What Defines a Beer Style?

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What does define a beer’s style? Is it the appearance of the beer, is it the taste, is it where the beer was brewed, or the method in which it is brewed? This might seem like an easily answered question but the reality is a lot more complicated than one might think.

In Germany there was the Reinheitsgebot or “Bavarian Purity Law” which was a regulation that defined how beer could be produced in Germany. The original text was explicit that the only ingredients to be used in creating beer were water, barely, and hops. If this law were still in practice today many German styles of beer would be outlawed. Weissbiers and any sub-style of the weissbier style would be illegal.

As we discussed in the latest episode of the podcast (being released tomorrow) often times there are only minor differences between beer style. The example we illustrated on the podcast was the difference between a hefeweizen and a kristallweizen being solely whether or not the yeast was filtered from the final product.

American craft breweries are certainly less concerned with keeping to strict definitions of styles. There are those who straddle or blend styles whether it be a white stout or a Belgian IPA or even a dark saison the American craft beer industry has no reservations about pushing the limits of what a beer style is.

But there has to be a breaking point where you can no longer call a beer a particular style. You can’t call a beer a hefeweizen if it doesn’t contain at least 50% wheat any more than you can call a beer an IPA if its IBU rating is less than 10. These break the very essence of what defines a style.

The question is whether this distinction is important. An important example of this is if Trinity Brewing’s new Seven Day Sour “Vert Gueuze” should be able to call itself a gueuze.

For anyone who doesn’t know what makes a gueuze (alternatively spelled geuze) I will give a little background. Gueuzes are a subset of lambics which are Belgian in origin. Unlike most beers, lambics are brewed from a grist containing about 70% barley and 30% wheat. After steeping the grains and cooling the wort, the result is exposed to open air so that fermentation can happen spontaneously. After fermentation starts the fermenting lambic is placed into old port or sherry barrels where it is left to ferment for up to three years. This style by its very nature is incredibly difficult due to the increased timeframe of spontaneous fermentation and the likelihood of spoilage due to having the wort exposed to the open air.

A gueuze is a blending of two different lambics. One of these lambics will be young most often at about one year old and the other will be an old lambic that has fermented for over at least two years. Since lambics are exposed to the air a large amount of hops are added to their fermentation for their antibacterial properties. To prevent the lambic from being overpoweringly bitter, dry-aged hops are used to decrease the bittering effect of the hops. The wild yeasts that result from spontaneous fermentation that are specific to lambic-style beers create a very dry, sour, acidic flavor to the beer while providing a high level of carbonation almost to the point of what would be found in champagne.

Since the gueuze is such a dry and sour style modern brewers have begun adding sweeteners to offset the often brutally sour taste. This has created a sub-style of gueuze known as “Oude Gueuze” which embraces the traditionally super sour or acidic flavors.

How does Trinity Brewing come in? Well, they have managed to shorten the time it takes to create a gueuze from years to a week though the miracle of science.

Focus on the Beer interviews Trinity Brewing’s brewer Jason Yester about this revolution that has resulted in what Jason is calling a “Vert Gueuze” which roughly translates as “Young Gueuze”.

Jason describes his process for creating this infant gueuze:

“I decided to develop a technique that actually promotes and takes care of the bacteria. After collecting our wort we keep it warm in the kettle for three days and add a pitch of Lacto (pre boil/hops). The hotter temperatures really encourages growth of the bacteria, production of acid (sour), and a dramatic drop in pH. Lactobacillus is also very sensitive to hops, and adding the pitch of Lacto pre-hop ensures that no harm will be done to the bacteria. With this technique I’m able to produce a pH as low as aging a sour a full twelve months on oak. After three days of hot fermentation we do our boil and add hops, after the boil we pump the soured wort into our Fermenting Vessel and do a four day cool fermentation with a blend of 95% Brettanomyces and 5% Lacto (we reintroduce the Lacto post boil in case anyone wants to age the beer).

With these new and highly precise techniques we literally produce a batch of sour beer in 7 days. When I say sour, you need to think extreme pucker, the palate of this beer rivals that of our Old Growth! Although ‘7 Day’ will not be aged on oak, I do need to mention we used some super old skool ‘Lambic Royal Decree’ procedures for this recipe too (Specifically a first and second ‘slims’ routine). To understand this procedure it’s important that I mention our malt bill is built from over 30% Chit, over 30% raw wheat, and less than 60% barley. In this procedure, we do a three step temperature mash, but before the last sachrification step, we collect ~20% of final volume in our kettle and boil it. Doing so denatures the enzymes in that volume locking in a ton of extra starches and proteins. Wild microbes love wort which is high in proteins and starches, so once again we’re completely structuring this recipe to support the production of sour and funky flavors.”

For those of you who don’t speak brewer the short hand of this is that by adding a particular strain of yeast known for its acidity properties while fermenting Trinity Brewing has found a method to encourage the sourness of the resulting beer in seven days that would naturally take over a year to do traditionally.

There are two questions that immediately come to mind. Can one claim an equal level of sour complexity from a beer that is fermented with a cultivated strain of “wild” yeast forced into hyper-production of sour flavor over a week when compared to a traditional gueuze that is aged for years and known to contain over 80 microbiological elements from the open air spontaneous fermentation? I tend to think not.

The other question is whether a beer that is not spontaneously fermented, aged, nor a blend of old and young lambics even be considered a gueuze in the first place? This gets us back to our original question of what defines a style? Sure it may have a high level of sourness that has a similar (though simplistic) flavor when compared to a gueuze but does the resulting flavor define the style or the process that resulted in that flavor?

I’m not one to rigidly stick to concrete definitions of style. I don’t think if your Flander’s Red Ale wasn’t brewed in West Flanders, Belgium you shouldn’t be able to call it a Flander’s Red. But I do believe that you shouldn’t be able to call your beer a wheat beer if the grains didn’t include a significant amount of wheat. In this case I think Trinity Brewing is abusing the definition of the style and I think it is to sell an easily produced, simplistic version of an extremely complex and rewarding style. As a huge fan of this style it pains me to think that someone might have this “Vert Gueuze” and think that is a representative example of the style.

I’m not against technological progress and if you could perfectly mimic the taste of a scotch ages fifty years with a process that only took six months I would drink the vastly cheaper knock off without hesitation. I just don’t think this “Vert Gueuze” has cracked the code to a complex sour.

I guess this means I will have to try it to find out as it is rated fairly high on untappd for a fledgling beer.

What are your thoughts? Some seem outraged, some seem indifferent, and some haven’t yet given their opinion. Leave a comment with your thoughts below.