When Traditional Beer Categories Just Don’t Fit, Create Your Own “Weird Beer”
Over Thanksgiving, Walter had a beer she really enjoyed. The 2016 St. Nickolas Bock Bier Brewer’s Reserve from Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh was “lovely” in her words. She wanted to tell me all about it; unfortunately, she was in West Virginia with her family, and I was in Indianapolis getting ready for a book signing. Nevertheless, the beer was good enough that she texted me immediately.
Words were the only way for her to tell me how good this beer was. I couldn’t taste it, couldn’t smell it, or even see her body language. That got me to thinking about the ways that one person describes a beer to another. The stated style means something, and many craft beer fans can name and describe a hundred or more beer styles. If Walter tells me that a beer is a hefeweizen, I automatically think banana and clove on the nose and the tongue. If she makes remarks about a barleywine – I know that I’m not going to be getting banana and cloves unless something is very wrong. Unfortunately, style is not always enough. The 2016 GABF had no fewer than six categories that used the word “other,’ while the BJCP style guide chooses the word “specialty” for beers that don’t fit into one style.
Because of this, there has developed an entire language for describing beers – round mouth feels, astringent ends, unbalanced hop profiles, etc. I am sure that trained cicerones and master judges can speak in great detail about how a beer probably has a small amount of wheat specialty malt because of prolonged head retention and nice lacing, and how it was obviously brewed through a large gravity change – but this isn’t how most drinkers speak. Perhaps it’s because the jargon is technical, or that terms might mean different things to different people if they haven’t all received same training. Mostly, I think it’s because you and your buddy don’t talk like that on a Friday night after a long, hard work week (I’m assuming this, I don’t really have a work week).
If you really get technical, you can describe a beer’s bitterness through its IBUs, its color via its SRM, its malty characteristics through its grain bill (if you know what each malt brings to the table), its alcohol flavor by its ABV, and hints about its sweetness by it’s final gravity or the level of yeast attenuation. Bleh – we’re beer drinkers, not beer scientists. Besides, the influence of any of these factors can be different when different brewing conditions are used. So, we’re still in search of a decent way to describe a beer to another person.
Comparisons are often helpful in describing beers, IF you both have had the comparative beer and IF you both remember it in the same way. On the other hand, you could make comparisons between two ends of a continuum to describe a beer. Is it hop forward or malt forward? If it’s hop forward, is it balanced (like The Westy out of Bare Hands), smooth and malty along with the hop bitterness or unbalanced (the bitterness is a major component – ie. Lift Off from Daredevil)? A beer might be on the tart side, or all the way at the monstrously sour end. These comparisons would work fine if we had objective scales that everyone could agree on, like being 60% toward the sour end of a scale or three points left of completely balanced on a maltiness scale, but that just isn’t how your sense of taste works; it isn’t objective.
In truth, we tend to use all these systems – it’s a hefeweizen, but it is clove light and banana heavy? It tastes a little like the Weizengoot from Bier, but it has a shorter finish and its mouth feel isn’t quite as full. Walter tells me it’s golden colored with a small bubble, white head, although the color might tinge toward orange, so it might contain some red wheat. Lots of terms, descriptions, and comparisons are the best way to go – UNLESS, I say UNLESS, your companion is someone you have drank with often and the two of you have started to develop a descriptive catalog all your own.
I liken it to some sets of twins that develop their own language, something only the two of them understand, while at the same time using a traditional language to talk to everyone else. Trust me, it happens – ask Google! This is exactly what Walter and I have developed. On first glance, you might not be able to make heads or tales of our category of strange names (see below) but we know exactly what we mean. Walter and I have a 29-year history together, and I have to say that this system has to be our greatest accomplishment – sorry kids. Not every beer fits in to one of our groups, so we also use some other terms or descriptors as well, but the categories are often enough for us to get our point across as to what we think of any particular beer. Look at our categories and see if you and your friends can come up with groups that make sense to you. Perhaps you already have some categories, I would love to steal ….. I mean hear, about them.
Girl Beer – Before you start composing that angry text or comment, let me explain a bit. In our vernacular, a girl beer is nothing more than a beer that people who are new to beer or who say they don’t like beer might find appealing. OK, maybe that didn’t help, let’s try again. 1) I am well aware that many women enjoy, know a lot about, and often make really good beer – I’m married to one. 2) Girl beer is not a pejorative term. I like many beers that we refer to as girl beers, and I am definitely a guy – I can fold maps, I can create an entire sink full of dirty dishes while preparing soup, and I often leave the toilet seat up.
Some beers have mild flavors, perhaps something that a new drinker or non-drinker might like. They come in with someone else and tell the beertender, “Oh I don’t like beer.” This makes it a moral imperative to find them a beer they might enjoy. In our experience, these new drinkers often are female, and the beers that they find to like are often fruity, light, and sweet. On a recent visit to Carson’s in Evansville, a couple sat next to us, and the wife went through almost the entire list looking for beers she might like. Her favorites were the Orange Sickle cream ale, the Red Hot cinnamon blonde, and the Jungle Tears banana blonde. These were all good beers, and I liked them all as well. Girl Beer – any familiarly flavored, easy drinking, and perhaps entry-level beer.
Dessert Beer – I would assume that many people use this category. Walter tends not to drink beer with dessert, so we don’t use this as an accompaniment term, you know, beers to drink while you have a slice of pie. Instead, we talk about beers that could serve as a dessert on their own. They might be girl beers, but they often tend to be a bit bigger, rounder in mouth feel, and higher in alcohol. The new chocolate milk stout at Blind Owl is a good example, as are the traditional dessert beers like Southern Tier’s Crème Brulee or Boulder Beer’s Shake. It is best to drink these beers late in your session, they tend to coat the tongue and promote naps.
Steve the Brit Beer – Walter and I have a friend named Steve who hails from the southwestern part of England. Steve is a rugby player and a dart thrower. He uses phrases like “bits and bobs” and “tickety-boo” – you know, he’s a Brit. He likes going to the pub with his mates; that usually means Broad Ripple Brew Pub or The Welly. At the pub, Steve likes a beer that comes in a full pint; a ten-ounce snifter just isn’t his style. He’ll try some of mine or Walter’s, but when he orders, the first question is always, “What can I get in a whole pint?”
After rugby (maybe during) and certainly at all points of a dart evening, the very Brit thing to do is discuss the matters of the world over a dozen or so pints. This requires a certain type of beer – not heavy, not too harsh on the tongue or the stomach, and certainly not too high in alcohol. Steve wants a beer that is drinkable, creamy, and mild enough that he doesn’t get tired of it over the course of five to six hours. In America, we might call these session beers, usually 4-5% ABV, but session beers in America can take many forms. A Steve beer is usually a bit darker in color and malts are usually balanced against the hops – the Broad Ripple Brew Pub ESB is a good example of a Steve beer, but Anchor Steam is just as much a Steve beer as is Upland’s Wheat Ale.
Weird Beer – This isn’t a value judgment, there is good weird and bad weird. A weird beer is any brew that defies its style, or perhaps has a flavor that you just can’t identify or explain how it got there. While Walter and I were at Crane Brewing in Raytown, MO we had a chance to try their kumquat Berliner Weisse. For some reason, both Walter and I tasted peppermint, although none had been added at any point in the brewing – a very good weird beer. Likewise, the Wild Heffer at Hairless Hare Brewing in Vandalia, OH is an open fermented, wild hefeweizen sour. The brewery had been a pizzeria for many years prior, so the microflora was just floating in the air. It was definitely weird, but still a very good beer. On the other hand, we’ve had a kvek (Norwegian farmhouse) that was weird as could be, but not in a good way. It was hard to describe, but Walter’s tasting note was, “There’s something wrong here.”
Squeeze Your Head Beer – I like sour beers much more than does Walter. On the other hand, she loves monster hoppy beers more than I. For each of these types of beer, there is a long continuum into which they can fit. Sour beers that aren’t too sour often called tart. A beer like Central State’s Garden is a gose that fits nicely into the tart range. However, there isn’t really a term for a sour beer that is way on the other end of the scale, something like Three Floyds Icelandic Pants of the Dead or Destihl’s Here Gose Nothing. Beers like this make me put a hand on each side of my head and squeeze until the sourness starts to go away – a squeeze your head beer.
The same kind of spectrum exists for bitter beers. Black Acre’s Natural Liberty is mildly bitter, it would be placed on one end of the scale. At the other end are beers like Palate Wrecker from Green Flash Brewing or Founders TIPA, Devil Dancer. I think I will write a piece in the near future about why IBU numbers are not sufficient to predict bitterness on the tongue, but suffice it to say, if a beer squeezes Walter’s head, it must be bitter with a capital B. For both of these styles of beer, there is an inherent subjectivity in just how bitter a beer must be to squeeze Walter’s head or how sour it has to be to squeeze mine. Fortunately, 25 years of marriage leads to just that kind of knowledge acquisition, along with more mundane tidbits like life goals and birth dates.
Drown a Kitten Beer – To prove just how much you like something, you will often tell someone what distasteful thing you would be willing to do in order to show your love, in this case, to get a bottle of that beer. Don’t worry, I would never actually drown a kitten in order to obtain a fantastic beer, it’s just an allusion to how much I must like it. I usually refer to rare beers with this phrase; my favorite beers that are readily available wouldn’t require an ASPC-reviled act. I absolutely love Daredevil’s Muse, but I can walk down to 21st Amendment and get some whenever I wish – no cats are harmed in the procurement of that beer.
On the other hand, Tax Man’s Death and Taxes comes out just once a year and FATE Brewing’s Decima Quad isn’t available in this part of the country. These are beers that I covet and would be willing to commit a heinous act for. But I get it – the term is offensive if one takes it literally. Walter won’t use the term much either; we’ve had more than a dozen kittens over the years. Maybe you can think of a better name, but both Walter and I know exactly what we mean when we describe a beer this way. And this is the key to describing beers – it’s an interpersonal act that works best when the people know each other well. So go out there and make some good friends while sharing some great beer. Over time, you’ll start to talk the same language.