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Since when was defining a beer’s style and definition definitive?

Before I begin, let me just warn you that this is a bit of a rant. I could have taken the time to form this into a well-thought-out and constructive argument, with quotes, pictures and tastings to back up my thoughts, but because this is mainly going to be contradictory, I’d rather just spew this broken bile in one go.

Let me also say that this will scapegoat the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Marble and Millstone, which are all breweries I love. And it’s for this reason that I know their beers so well and am using them as my examples. They are still amongst my favourites, no matter what is said in the next few paragraphs.

This stems from a conversation with my brother surrounding Magic Rock’s latest offering, Clown Juice. But let me take you back a few years first. In 2009/10 used to work just 100 yards from the Marble Brewery owned Marble Arch in Manchester and would be in there at least once a week. I got to know their beers well and frequently enjoyed pints of Summer Marble, Manchester Bitter, Pint, Dobber, No. 7, Liberty etc… What I really enjoyed about tasting these beers is what I still ineloquently describe as “the Marble Taste”, i.e. I could taste one of their offerings and think, “Yes, this is definitely a Marble beer.

Whether it was the hops, malt, yeast, whatever, Marble beers had a very distinctive characteristic, no matter what the style. And that is the point, I never really cared what style the beer was, nor did the pumpclip care to instruct me. You see, Marble were pumping out a lot of these beers that were, arguably, similar in style, but they all tasted very different. They all had individuality but at the same time had “the Marble Taste.”

This is why Marble are one of my favourite breweries.

When Magic Rock launched last year and hit us with Curious, Rapture, Dark Arts, High Wire and Cannonball, they were all fantastic, but what impressed me most is that, whether low grav pale ale, strong double IPA or stout, the beer’s all retained a similar characteristic, The Magic Rock Character. I really respected the fact they had an identity, instinctly putting them alongside their Manchester brothers at Marble.

So this debate arose surrounding Clown Juice. On it’s own, it’s a nice beer, a great beer in fact, but I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed. Why? Because it said Magic Rock on the label. And for me, it didn’t have any of their character. It’s a good India Wit bier, and it seems to be the trend to make one at the minute, but it also could have been brewed by any other brewer for my reckoning.

And this is my next problem. Beer styles. Why are they so definitive now? It’s almost as if every new brewery has a list of styles in front of them that they were told they must have. We must have ONE American Pale, ONE IPA, ONE DIPA, ONE Black IPA, ONE Imperial Stout and ONE Red Ale. Once they’ve worked through this list, they turn the page. “OK lads, next it’s brown ales, imperial witbiers and milk stouts.” Summer Wine, another favourite brewery of mine, seem to be falling a little guilty to this at the minute (just to remind you, I reference them, only because I hold them in such high esteem.) You brew one style of beer, that everybody’s already done, and then move on to the next.

Back to the Marble Arch, and the point that Marble were not defining their beer in such a way that limited them to just one style. Behind the scenes, perhaps they have distinguished between them and some beers do have characteristics in common with American style Pale Ales and IPA’s. But they didn’t need to define them as such. My ever faithful and local Millstone brewery are another great example of this, making at least 6 really good, hoppy English bitters with similar atmospheres, but they are all individually different. You don’t need just one of each style.

You probably read this as the ramblings of a madman and perhaps they are such. Maybe breweries don’t need their own identity if the beer is great. If you can make a fabulous Imperial Stout and beautiful Best Bitter with the only parallel ingredient being water, then what does it matter? But I, personally, respect breweries more when they retain their personality. Clown Juice is a great beer. Go out and try it. I’ve heard others say it’s just as hoppy as their other beers.  I’d enjoy it that little bit extra if I could somehow see how those hands also crafted High Wire as well. But I’m just one guy with his own opinions and I’d still order both in a hurry.


Unknown said…
What I find with the likes of Magic Rock and Summer Wine is that they are inspired by the beers of other brewers that they've tasted and then want to brew something similar but with their original spin. Not so much a case of ticking every page in the style guide, more stretching their repertoire.

They also explicitly reference styles on their clips as such styles are very marketable within the niches in which they operate.

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