A Beer Has No Name: IPA's Existential Crisis

I don't know what IPA is anymore.  And I don't think it knows, either.  Practically speaking, we've reached a point where the designation is largely meaningless.

Appearance: Bone white to jet black.
Bittering: None to teeth-ripping
Flavor: Who the hell knows?
ABV: 3.5-16.5%

Every style has variability - I get that.  I'm not pushing for constriction or mandates or uniformity.  But can we at least acknowledge that the name we put on something should matter, at least a little bit?  

Because at this point, you could call something "beer" instead of "IPA" and probably create as useful an expectation for what's in the bottle.

You Already Know Why

There's no mystery here: IPA sells.  People have come to conflate it with "craft beer that tastes like more than fermented rice syrup."  I've heard lots of folks "explain" that there's "lager and IPA."  I don't mind that, to be perfectly honest, because not everyone's a deep-diving maven on every topic, so they grab on to labels to help organize their knowledge of something, even if it's in a low-information way.  It's like how when I talk about film editing I'll probably misuse the terms "jump cut" and "match cut," because I'm not a professional film editor.  That's normal.  That's rational.  And that's why names matter.  But I've already been down that road.  More than once, apparently.  

So when a brewery slaps "IPA" on something, some large number of them are doing it for marketing purposes.  I'm sure they know that what they made isn't really in the realm of what has traditionally been called IPA, but they'll call it that anyway, either because they're convinced that theirs is a creative interpretation of the style or, more cynically, because they know it'll be easier to get and hold a tap with that label.

I don't care about motive, here, especially.

Bitter

Where things start getting squirrelly for me is when beer geeks start redefining IPA in ways that seem to eliminate its usefulness as a style category.

Let's leave aside most of the "typical" controversies (maybe someday I'll get bored enough to dive into the great haze debate).  I just want to focus on one:

Bitterness.

If there's one thing I could always say about IPA - in all of its varied forms, shapes, colors, strengths, and flavor profiles, it's that it was bitter.  It's a defining feature of the style, and so far as I know it always has been.  But now I'm regularly hearing from folks who are trying to tell me that their "Double IPA" has 20 IBUs.  Or that their standard IPA doesn't have any at all.  

"Nope!  ALL late hopping!" 

Then, forgive me, that's not an IPA.  Or, if it is, then there's nothing defining left of the style.  The name is meaningless.  A beer has no name.  

Hoppy

I can already hear the objections: "No, you don't understand: it's still really hoppy, though, and that's what makes it an IPA."

OK, let's explore that.  What you're saying is that any color, clarity, strength, or bittering level fits as an IPA...so long as the beer has medium-to-high hop flavor and/or aroma?  

Pilsner: IPA (IPL?).
American Pale, Amber, Brown ales: IPA
Altbier: German IPA
English pale ales: Session English IPAs
Kellerbier: Unfiltered IPA
American Porter: Black IPA
American Stout: Also Black IPA
American Wild Ales: Sour IPA

Hell, even the European lagers can feature moderate hop aroma.  

Basically, anything except Belgians are IPAs...unless they're Belgian IPAs.

So you've created a difference without a distinction.

The Appearance and the Reality of a Lack of Choice

If you have something that can include everything, then it arguably means nothing.  Maybe that's just the way we're trending: "IPA" means whatever anyone wants, with a general kind of presumption that it means Americanized or Craft.  If so, it's a bad call. It means that, without doing some reading, you're not going to know if you have a 90-IBU tongue-scraper on your hands or something that's basically a Beermosa.  

It'll sell well, though, I'm sure...for a while.

I'm not predicting the derailment of the IPA Train, quite.  But I'll say this: one of the biggest complaints that craft beer drinkers had in the bad old days was that tap lists were just wall-to-wall light lagers - it was just a question of which one you could tolerate or had identified with.

We're heading back that way, just with IPA instead of macro lager.

On the one hand, this is real.  Go to any "craft beer bar" (or something trying to be) and you'll probably see quite the run of 6-7%, 60-IBU, generally-pale IPAs on offer.  The same also goes for bars that want to carry a couple of "craft" taps: I've virtually never seen one where those 2-3 taps aren't IPAs.  

On the other hand, though, this is illusory - and becoming more so - because of this "catch-all" nomenclature of the IPA.  Even if there's a range of beers on offer, practically, it's hard to know that because everything's labeled "IPA."

And IPA is now, from a communication standpoint, a hollow name.  It doesn't mean anything.  

This has a simple solution, by the way: just call things what they are.  Don't jam them into an ill-fitting "new" nomenclature when they already have a name.  If something is closer to our typical understanding of Porter than our typical understanding of IPA, call it a Porter.  Proximity.  A "spatial" theory of beer style names.  Because, as previously discussed, these names are the single best and easiest tool we have to have some idea of what we're getting when we buy/order beer.

IPA Doesn't Exist Anymore

What's the practical impact of this one-beer-size-fits-all naming approach?  It means IPA doesn't exist anymore.  It's like how "trucks" wouldn't exist anymore if I could sell you a motorcycle and claim it's a "two-wheeled open-air no-cargo light truck."

Trucks can come in all kinds of shapes and configurations.  There are extended cabs, bed-covered things that look more like SUVs, compact trucks, panel trucks, heavy duty and super duty and light duty, and more.  We know what a truck is.

This kind of nominal "death by smothering" is a fascinating way for the IPA to go out: in plain sight, on every tap list, as the best-selling craft beer.  

I honestly wonder if and when we'll actually get around to noticing that it's pulling a "Weekend at Bernie's" and masquerading as alive, when in reality it's been dead for some time.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Roundup: The Session #123, "CyberBrew"

First, let me thank all of the bloggers who participated in this 123rd edition of The Session!  And, of course, to Jay and Stan for making it happen in the first place.  So, without further ado, we jump into a roundup of what everyone thought of Beer in the Information Age (and if anyone cares, my own brief post on the matter is at the conclusion).

The Brew Site 

Jon Abernathy's take focuses on the interconnection that the internet and social media make possible, and gives a nice rundown of the benefits and costs of this unavoidable linkage mechanism.  On the plus side, small (good) breweries get more attention and have an easier time building a following that can sustain them.  At the same time, the lengthy history of beer (even on the early internet) means that we have a running record of beer and brewery development, attitudes, and history that serves a useful archival function!  

On the negative side of the ledger, however, is one key detriment: especially in a social media age, the internet gives an outsized voice to the more-persistent and louder negative voices.  If 100 people are pleasantly happy with a beer but one is determined to destroy it, that one voice has a motivation to leap online and raise hell, whereas the 100 happy drinkers will simply enjoy their beer and move on.  That the internet is a platform for snobbery and distorted impressions is certainly not a new observation, but it's one that's always worth remembering.

Barrel Aged Leeds

"Do you even blog, Bro?" might be one of my favorite titles of all time.  Pointing out the rapid expansion of the blogging/vlogging/punditry sphere on the internet, we are warned that there is a risk of creating a beer blogosphere that is far too focused on cheerleading in an attempt to garner more likes and shares.  While we have less of a profit motive (ahem...some of us have none at all!) than the breweries themselves (or their PR departments), there's still some incentive to avoid rocking the boat.

We are rightly encouraged to think of the dogs that don't bark - a plethora of positive reviews of a brewery doesn't make it good.  I would concur and add that the same is true for the negatives we hear.  And, of course, as beer writers we might be best served by voluntarily adopting a degree of journalistic detachment and obejctivity.

The Aposition

Tom Bedell provides two recent beer interactions as vignettes on the impact of the internet on the beer community.  First, the near-"miraculous" (despite its now-commonplace nature) phenomenon of being able to gather the beer-interested from around the world via social media to discuss and share beer news and opinions.  The fact that we can now, easily, harness ideas and thoughts from brewers all over the world, instantaneously, is an astonishing thing, whatever its effects.

Second, we're all now also benefitting (and, again, we ignore the revolutionary nature of this) from advanced knowledge of what beer is available where, which means less time hunting and more time enjoying, and fewer disappointing tap lists even in places like airports and sporting stadiums.  It's like when someone finally get a DVR and sees what life is like without the down-time of commercials and the shackles of airing schedules.  It's remarkably liberating!

Kaedrin Beer Blog

Mark delves into this question with abandon, and I couldn't possibly summarize it all here (but I strongly urge you to read it all for yourself - great stuff!), but one point that jumped out at me was the incredible diversity of kinds of beer communities online.  Like a lot of these points, it was something I had observed but never remarked upon.  Trying to nail down online "beer culture" can be challenging because it reflects so many different approaches, concerns, and attitudes.  

With increasing levels of transparency are coming increasing levels of trust online, Mark notes, which is almost certainly a good thing, regardless of the topic or area.

A Better Beer Blog

Alan didn't seem to think much of my question, I regret to report, suggesting that it was "short-sighted" (or, if I'm reading it correctly, failing to appreciate the lengthy internet history of beer).  In my own defense, I don't think I was suggesting that beer is new to the internet - rather that recent changes in both scope and scale of the internet audience, in addition to its transition to an active space rather than a passive resource, might merit a review of how the internet today affects beer.  But I digress...

Alan seems to espouse a radically different view of many of the others in this week's roundup: he suggests that the interconnectedness and dynamic shrinking of the world that the internet and social media provide is merely the "presumption…no, the illusion of nearness."  The interactions found online are artificial.  "All beer is, as a result, properly understood as local and personal."  

It's an interesting perspective, but I can't say that I subscribe to it.  While these interactions may begin superficially and artificially, they often yield real relationships and benefits.  How many visit NHC or GABF and take active steps to meet and spend time with those who were previously only bits of data on a social media feed?  The end result certainly meets the "local and personal" standard, and if what starts that chain of events are the artificial virtual interactions of social media and internet activity, then doesn't that end result add a degree of "realness" to its beginning?  And are we really saying that IRL beer interactions can't be equally fleeting and artificial?  It's certainly a fascinating topic for discussion - more another day...

Ramblings of a Beer Runner

Derrick makes a wonderfully simple case for craft beer on the internet: everyone can and is getting something beneficial out of it.  Breweries get low cost-of-access publicity and direct contact with consumers.  Drinkers get information about beer and breweries and events.  Traders get a wildly expanded universe in which to offer and receive exotic beers.

All of this comes with a caveat, though: there's a lot of noise out there.  And as Derrick notes: "If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to."  I couldn't agree more!

The Tale of the Ale

Dublin-based blogger Reuben Gray stakes out a simple and compelling argument for the modern internet as a craft beer engine.  Information often fuels interest, and the fact the "global explosion in craft beer would be much slower and have far less of an impact without the rise of the internet and specifically smartphones/social media."  I find this to be especially true given the nature of craft beer's position and image in the marketplace: a swarm of "little guys" trying to take down the macro behemoths.  It's the perfect marketing medium for a David v. Goliath narrative.

Reuben also notes, though, that this sword cuts both ways: before everyone and their mother was on social media, and before internet news became ubiquitous, only the most-dedicated of beer people (or the most thorough of newspaper Business Section readers) would have noticed the full buyout of Lagunitas by Heineken.  Now, that information whips around the world (literally) at the speed of light.  Whether it actually helps or hurts the brewery is a question of case and context, but the idea that it could do either is a significant change in the beer world's ecology.

The Beer Nut

Also out of Dublin, The Beer Nut makes a fittingly novel argument: the novelty that pervades the beer world (one-offs, collaboration beers, 20 seasonals to 4 year-round offerings) is a direct result of the ramped-up communications (especially mobile) technology that breweries can now utilize.  When communication with customers was both costly and required firing a marketing shotgun into a crowd of potential beer drinkers, focus was key: serve only a few beers, and preferably have your brand identified by just one.  

With microtargeting, direct messaging, and a market segment constantly on the hunt for new and creative beer, the incentive structure changes, probably permanently.  Sure, you can have a range of really good "everyday" beers, but breweries can now choose to leave that model behind and brew an ever-evolving range of beers and make a living doing it.  An interesting illustration of one way that technology that has nothing to do with brewing changes beer.

Boak & Bailey

Boak and Bailey make a broader cultural argument that seems quite on-target: online and offline are no longer distinct spaces.  The integration of internet-based technology into practical everyday living is, if not complete, then damned near there.  

They follow up with a great question: what is the impact on the local when the global shows up in your pocket?  Certainly there are benefits to each, and just as we should be open to the idea of the exotic and the far-flung we should also take care to nurture and maintain the nearby and the familiar.  How?  That's a much longer discussion for another day.

Beer Simple

My take?  I agree with almost all of what my colleagues have written in the past week on the subject.  I concur that the Information Age (with the addition of social media) has changed the beer world by bringing all of us closer together, enabling interactions that would have been logistically challenging and probably impossible even a few years ago.  And I disagree that these interactions are immaterial or ineffectual or artificial.  

These interactions are real.  Nurture them, and they'll pay dividends.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Sending Beer Back: Walking the Customer-Alehole Tightrope

"Don't like that beer?  Send it back.  You're the customer - you should get something you like."

Oh, if only it were that simple (especially around here - right?).  

Maybe it's a desire to avoid conflict.  Maybe we don't want to look like beer snobs.  Maybe it's that there seem to be a lot of introverts in/around craft beer and homebrewing.  Whatever the reason, though, this is one of the topics in which I find a lot of anxiety, disagreement, and tension: when, and how, do/should we send beer back?

I know that some of you out there are brazenly demanding new pints left and right and think the rest of us just need to get more assertive, but for those who don't fall into that category, let's get into this a bit.

First, When?

Right out of the gate, I gravitate towards trying to sort out the situations when it's OK to send a beer back and those in which it's more of a questionable move.  

Probably Not OK: The one time when I'm reasonably sure it's unreasonable to send a beer back is when I simply don't like it.  If what I ordered is basically what I got (as in, I ordered a Pilsner and it's lighter than amber and has some hop character/bitterness), then whether I think it's good or not doesn't factor into whether I should send it back or not.  The bar's under no obligation to only serve me beers that I would rate highly.

Almost Certainly OK: A seriously dirty or chipped glass, a beer that's flat, obvious off-flavors of a fecal variety, something that's demonstrably not the beer I ordered ("say, this beer's pretty haze and pale for a Russian Imperial Stout...") - these all seem like perfectly good reasons to send a beer back.

In Between: The trouble I run into is when there's not a patently obvious justification.  What do you do when there's lots of bubbles on the beer glass (not "beer clean")?  Diacetyl, DMS, other minor flavor faults?  Slightly stale flavors/oxidation?  Temperature issue?  I guess there's never going to be a commonly-accepted rubric for what does and doesn't qualify, and even if we agreed on one there's a lot of subjectivity in beer evaluation.

This is what I mean when I say we're walking the Customer-Alehole tightrope.  One person's reasonable complaint is another person's eye-rolling "get over yourself" self-indulgence.

For these "tweeners," I like to go with the "Two Beer" rule.  If there's one beer with that problem, fine.  But if my second has it, too, then I'm either going to leave and not come back OR bring it to someone's attention.  

What you say v. What they hear

"When," it turns out, might be the easy part.  "How" is a much bigger challenge, because now you're treading on more-dangerous ground.  

Sending a beer back could trigger all kinds of weird responses, few of them good.

On the one hand, you could be at a place that is really committed to customer service, trains up their staff well, and genuinely cares that you have a great experience.  That, though...isn't everywhere.  Many don't want or need your feedback, and may not care whether you're happy or not.  

It's really kind of understandable.  I mean, you're just sending a beer back.  But to the bar, you might be saying any/all of the following:

  • "You're losing $6 because I'm not paying for this."
  • "You run a dirty bar.  Clean a beer line, just once, for the novelty of it."
  • "You don't know what you're serving - that's NOT a stout, idiot."
  • "You're an idiot who served this in a chilled mug."
  • "I'm a super-entitled beer geek and beer judge and homebrewer and YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!"

So...you know, maybe we should approach this cautiously.  

The "How"

Well, I suppose it should go without saying that you should be polite and courteous (and even complimentary - "we love it here, and we know you guys care about your beer, it's just that this one is [fill in the concern]").  I've been burned by "goes without saying" before, though, so it can't hurt to repeat it here.

Context matters here, too - if it's a bartender/bar owner that you've known for a while, then feel free to be more direct.  Some people I could spit-take the beer across the room without offending, but that's not most folks in most places.

So, how do we politely but firmly register a request to send a beer back?  I like the Triple-A Method (modified from writing on how to engage in challenging political discourse):

  1. Apologize: "I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I need to ask for a different beer."  Why lead off with an apology?  Because it suggests this isn't a power trip for you.  You don't want to make their lives harder.  You're just someone who wants a good, fair transaction.
  2. Augment: "I have a serious sensitivity to [whatever your beef is], and I'm tasting it in this beer."  Explain your concern in neutral terms.  No need to point fingers.
  3. Advance: "Could I have [new beer, new glass, etc.] instead?  Thanks SO much, and again, I'm sorry about this!"  Don't wait for them to suggest a fix - it can make you seem like you're trawling for more than a replacement, or they might think that you don't want it redressed at all.  

This method can work for all kinds of complaints.  It also makes no appeals to authority ("Look, I'm a homebrewer/beer judge, and I KNOW that's not right...") or normative value judgments.  It's clear, simple, and (unless someone's having a really bad day) pretty benign and non-reactive.

The Wrong Beer Exception

There's one area, though, where I haven't been able to come up with a single "clean" and non-insulting way to call attention: The Wrong Beer Scenario.

I ordered something.  You gave me something - but not what I ordered.

Now, one of two things could be happening here:

  1. It's patently the wrong beer (or Oktoberfest is now super-hoppy and cloudy).
  2. I know it's the wrong beer because I drink a lot of different beers and can tell.

There's no winning here.  If it's obviously the wrong beer, then pointing that out means you're calling the bartender an idiot.  If it's not patently wrong but my experience makes it obvious, then pointing it out makes me look like a smug beer snob.

The only thing that MIGHT work - but the server needs to be hip to what you're trying to do for them - is this face-saving statement: "Sorry, I think this must be for someone else - I ordered the Oktoberfest!  It's so busy, totally understandable..."  

Otherwise, you're on the express train to Awkward Town.  

Say Hi to the Vicar

Finally, a quick word on an under-pour.  I was drinking with an Englishman one fine afternoon, and on receiving his pint asked the waitress, "what about the vicar?"  I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so; apparently, he was referring to the white collar of head at the top of the glass, taking up space where his beer should be, and resembling (I now saw) a clerical collar like a priest or vicar might wear.  

If a place is slow, I might mention it.  Otherwise, I just let it slide.  He didn't - they're serious about a beer being a proper pint, those Englishmen...

Manners Cost Nothing

In any case, let your conscience be your guide, on all of this.  What I will say, though, is that being polite never hurts, usually helps, and costs nothing.  

If you're going to step out onto the Customer-Alehole tightrope, best to err on the side of courtesy.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).