Beer naming trends – how far is too far?

The last decade or so has seen increased stylistic explosions in the brewing industry. They say that variety is the spice of life – but is there any substance behind the labels for these newly minted brew categories?

Some of these creations clearly pay homage to traditional brewing styles of countries like Germany and Belgium, whilst adding a modern, hipster-pleasing twist. Other concepts seem so harebrained that they appear to be borne out of an ill-advised brainstorm session in a hotbox.

Here’s my take on three craft brews that the barman would have given you a very funny look for ordering 20 years ago.

1. Black IPA

Once you get past the annoying contradictory name (and I humbly suggest that we all unite in refusing to do so, and adopt ‘Cascadian Dark Ale’ instead), this style isn’t all that bad an idea. It’s a beer ideal for the chilly winter nights, when you want something rich, smooth and dark, with a touch of the bitter bite that one is used to finding in a stout, combined with the late hop additions of your more refreshing summer beer choices for that full-flavoured finish.

Beers were cropping up on shelves and taps under this name as early as 2009, but seemed to reach a new peak of popularity around the 2016 mark. The thing is, it’s not new; many records suggest that beer fitting this description has been around for well over a century. Whilst traditional British darker ale styles have gone easy on hop flavour, German Schwarzbier has long allowed malts and hops to express themselves in unison as part of a dark beer. So perhaps this dark and hoppy craft offering could be said to be a top-fermented take on this German classic?

So I’m all for the revival, but why the name? Why did ‘Black IPA’ take off in popularity precisely how and when it did? Simple; it’s a gimmick. Black IPA rides on the coat tails of the IPA-centric craft beer revolution of the last couple of decades, and could be easily marketed to plaid-clad youngsters who know their Stone from their Sierra Nevada, but wouldn’t know a plum porter or breakfast stout if it smacked them in the face. Cynical? Perhaps.

2. Double IPA (DIPA)

I have a confession: the fuzziness of the definition of a DIPA annoys the hell out of me.

The concept of a DIPA is that the malt and hops are each scaled up to leave the bill and balance more or less unchanged, but to create a stronger, more punch-packing beer. All sounds great, right? But here’s the thing – one brewer’s IPA, is another’s DIPA, is another’s TIPA… and so on. Somehow, I find it a little discomforting that there appears to be no particular floor or ceiling which a DIPA must satisfy.

True, they tend to be higher ABV. But I have had DIPAs at 7% and IPAs at 7.5%. I’ve had West-Coast style IPAs with such a fierce hop flavour that they resembled medicine more closely than beer, and then I’ve braced for the DIPA from the same brewery, and been pleasantly surprised by a well-rounded, lengthy and full-flavoured finish.

Maybe it’s my issue – I’m just too keen to put beers in boxes, and sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. But mostly I think it’s just that I’m a little tired of West-Coast style IPAs. The hop explosion has its place, but the innovation on the New England side is much more interesting to me right now; the creamier mouthfeel just makes the hops sing.

3. White Stout

I’ve saved the most ludicrous until last.

I visited an incredibly trendy craft beer bar in Berlin earlier this year which boasted this style on tap, and I felt immediately confused. So what the fuck is it?

White Stout is a golden coloured ale which exhibits some rich chocolate and vanilla notes that one would usually expect to find in a darker beer. It might also have a thick and creamy mouthfeel that is characteristic of stouts.

Call me a purist, but I really struggle to get my head around this one. As a homebrewer, ‘stout’ conjures to mind selections of grain varieties that only a magician could extract a pale colour from. I love making pales with creamy mouthfeels, and flaked oats and wheat are my go-to grain additions to create this, yet I have never dreamed of labeling any such concoction a ‘white stout’ rather than a ‘white ale’.

So once again, I’m all for this beer style in principle, but it’s misnamed. Or perhaps there are already enough new style names, and this experiment does not actually need a name at all. If it has lactose, it’s a milkshake IPA or milkshake pale. Or if it has specialty toasted malts, what’s wrong with just calling it a Toasted Pale Ale?

 

I hope that in years to come, the innovation in the brewing industry continues apace – but maybe we could ease off on the new names for every single experiment. Our conversations with publicans will be more honest and straightforward for it.

The ultimate West Coast pub crawl

Earlier this year, I fulfilled a long-term ambition of travelling along the US West Coast, from LA to Seattle. The plan had been cooked up along a London pub crawl the previous autumn (the brainstorming process for many of my very greatest ideas). It was to be the ultimate IPA pub crawl, my travel partner and I decided – 10 days of fantastic food, beer, and stunning coastal views. We would stay in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, and drink our fill of craft beer in each.

It was January, and upon arriving in Silver Lake, LA the weather was perfect – the sun was shining, the sky was decorated with a few small fluffy clouds, and a gentle breeze kept the air cool. On the first morning in town, we headed for brunch, and whilst we tucked into eggs, coffee and orange juice, one cheerful patron came in with a dog and ordered a pint of IPA. It was 10.30am. Truly, this was the city of ‘anything goes’.

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That night, it was time to hit the bars. We took a cab to Angel City brewery. The vibe was chic and industrial, and the place was lively with hip locals. Oh, and the beer was pretty good too.

We punctuated the drive from LA to SF with a night in Cambria. It was a great chance to soak in the coastal beauty for just a little longer. The next afternoon, we made it to San Francisco, and checked into our Castro hotel. Our first watering hole of the evening was a self-styled dive bar playing loud rock music. In the UK, this would be the sort of place you’d hang before a gig, and there would be a choice of Stella, Carling or Fosters. They probably wouldn’t have heard of cask ale or craft beer. But here in the US, even the bars that were a little, er, ‘rough around the edges’ seemed to be fluent in craft. There was a tap wall featuring more than 20 pumps. Americans, after all, love to be paralyzed by choice.

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We also checked out Vesuvio Cafe, on the recommendation of a colleague of mine. It was like stepping back in time, and I expected to see Jack Kerouac sitting in the corner, propping up the bar and staring pensively over some scribbles.

The next day’s driving was the most grueling of the trip. We made it to Eureka in Northern CA without stopping, and took a welcome break for a late oyster lunch. The rain was pounding now, and would barely give way in the coming days. Our abode for the night was just over the Oregon state line, right on the ocean. We arrived hungry and tired, but our helpful Air B&B hosts soon made us comfortable, and we sat back with a glass of wine and cheese supper to admire the stunning coastline, under the stormy skies.

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The next day, we made it to Portland. The city was rainy and gray, but happily there were microbreweries on what seemed to be almost every road intersection. I especially liked Mt Tabor, in which the taproom was situated right on the brewery floor; there’s something nice about sipping a pint surrounded by mash tuns. I arrived in the mood for something hoppy and refreshing, and was a little intimidated by the choice of FOUR different IPAs, but the barman was really friendly, and asked about my preferences before giving me a couple of samples. Later in the evening, via a few more spontaneous beery stop-offs, we moved on to Burnside, where we sat at the bar and ordered an artisan sharing platter. This is probably the most hipster place I’ve ever been to, I thought. Shoreditch, eat your heart out. 

Before long, it was time to leave the craft beer mecca of Portland and move onto our final destination. As we arrived in Seattle, a glimmer of sun came through the clouds. We met up with our local host, freshened up, and tried out best to put our nine-day hangovers aside to do justice to the final leg of our trip. Our first pint was at yet another bar which placed brewing equipment in pride of place on the bar floor. When I tried to pay for drinks with a $20 bill, the barman informed me ‘oh, sorry, we don’t take cash’. What the…? This is REALLY getting too hip for me now, I thought, secretly partly looking forward to returning to an old-man’s boozer in which the card machine would be permanently broken.

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To finish the night, we moved onto the Capitol Hill area. My favorite brewery in this part of town was Outer Planet. It’s a small but perfectly formed taproom, with a great range of board games to play whilst getting tanked. The red ale was a stand out winner. The next day, after browsing comic and vintage shops in the trendy Fremont area, we had time for one final beer before packing up and preparing to head home. The trip had been incredible; a journey rich with cuisine and craft beer culture. Can’t wait to do it all again someday, but only after I’ve seen some more of what the US has to offer. The next craft beer location on my wish list is Colorado!

Have you travelled the West Coast? Did you discover some killer IPAs? I’d love to hear your comments about your travel experiences 🙂

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