While beer lovers can devote a lot of energy to the proper classification of their favorite beverage, oenophiles don't fret over what to call the sort of wine they're drinking. Old-world wines are generally known by their region of origin: A Bordeaux wine is made in Bordeaux, France, from the grape varieties that grow best in its renowned vineyards. Wines from other parts of the world may be identified by the grape variety or varieties they contain; when we select a merlot or a Riesling, we have some idea what flavors to look for. And though there will be disagreement about how good a bottle is, there are no arguments about whether or not a particular wine is a Bordeaux or a Burgundy, a chardonnay or a chenin blanc.
However, for beer, a category based on the site of its brewery or the variety of malted barley used would be pointless. I couldn't order a glass of "Oregon" (arguably the Bordeaux among beer-producing regions) or indicate my personal preference for Vienna malt and have any expectations about the beer I'd be served. The brewer manipulates too many variables in the course of making a batch of beer for this to have meaning. The same starting ingredients can result in dramatically different beers.
How we deal with that wide range in beer character depends on where we are sitting when we order a pint. We understand that a brewer's decisions lead to vastly different sorts of beer, but, as in many branches of taxonomy, there are the splitters and the lumpers in the definitions of beer style. The splitters dominate craft beer culture in the United States.
The Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., is the guardian of beer style definitions, and the competition that precedes the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver is the place to look for emerging trends in American craft brewing. Each fall, new variants are added to the compendium of styles to be judged. This year, 82 styles of beer will be evaluated. That number is boggling.
Three styles, once part of smaller categories, have classifications of their own. The field beer category once contained all beers flavored with odd vegetables. It has been subdivided to form a subcategory devoted to pumpkin beers.
The same goes for the division of the wood-aged beer category, once so small that it threw together all beers aged in or on wood. Now, driven by brewer enthusiasm, there are six categories that separate wood-aged beer depending on color, strength of the beer, deliberate souring or fruit additions. This year, the wood- and barrel-aged strong stout category is added.
The new category that has me scratching my head is often called black IPA. The name is short for "black India pale ale" and sounds kind of silly when you spell it out, since a beer can't be both black and pale. An alternate title, "Cascadian dark ale," is a claim staked by the northwestern brewers of Cascadia—the binational territory that runs from British Columbia to northern California—where the new style, if that's what it is, may have gotten its start. The Brewers Association has admitted it to competition with the label "American Style India Black Ale," a terribly polite monster of a name.
The new beer style has its origins in India pale ale, a high-alcohol and highly bitter style developed to survive the sea voyage from England to the outposts of the empire. American brewers took that style to greater strengths and bitterness, to the point that a separate "imperial," or double IPA, style had to be declared. Now brewers of the black IPA have brewed it with a measure of dark grain. The result is as strong and bitter as an IPA, with the roastiness of a porter but not quite the burnt-toast qualities of a stout.
Is there really room for such a beast in our taxonomy? The examples I've tasted are nice, but I'm not sure they're very different from the hoppier American-brewed porters and stouts already on the market. As for the bottle of "Imperial Black IPA" that a brewery sent to me ... sheesh, why isn't this called a Russian stout? Are we going to carve the beer style spectrum into ever smaller slices?
Last week, I had my beer world turned refreshingly upside down during a visit to Quebec, one of Canada's major craft-brewing hubs. In the world of splitters and lumpers, the Quebecois are lumpers. What we would insist on calling Irish dry stout was listed on beer menus as noir. Our brown porters? Noir, again. Robust porters? Noir, as well. And the newly baptized American Style India Black Ale? I guess that would be noir.
Bordeaux is Bordeaux, and black-colored beer is noir. Style classifications can be useful, but at some point we should drop categories and just talk about how the beer tastes.