What do you think of when you hear the word authentic? I think real, I think original, I think genuine, I think good, and I think proper.
So what do you think of when you hear authentic beer? How about authentic Belgian beer? Or authentic lambic? Or authentic double IPA? Or authentic farmhouse brewery? How about authentic Belgian-style beer?
There's a discussion over at Stan Hieronymus's Appellation Beer blog (which I still check every day because I'm an RSS moron), something that started in the comments section when we started talking about what kind of things young drinkers were looking for. I poked around a bit, and found this additional discussion at Jeff Alworth's Beervana blog.
'Authentic' is obviously an issue, at least for some of us (I remarked in that comment thread that this stuff was obviously important to us, but that we may over-estimate the impact on the general beer-drinking public outside the geekerie; and that GB-DP is buying these beers, believe it).
I hate doing the "dictionary definition" thing, but authentic is obviously a slippery concept, and I think we need to nail the little bastard into a corner so we can get a better look at it. Here's the definition from Merriam-Webster's website (I use that because it's easier than typing it out of the M-W Collegiate Dictionary I have here at home), with emphasis added by me and exegesis supplied by me:
1. obsolete : authoritative (obsolete? Throw this one out!)
2 a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact (more about ideas than tangible things)
b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features ((an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse) (like an 'authentic Belgian-style tripel,' maybe?)
c: made or done the same way as an original
(which doesn't jibe with what Jeff or Dale Jacquette talks about)
3: not false or imitation : real, actual (
authentic cockney accent) (looks like the meaning Belgian brewers, importers, and alpha geeks are looking for -- and I'm not judging that...yet)
4 is music theory, about church music chords, skip it.
5: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character (so...integrity, delivering what is expected?)
That gives us a springboard. I'll jump right off, head-first: 'authentic' means different things to people in different parts of the beer community, I'll even say the specialty beer community. Europeans see 'authentic' and, I suspect, immediately short-circuit to AOC/PDO thinking: legal protection of regional products by name and process. That's a whole other argument, and I'm going to dismiss it right now with this: "authentic" is not needed if there is a legitimate PDO designation. (If you want to discuss this wholly legitimate topic of what obligations American brewers have to PDO designations, please e-mail me and I'll start a new post, and we can go wild, but let's not clutter this one with it for now.)
From there, I think it quickly breaks down into two divisions. Either authentic means "the original", or it means "produced in a way that closely emulates the original." Where do you sit on this? Cui bono: who benefits? The first definition favors the first producers, the second definition favors those who taste the original and want to emulate it...or, to be fair, hope to sell something like it. If this reminds anyone of the foofaraw over the definition of craft beer, well, yeah. After all, the post and discussion on Stan's blog was about business. (One of the major reasons I check Stan's blog so often: he acknowledges that all this beer wonderfulness is a business.)
I got an e-mail about my comments on Stan's post, encouraging us (writers and geeks, I'm assuming) to save the word 'authentic' from big beer marketers. I responded that I think authentic is already being used for marketing, just by small brewers and their importers.
'Authentic' is not a useful term on a beer label, because it is imprecise, and means different things to a lot of people. If a product is an original, "Original" has always meant a lot to me. If a product is from a particular area associated with a type of beer, "Genuine (insert place-name here) beer" works, and the PDO, if there is one. If a product is a brewer's honest and effortful homage to a specific beer or type of beer, then the tired "(insert beer type here)-style" is hard to argue with, although if it's not a PDO beer, hell, why not just call it "(beer type here)"?
There is an argument on-going on the Burgundian Babble Belt about the use of the term "Belgian-style," and I agree: given the number of different types of beer made in Belgium, "Belgian-style" is meaningless noise. I blame the GABF categories, which label everything this way: "German Style Kölsch/Köln Style Kölsch." As I've said before, this is to distinguish it from all that French-style Kölsch that's been flooding the market?
But I don't think that has anything to do with the authentic argument. I think the authentic argument is about selling beer. And what this still comes down to, what it all comes down to, is the damned beer. Put it in a glass. Hand it to me. Stand back and shut up while I drink it. Let me react, let me enjoy or despise. But let me do it without telling me about the beer's pedigree, it's maker's history. I'll want to taste other beers that claim to be similar. But if the beer's good, and not too simple, or too complex, or not integrated enough, or overdone, or just plain bad...that's usually a lot more important to me than whether or not it's authentic.