One of the biggest obstacles for novice Aleheads is navigating the dizzying array of beer styles. Wee Heavys, Cascadian Dark Ales, Quads, Lambics, IPAs, Imperial IPAs, Double IPAs…what does it all mean? I’ll let you in on a little secret…even the most experienced Aleheads have problems with the existing beer naming conventions. The truth is, the system is messy…very messy. Many beers fall into multiple styles. And as craft brewers get more daring and experimental, the lines separating styles are beginning to blend or disappear entirely. For a growing, nascent industry, the lack of a logical taxonomic system is a challenge.
Now let me be very clear…I’m not suggesting that I’m the one to take on this challenge. Nor am I suggesting that the approach I’ve devised in this post is the proper way to go about it. I also have no delusions that the existing naming convention will change any time soon…if ever. It’s rooted in history with names steeped in tradition like “barleywine” and “stout”. I like these names quite a bit and I will, of course, continue to use them like everyone else. But I also recognize that the existing system has problems and I thought it would at least be an interesting challenge to take on the conventional wisdom and try a new approach.
Think of it like baseball…for generations, scouts and managers relied on the same set of “tried and true” statistics. Batting Average, RBIs, Errors, Pitcher Wins, etc. In recent years, people like Bill James have revealed that these traditional stats are flawed at best and completely useless at worst. While many old-timers still cling to them, most reasonably informed people recognize that the new statistical (or SABRMetric) revolution has completely changed the game. Advanced stats have created a new “language” and I believe it has made baseball more interesting, nuanced, and fun to follow. It has also, perhaps counter-intuitively, made it more approachable. The stats may be complicated, but they allow fans to grasp the game just as well as those on the “inside”. Back when it was just about “gut instincts” and “heart”, there was a mystery to the game…an impenetrable wall that separated those inside the game from the rest of us. Now, I can peruse advanced stat sites like Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs and feel like I’m on a level playing field. The stats may be devilishly complicated, but they’ve made the game much more transparent. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.
So what I’m suggesting is a way to make beer more approachable for newcomers. Rather than trying to puzzle out what the various, opaque beer style names mean, I’m using this post to propose a new system. It is flawed, of course. You’ll see that right away. I know this isn’t the “best” system. But it’s a start at a new way of thinking. Like most new ideas, I’m sure it will be mocked and discarded immediately. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile and despite its defects, I think there might be a kernel of a good idea in here somewhere. If not, at least it was a fun exercise. And away we go…
BROTHER BARLEY’S NEW BEER NAMING CONVENTION
In my new system, there are only seven types of beer. Along with those beer types are four categories I call “Modifiers”. A beer can have one Modifier from each category, though usually it would have less than that (and in many cases, none at all). Here’s how it works:
The seven types of beer are based on Color. They are, from light to dark:
- Pale Ale
- Golden Ale
- Amber Ale
- Red Ale
- Brown Ale
- Dark Ale
- Black Ale*
*You’ll note that I’m only “naming” ales, but this approach works perfectly fine for lagers as well. Just change the word “Ale” to “Lager” and you’re good.
I hope that’s fairly self-explanatory. If not, my system is already broken (but I think it makes sense). These “Colors” would be based on the Lovibond scale, though for the purposes of this post I won’t assign them specific numbers. You can already see where the existing naming convention disappears. Stouts would become Black Ales. Most Porters would fit in Dark Ales. A lot of existing Pale Ales would actually be Amber Ales. I like this approach better because nothing confuses new Aleheads more than calling a fairly dark beer a “pale ale”. This concept shatters the existing method and allows you to categorize a beer based on a simple, easy-to-understand, logical concept…what color the beer is.
Now then, on to the Modifiers. If the beer is a balanced, basic, no-frills brew…you really wouldn’t need any. Something like the Bell’s Best Brown would simply be a “Brown Ale”. No modifiers necessary. But the world of beer is much more varied than that so I needed an approach that addressed that variety.
The first Modifier is the “Grain Modifier”. It’s pretty straightforward. Basically, if a beer is predominantly a grain other than barley, you note that with the Grain Modifier. The four I came up with are Rye, Wheat, Rice and Corn. So you could have a Rye Pale Ale or a Wheat Amber Ale. All this modifier does is let you know that the beer in question is mostly produced with a non-barley grain. Easy enough?
The second modifier is the trickiest and the most varied. It’s the “Taste Modifier”. This is used when the beer in question has a specific, dominant flavor profile. There are seven of these: Spiced, Sour, Fruit, Smoked, Sweet, Coffee and Bitter. The latter is the most common and would be used to distinguish something like an IPA. So rather than have “IPA” as a catch-all category for most hop-forward ales, you would simply add “Bitter” before the color. You could have a Bitter Pale Ale (which would cover most IPAs), but you could also have a Bitter Amber Ale or a Bitter Brown Ale which would eliminate all the confusion of calling something an India Pale Ale when it’s obviously not a pale beer. This is probably my favorite part of this system. The other four Taste Modifiers are fairly straightforward. If you have an herbed or spiced beer like a gruit or pumpkin ale, just add Spiced to it. Rauchbier? Smoked. A chocolate dessert beer? Sweet. Raspberry Lambic? Fruit. American Wild? Sour. If there’s an obvious, dominant flavor, just add the Taste Modifier.
The third Modifier is the most cut and dried. I call it the “Strength Modifier”. It simply tells you how strong the beer is. Anything less than 7% ABV gets no modifier. 7-10% gets the modifier Strong. Above 10% gets the modifier Extra Strong. Still with me?
The fourth modifier is fairly straightforward as well. It’s the “Country Modifier”. If it’s a traditionally American or British style of beer (differentiating beer styles between those two countries is simply too messy at this point), then you wouldn’t use this modifier. But, if the beer in question mimics a style traditionally brewed in another country, then you’d add the name of said country. For instance, a Hefeweizen could become a German Golden Wheat Ale (and that word “German” would indicate the traditionally cloudy, yeast-forward flavors of the style). Or a Tripel could become a Belgian Strong Amber Ale (with the world Belgian letting the drinker know to expect some of the classic, spicy, funky Belgian flavors). You would put “Finnish” before a Sahti-style beer, “Peruvian” before a Chicha-style beer, “Russian” before a Kvass-style brew, and so on.
And that, my friends, is the whole system. Seven Colors, and four Modifiers. The Modifiers would be used in the order I listed them so you would add the Grain Modifier first (eg: Wheat Pale Ale), then the Taste Modifier (eg: Sour Wheat Pale Ale), then the Strength Modifier (eg: Strong Sour Wheat Pale Ale) and then the Country Modifier (eg: Belgian Strong Sour Wheat Pale Ale).
Before you start picking this approach to shreds, please realize that I understand the biggest flaw in this concept…long names. Just look at that last example I gave you…it’s a mouthful to say the least. But here’s my defense. First, it may be a long name, but it’s also a very informative name. Tell me you’re drinking a Belgian Strong Sour Wheat Pale Ale and I immediately have a sense of what the beer looks and tastes like. No surprises and no confusion. And second…it’s pretty rare that you would actually use all of those Modifiers. Something like a Dubbel would be a Belgian Strong Brown Ale. That’s not so bad. An Imperial IPA could be an Extra Strong Bitter Pale Ale. That’s not so bad either. And again, even though these names are longer than the existing convention, they’re much more descriptive and easy to understand. I ran through every major style I could think of and they all easily translated to this new approach. It just works.
Thanks for humoring me by reading this. I know this is probably on par with Esperanto…a “logical” approach to a messier status quo that has no hopes of ever catching on. That’s OK…as I said at the beginning, I have no expectations that the existing system will ever change dramatically. It’s been evolving organically (who ever heard of a Cascadian Dark Ale a few decades ago?) and that’s just fine. In fact, that’s as it should be. I only took on this exercise to see if there was a different way of thinking about beer. Just like what Bill James did with baseball stats, sometimes you have to step away from the conventional wisdom and try a new approach. Usually, it’s futile…but…well…you never know.