Thursday, June 7, 2007

Stout vs. Porter (U.S. vs. U.K.)

Stonch is stirring the pot with a post labeled: "Debunking beer myths #1 - Stout is Irish, and evolved from Porter." He's done some fairly easy research, and concludes that Guinness was not the first brewer of stout, that it was first brewed in London, and that porter evolved from stout, not vice versa. He's got backup from Dr. Michael Lewis and Ron Pattinson (who, if you don't know, you oughta).

Pretty bold stuff, and it only gets better in the comments, where a fellow signing himself John Brewer says (among other things):
But my main point is that we must take ANY beer style info from the USA with a large pinch of salt. The Americans abolutely LOVE to categorise beer - 'porter MUST be different from stout because it has a different name, therefore let's make some neat categories and specify in what ways it is different'. They rewrite history for the sake of convenience.

I agree, to some extent, because I think the whole discussion is very revealing about the differences between American and English beer geeks. Stonch's main points seem to stem from finding the word "stout" in brewing records prior to Arthur Guinness's claim of inventing stout porter in the mid-1700s. But I wonder, as I did in a comment on Stonch's blog, whether "stout" in 1650 meant "bitter black beer" or just "stronger beer."

Stonch also rightly points out how bizarre it is to call Guinness and a sweet stout by the same name -- stout -- when they are so wildly different. He doesn't even bring up imperial stout. Look at the beers called "stout": dry stout, export stout, foreign stout, imperial stout, American-style imperial stout (the GABF just added this one), milk stout, American stout, sweet stout, oatmeal stout, cream stout, chocolate stout, fruit stout (okay, those last two are just stouts with stuff in 'em)...

Are we really supposed to keep a straight face while saying these are all variations on a theme? These are all dark ales. But "stouts"? That's like saying the beers in Germany and eastern Europe are all lagers: dry lager, dark lager, export lager (whoops, there is one called that), strong lager, bitter lager, strong sweet lager, really strong ice lager, and dark strong roasted lager. Oh, yawn-ho. How much help is that? Even the Germans would object to that much objectivity.

I appreciate the need for categories (more than most of the Brits, much less than most Americans): they give a framework for the brewer, they give a welcome guide to the consumer for finding beers they like. But they are meant to be a framework, not a rack, a Procrustean bed forcing all beers into strait confines.

Yes, I know, stop me now, you've heard all this before and it's not an issue, American brewers are innovative blahblahblah. Yeah. Well, maybe we should take a look back past all the stuff we think we know about beer styles, the stuff we've read in the popular beer books and the back-labels of beer bottles and the brewery websites, past all the beer dogma, as a brewer friend of mine puts it. Maybe we should take a look at how there were no carefully delineated beer styles until the 1970s, which, I might remind you, was hardly a golden frickin' age of brewing.

And then maybe we could take a look at the prestigious and respected Brewing Industry International Awards, a British brewing competition that's been going on for over 110 years. Beers in this competition are put in nine categories: canned or bottled lagers and ales; draught lagers, ales, and cask ales; non- and low-alcohol beers; strong beers (7+%); dark milds, stouts and porters; and specialty beers. The categories are then split up into "bands" of alcohol content, or, in the case of the specialty beers, fruit, wheat, and other, and the strong beers into lager, ale, and dark.

I've talked to people who think this is ridiculous, pitting non-similar beers against each other, and I've talked to people who think it's brilliant, because it puts beers of similar drinking patterns together...and after all, they brew the stuff to drink, not to be judged.

Compare it to the 75 carefully delineated categories of the GABF.

And that's pretty much my point. We see things differently in the U.S. and the U.K., and stout is just the tip of the eisbock, as it were. Some things are not going to make sense, some things are not going to produce fruitful discussion, though it may be fun.

In the end, though, we can still all sit down and have a pint. Just don't serve Stonch a Guinness.

29 comments:

Loren said...

"The Americans abolutely LOVE to categorise beer..."

Of course we do! Maybe it's because there's a larger population of engineers here than in any other country in the world? My theory anyway...or at least my reason for automatically "having" to toss ANY beer into some category, be it legitimate or a mangled confusion of the existing.

At the end of the day though...it's all...just...beer.

Paging Ron P.

Stonch said...

Hey Lew, good article.

There certainly is an Atlantic divde in how we approach beer styles, and I'll immediately confess I prefer the British approach.

I think a better comparison with the GABF's 75 different styles (crazy) would be the GBBF's much more limited bands of beers. Now, of course, the GBBF is really only about cask ale, and usually only English styles come in casks, cutting down the numbers in one fell swoop. But nonetheless, you'll see there's a lot less hair-splitting, but the unusual stuff often rises to the top and wins the awards.

Given that we agree styles are necessary, the fairly obvious question is - what constitutes a style?

I recently ended up in discussion on BeerAdvocate.com (certainly the most US-centric of the big beer sites) as to whether there was such a thing as a "Belgian IPA" or even a "German IPA". There were voices seriously contending there were, on the basis of a few special brews my micros in the USA. Again, crazy talk.

On the other hand, useful new styles do get created from time to time. American Pale Ale (APA) is something I recognise as a style. They've been around for a while and a large number of craft brewers in the US - and even elsewhere, such as the UK - label their pale ales as being APAs. Elevating Belgian IPA to that level is just foolish, though. Remember, new words and expressions didn't enter the Oxford English Dictionary (or indeed Webster's) the moment they were coined - it usually takes years.

The point about true innovation in brewing is that the beers created often do utterly defy categorisation. Somewhere down the line a new style may be formed, but at that point they aren't innovative anymore. I'd say this to the craft brewers creating sexy beers - listen to Bing and the Andrews Sisters, don't let the "beer geeks" fence you in. If you defy style boundaries and produce something great, more power to you.

By the way, the very term beer geeks isn't something we'd identify with over here. Seems too much like something out of an American teen movie - the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds... the beer geeks. But wait a moment - that doesn't work - you lot can't drink until you're already old enough to have served years in the army, owned a fleet of cars and hoarded an arsenal of firearms in your home... but that's another story!

Keep fighting the good fight - cheers!

Lew Bryson said...

Well...if not beer geeks, what should we call you then, Stonch? Anoraks?

Stonch said...

Anorak would certainly be a more British term, although the folks that fit the trainspotter stereotype at beer festivals are usually called "tickers". Some of them aren't particularly knowledgeable or even that interested in quality beer, they just want to "collect" as many as they can before they keel over... they'll drink anything as long as it's another "tick". Not good.

I don't consider myself a beer geek...although I don't think my mates would agree...

Lew Bryson said...

Oh...your mates are dead-on, fella.

Steven said...

Funny, I started learning and categorizing beer styles from a book called "New World Guide to Beer," by Michael Jackson... isn't he English?

Lew Bryson said...

Yeah, what the hell's up with that?

Steven said...

Maybe he's an IMPOSTER!

;)

Leo the Lion said...

Lew,

Great points and they will be debated forever.

As a brewer, and a beer drinker, I can look at it two ways. As a brewer, I want to make sure the beer fits into the category that it is developed from and that it tastes great. As a beer drinker, I just want it to fulfill my hedonistic needs.

Stan Hieronymus said...

There are a bunch of slightly different conversations going on here, but to Stonch's question of "what constitutes a style?"

Perhaps we should accept that it is pretty arbitrary. For a competition the style is what is described in the rules - historical accuracy, current practice, whatever be damned.

After that things get murky quickly. As a consumer, I have no problem with a brewer calling his or her beer a Belgian IPA, but it isn't as useful a guide to me as "American Pale Ale," it certainly isn't a style, and it doesn't matter a bit if it's a great beer.

It's one thing to ding a beer in competition because it doesn't conform to style. Foolish to do so as a consumer.

And if you want to argue about the style guidelines (competition rules) take that up with the people who write them.

Stonch said...

I bet "Belgian IPA" or "Imperial Double IPA" aren't in Michael Jackson's book though...

As I said, there's nothing wrong with beer styles - to suggest otherwise would be foolish. It's just the proliferation of styles that's foolish...

Lew Bryson said...

Leo,
I hope the debate lasts forever; settling it would take a lot of fun out of my life (and about three paid pieces a year!).

Stan...
Categories are arbitrary by nature; you gotta draw the line somewhere. But I would ding a beer as a consumer if I bought it because it said it was one thing and damned sure tasted like another.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Stonch - Imperial IPA will be in the next book in which Jackson writes about styles. I'd be surprised if Belgian IPA were, though.

Stan Hieronymus said...

But I would ding a beer as a consumer if I bought it because it said it was one thing and damned sure tasted like another.

Lew, that would be hefeweizen?

Loren said...

Stonch, would you at least admit that the current nationality derived cross contaminations of existing historic styles is far more interesting and creative (not to mention tasty, for the most part) than just Doubling or Imperializing the same? I think for one thing it's more of a creative tribute to an inspiration than just "throwing MORE into a existing recipe". The talented brewers really shine, either way though.

Steven said...

"I bet "Belgian IPA" or "Imperial Double IPA" aren't in Michael Jackson's book though..."

Not in that particular book, and he also writes by the belief that Ale is actually a subcategory of Top Fermenting type beers -- along with Stout, Porter, Weizen, Wit, etc... for what that's worth to the debate.

GenX at 40 said...

Not that I would get between two of my favorite beer writers, but it is fair to say that the English have been as good at ladeling on the adjectives when it comes to beer names. Have a look at this picture of the interior of the Laxfield Low House in Suffolk, England from onf of Paul's posts at A Good Beer Blog. Were there really extra invalids used in making that stout?

But the point is well taken. Misused and overused characterizations towards or away from strict styles confuses the drinking public [...hey, there is a public interest group we need to rally: "the drinking public".] I got in a heated debate with Ron Pattinson over Scots IPAs that taste nothing like Scots ales or IPAs - I actually ended up hiding some of the comments as I was getting even rude over it and I thought it was a disservice to Ron with whom I have only ever communicated only briefly and who knows and has worked on beer far more than I ever have. But the point I think was the same - what is the use of a descriptor if it does not relate to the nature of the fluid in the glass?

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

BuckSpin said...

"Extra Invalid Stout"

American beer geek translation - "a wingman of rotund proportion who's slow on the uptake"

Jp said...

This is one of those debates, where I just want to sit back, enjoy a beer, and watch the debate unfold, never taking a side.

Both sides have good points. 75 categories for beer is a bit, much..
But, if we're going to really categorize, let's talk to the fruit beer aficionados(!). Surely a blueberry wheat and an apricot ale deserve separate categories? Just as one may enjoy some fruits, and hate others, one may enjoy some fruits in beer, and not others.
Interestingly enough, the GABF does put Pumpkin beer in it's own subcategory! Why? Because we're more likely to enjoy the flavor of pumpkin and cinnamon in a beer in October, and a lightly berried ale in the summer months?

Still, I'm content to just sit back, with a beer, and watch. Maybe with an American-style Belgian IPA?

Lew Bryson said...

JP --
There's a separate pumpkin beer category for one reason: there are so damned many pumpkin beers that they're flooding the fruit and veg beer category!

BuckSpin said...

If you look at English culture & history (the whole Royal family king/queen thing) there is a long & established tradition of, well, tradition. What was ....is, and well, that's the way its been so thats the way it is. Could probably define typical English cuisine into 9 categories as well, hence all the running jokes about the food diversity.

To me, this is an extention of the way things have been and should be (English) as opposed to the way things can and could be (American).

I think Lew's suggestion is worth examining - that there is an immediate association of the earliest known usage of the word "stout" in defining a beer as a noun (the beer itself) when its possible it could have been meant as a verb (the strength of the beer) and that stout had less to do with what we know today as one as opposed to some other beers.

Stan Hieronymus said...

There's a separate pumpkin beer category for one reason: there are so damned many pumpkin beers that they're flooding the fruit and veg beer category!

I think this is one of those things that makes a point for the European/fewer category argument.

A few years ago GABF had a separate category for raspberry beers because there were so many of them. Now that has faded and the "style" competes with all fruit beer.

So was it every a "style"?

Or just a a competition-convenient term? (Although, obviously, one that told the beer drinker what he or she was ordering.)

GenX at 40 said...

Interestingly, Canada's paper the Globe and Mail recently quoted a Ontario microbrewer as saying that pumpkin was another that classic deserved a revival. No wonder people up here still think our beer is better.

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

Stonch said...

BuckSpin, saying the British are uber-traditional is easy to do but I'm afraid it just isn't so.

The idea that British brewers aren't innovative is just plain wrong, but it gains currency because those that export to the US tend to market well-established styles. I'm thinking of Fullers and Sam Smiths for example. Indeed, some of our most innovative brews are never bottled at all, and are only available from cask. If you want to drink the best of British, you have to come here to do it.

If you come to a British beer festival you'll see what I mean.

And by the way, having a monarchy does not make a country particularly traditional - ask the Norwegians and the Swedes.

BuckSpin said...

Oh, English brewers must be very innovative to have so many multiple versions of the same style of beer. Even if you get past the "English" style moniker, many (not a blanket statement but certainly not stretching the truth) English brewers' beer list read something like:

bitter, bitter, pale ale, bitter, pale ale, pale ale, bitter, bitter, bitter, etc.

I applaud them for coming up with so many different variations on the same style. It wouldn't surprise me if there are 3x as many bitters brewed in England as there are brewers!

While not a steadfast rule, most American brewers have A bitter, A pale ale, etc., not 5 or more of that genre. And outside of those who do the Belgian style ales, I think its safe to say that most brewers in the US have one of a certain style.

On a completely unrelated note, an American football coach (English but coaching that sport) friend of mine hooked me up with some Sheppy's BA cider that was phenominal and nothing like I've ever tasted.....incredible.

Stonch said...

British brewers often do brew more than one beer that could be described as a bitter, likewise pale ale. The more interesting ones might also brew a barley wine, a stout, a light mild, a dark mild to name but a few.

Just been to Harveys in Lewes. Their full range is displayed in the window at the brewery shop. Certainly not just bitters and pale ales.

Jack Curtin said...

>There's a separate pumpkin beer category for one reason: there are so damned many pumpkin beers that they're flooding the fruit and veg beer category!<

Exactly. Which is why we made a decision at beeryard.com, a year before the BA--whose new categories, more often than not, like their re-definition of craft breweries, always seem to have a hidden agenda (but that's a matter for another discussion, innit?)--to set up a separate category.

In the long run, though, I think this too shall pass and pumpkins will slide back into the fold. And I agree with Stan that it's just another sign of "category excess," but I also concur that "flooding the category" can be problem.

On the one hand, on the other hand...Geez, I feel painfully reasonable tonight. Maybe I'm coming down with something.

BuckSpin said...

Oh, I agree that there are English brewers doing things other than the bitters & pale ales. A quick sorting of the list of them on BeerAdvocate by # of beers produced showed the larger brewers were producing different styles. But, the same list just thumbed thru alphabetically showed a number of brewers whose offerings were just as I mentioned: either all bitters & pale ales or multiples of each.

I'm not dissin' on them, but I do think my initial comment that the majority of brewers make either one & the other or multiple interpretations/labels of bitters & pale ales is not unfounded nor untrue. And I also think it shows a real artistry & some innovation to make as many as 5 or so of the same genre that have different taste qualities to merit brewing them.

My 1st wife's (advice: marry your 2nd wife first) family was Sicilian, and I always joked about the ubiquitous Anisette cookie that appeared at the holidays. It was never different cookies, but rather:

Anisette cookie, Anisette cookie with sprinkles, Anisette cookie in a braid, Anisette cookie iced, Anisette cookie iced with sprinkles, Anisette cookie braided & iced, Anisette cookie with sesame seeds, Anisette cookie braided with sesame seeds, Anisette cookie iced, braided AND with sprinkles, etc.

When I read that an English brewer has 5 or more bitters and/or pale ales I can't help but think about those cookies. Were they good? Sure! Were they all different? Yeah. Were they all the same? Kinda.

And I do really envy your ability to just go session cask ales. I'd love to. Session beers have been a new "rediscovery" for me, and I enjoy their subtle seduction.

I may actually do a count of English brewers and their brew portfolios to see if my guess that there are 3x as many bitters available in England as there are brewers is true.

Stonch said...

BuckSpin, yes there's a lot of truth in what you say.

But the bit I'm really feeling is this:

"advice: marry your 2nd wife first"

Genius!