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The Problem of Flavoured Beer

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Beer is made from barley, hops, water and yeast, and nothing else. So spaketh the Reinheitsgebot (or “Barvarian Purity Law”) of 1516. So anything else is an abomination before the eyes of Chuck, right? Not even remotely close. People love to cite this law as some benign government effort to “preserve true beer” against the horrible influence of non-beer grains like corn. In the mid-80s or -90s, the notion that someone out there had realized that corn in beer was so awful as to be rightfully outlawed was a comforting thing, especially as more and more macro brewers turned to our husky friend in search of a grain that was “cleaner” than barley, which when used to brew beer tended to unfortunately infuse the final product with the unwanted flavour of, well, beer.

However, the real purpose behind the law was much less noble, and a whole lot more practical. Germans, and especially Germans in the 16th century, love their beer. So much so, in fact, that once they’d run through the available production of barley the brewers just started using any old grain to make more beer. This produced some great products, like wheat ales, hefeweizen, and rye red-based ales to name a few.

Sounds great, no? Lots of flavour options to throw down your throat. Well, the problem is that they produced these other brews in such profusion that bakers ran out of stuff to, you know, bake with. As a result bread became scarce, and exceedingly expensive when you did find it. Yes, the Germans of the 1500’s drank themselves to death, but not in the boring pedestrian way those uninventive hobos in Gastown do these days. (Actually, the people drinking often could afford the higher-priced bread as well, so it was more that they drank the poorer caste’s food into non-existance–effectively drinking someone else to death. Which is kind of awesome when you think about it.)

Fast forward a few hundred years and people are putting pretty much any random stuff in their beers. Either to replace the barley or–far more common–augment the standard malty flavours. This creates a problem for beer festivals, as the judges of different beer categories don’t know what is to be done with all the varieties. By some counts there are as many as 60 or 70 styles of beer, before you count in the fruit ales (or the imperial and double imperial ales). So is a coconut porter a porter? Or a coconut beer? If it’s a porter, does it compete against a coffee porter? If it’s a coconut beer, then does it compete against a coconut pilsner, which is about as far away from a porter as you can get?

Up until now folk have tended to just lump all flavoured beer together into one category, but this is a decidedly imperfect stratagem when you consider the sheer volume and variety of beers out there that flaunt the Reinheitsgebot. Why do we separate out beer-cousins Bitter, Special Bitter, and Extra Special Bitter for individual attention, but consider Pumpkin Ales and Raspberry Wheat Ales in one breath? For that matter, why are regular Wheat Ales accorded their own category, and Oatmeal Stouts considered normal stouts?

I’m not proposing a clever fix here, I’m honestly asking. Let me know what you’re thinking, and while you’re at it go over to heybenson’s blog for excellent flavoured beer reviews.

Written by chuck

November 1st, 2010 at 11:36 am

Posted in Beer and You

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