's an explanation of them here:

    http://www.europeanbeerguide.net/czecintr.htm#stylesnow

    Still brewed and drunk.

    ReplyDelete
  4. As an Englishman living in Oregon, I really appreciate what you're saying here! Austin Homebrew Supply does some good interpretations of what I'd consider real English beers. Their Black Sheep Special Ale is particularly good - using primarily Maris Otter malt and nothing but Kent Goldings for bittering, flavor and aroma hops.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It seems like the American homebrewing community as a whole has embraced English beer more so than our breweries or craft-beer drinkers. Good on AHS for trying to keep some things authentic!

    ReplyDelete
  6. What about a real Scottish ale that is brewed with 40% corn, 20% 6-row, 15% pils malt and heavily hopped and dry hopped with Cluster hops? Authentic? yes! recognizable to any modern drinker as a Scottish ale? maybe Ron Pattinson and a handful of others...

    ReplyDelete

Leave a comment. No spam please.