Friday, October 16, 2009

Is Authenticity Important?

This is something I have been thinking about quite a bit lately, is the authenticity of a beer really that important? Does it matter much that a golden lager from Germany bears the label "pils"? Are the methods and ingredients used in producing a particular beer as important as the taste of the end product? Where is the line between making a genuine artisan beer and being innovative just for the hell of it?

The spur for this train of thought over the last couple of weeks was a short clip on TV about how Samuel Adams Boston Lager is made. Part of the process used, according to the clip, was the use of a decoction mash - in particular a double decoction. I was thrilled to be honest to see that at least one of my favourite American lagers (and that is a very, very short list) is made with a decoction mash, as well as 5 weeks of lagering, not to mention being krausened. Of course, strictly speaking, the word lager comes from "lagern" meaning "to store" in that most wonderful of languages, German. Lagering as a process not only takes place in the bottom fermented beers we, in the English speaking world, term "lagers", but also styles such as Altbier and Kölsch - some labels for which carry the phrase "obergärige lagerbier" or "top-fermented lagered beer", yet we label it an ale, when it is just as much a "lager", being the product of a decoction mash and a period of cold conditioning.

This got me to thinking about Shakespeare's maxim that "what's in name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", and while I think that is generally true, it is also true that the elements which compose a rose come together in such a unique way as to make calling a rose a daisy, pointless. If you see what I mean. It is ridiculous to call Altbier an "ale" when the only difference between it and "lager" is the yeast employed to make the alcohol, and the only thing it shares with what the English speaking world calls "ale" is the very same yeast. So, in a long round about way, we come to why I think authenticity is important - simply because we insist on using styles in order to categorise the beers we drink.

Let's look at the overused term "pilsner", one which has led me to be deeply disappointed with many of the beers I have tried which proudly display the term on their label. While I see the value of the appellation "pilsner", I also think that Pilsner Urquell forfeit the right to use that name on their products made in Poland and Russia. But is it just a case of where the beer is made that is important? Are not the accepted process of production and ingredients used by the brewers in that place equally as important? I would argue that is exactly the case; thus a "pilsner" for me is made of 4 ingredients; pale moravian malt, Saaz hops, soft water and bottom fermenting yeast stolen from Bavaria by a dodgy monk. Just as important is a triple decoction mash and a lengthy lagering period. For breweries to make a "pilsner style lager" whilst ignoring the very things that made Pilsner Urquell the wonder beer it was, is gross misrepresentation.

Such a strict view of the term "pilsner" begs then the question, can an India Pale Ale be thus called if it hasn't spent 6 months bobbing around on the ocean? Not to mention the difference between a style and an appellation, and where those two monstrosities overlap. This is perhaps where I depart from the fans of "extreme" beers - I would rather drink a well made, traditional, pilsner, for example, than a pure alcohol, 6 trillion IBU, double, imperial IPA or some such. I guess what I am saying is that authenticity is vital when using a beer which has an appellation, but of course innovation when interpreting a style is acceptable.


  1. The very word "lager" many times isn't taken very seriously.

    Is a beer that has spent only 11 days, if not less, in cold storage a true lager (let alone a Pils)?

    Despite of what many would think, styles aren't something written in stone. They change, they evolve, they adapt. After all, aren't they just "traditional recipes"?

    Some of them have also been hijacked by marketing. Many times Pils, Stout, etc have no more meaning than Premium, Selected ingredients and all that bollocks.

    Take what seems to be the latest fad among craft brewers, Dark IPA. The name doesn't make any sense! How can something that is pale be dark at the same time?

    But at the end of the day, the most, if not the only, important thing is what you have in the glass. The rest is, at most, interesting.

  2. I keep seeing references to Kölsch being called an "obergäriges Lagerbier" in Germany. It isn't, at least not in recent years. There's nothing in the Kölsch-Konvention (the definition agreed by most of the Kölsch brewers) that describes it as such. There it's a 'pale, highly attentuated, hoppy, clear, top-fermented Vollbier'. Vollbier is the tax bracket.

    Strangely, 11 out of the first 20 Google hits for "obergäriges Lagerbier" are on English-language pages.

  3. The tax bracket doesn't necessarily mean the beer belongs to that style or family. It's only a tax thing.

    Here in CZ Hefeweizen beers are included in the Ležák (Czech equivalent to "Lagerbier") tax bracket. It even says on their labels "světlý pseniční ležák" (pale wheat lager), eventhough all of them are top fermented wheat beers brewed pretty much the Bavarian way.

    Here it's because those beers are brewed with a 11 to 12.99 Balling graduation, so they fit into the Ležák legal category, regardless of what sort of fermentation, ingredients, etc. they have. I guess it's something similar with Kölsch and Vollbier


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