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Monday, May 14, 2012

In Terms of Style, What's "Authentic?"

Last week, in the post about Flat Tail's Grätzer, I described it this way: "The first fully-authentic grätzer brewed by an American craft brewery (or anyway, one near enough to me to know about)."  Dave Marliave did his best to replicate a beer based on descriptions of the defunct style, using stiff hopping and a grist of smoked wheat malt.

A commenter named Mike, whom I'm assuming is the Europe-based Mike who sometimes comments, took issue with the "fully-authentic" comment:

"Jeff, when I was in university, many years ago, my English professor used to say: 'If my grandmother wore roller skates would that make her a motorcycle?'"
We arrive now at a place of some controversy: hair-splitting on the question of what qualifies as style adherence.  The problem is that certain styles require greater fidelity than others.  Two of the chapters I wrote most recently in The Beer Bible were lambics and tart Flanders ales, and they offer a nice contrast.  The former requires enormous fidelity of ingredients, method, and even chemical constituents (the presence of isoamyl acetate is verboten).  Flanders ales, variously referred to as red or brown, made with spontaneous or mixed fermentation, wood aged or not, have huge latitude.  German lagers tend to fall in a far narrower band than English or certainly Belgian ales.  In most cases, styles are matters of convention, but there are a few examples like lambics where laws actually play a role.  "Style" is far from a consistent measure.

Then we have the grätzer case, which falls in that category of recreation and raises a whole new set of issues.  The biggest barrier is that for any style brewed before the 20th century, the ingredients were different enough that it's essentially impossible to accurately recreate them.  (Actually, that may not be the case for lagers, but I haven't gotten to that part of the book yet.  It's definitely true for any ale made in Britain, Belgium, or France.)  The act of recreating these styles means trying to figure out how they might have tasted and brewing them to produce those flavors with modern ingredients and processes.  The only reasonable goal is to try for fidelity to flavor.  Grätzers aren't a 19th century recreation, but the style has been extinct for 18 years--and in decline for decades before that.  We know that style variability diminishes as producers quit making them, and probably that last holdout was just one data point on a wider spectrum.

So is Dave's grätzer "fully authentic?"  There is, of course, no answer to this.  The style itself evolved and expressed variation among producers.  There are two qualities that make it distinctive: a smoked wheat grist and stiff hopping.  There are other aspects I guess you could argue are critical as well, like the yeast strain and need for Polish hops, but I wouldn't call these markers of style so much as locality and tradition.  Those demands are matters of preference.  Some traditionalists require extraordinary fidelity to a particular example in order to clear the "authenticity" bar, but breweries themselves have never adhered to this dogma. (I'd be interested to know if Mike would give Choc's Grätzer the thumbs up.)  There is no style authority, so the best we can do is try to find agreement.

For my purposes, I wanted to understand what a beer made with very smoky wheat malt and stiff hopping would taste like.  I've never encountered those combinations in a beer before.  Dave's beer was easily close enough. As with most discussions in the realm of style, your mileage may vary.

9 comments:

Rob Fullmer said...

"The first fully-authentic grätzer brewed by an American craft brewery (or anyway, one near enough to me to know about)."

Your account of Flat Tail's Grätzer provides the tools for anyone to judge as to the truthfulness of origin, attribution and intent.

That's about all we can ask.

Mike said...

Jeff, as the source of this "controversy" let me offer this example to help explain my point.

I tell my brother I've seen a woman who looks just like our sister. I then tell my neighbour, who has never met our sister.

If my brother sees the woman and agrees, then fair enough. However, on what basis could my neighbour agree or disagree? If he has not seen my sister, he has no basis for the comparison.

If you (Jeff) had tasted the original Grätzer and called the reproduction "fully authentic", I wouldn't have raised the point. However, since (I'm almost sure) you haven't tasted the original, I don't think you are in a position to comment on its authenticity.

Craig said...

It's the use of the words "style" and "authenticity" together, that causes all the problems. Pale Stout would be decidedly against modern style guidelines for Stout, but none the less, creating a Pale Stout from an early 19th century would be accurate—or at least as accurate as it could be using modern ingredients.

However, accuracy and authenticity are not mutually exclusive. Let's leave the beer world for a moment and I'll use another example to prove my point. Instead of brewing beer, let's say I am going to build a WWII-era, fighter plane—A North American P51 Mustang. In this case we'll replace the style (Grätzer) with model (P51). I'll use all the same tools, equipment and plans as the original and I'll make painstaking efforts to recreate that plane to the same model specifications as one built 70 years ago. For all intent and purposes I now have an exact copy, or one that is true to style, of the same plane that zipped across the skies of Europe in WWII. But is is authentic?

Simply put—No.

It is not, nor could it ever be, a plane that flew combat missions during the second World War. It is an accurate facsimile—but not authentic. Just like the P51, Flat Trail's Grätzer seems to be an accurate reproduction of the style, but that doesn't make it an authentic Grätzer.

That a being said, I think as beer lovers, writers, and enthusiasts we need to get past what's authentic and what is not authentic when it comes to modern beer. Reviving and brewing old styles is great—and I do a fair bit of historic brewing myself—but Isn't it more important to just accept that your beer might not be "authentic"—but who care if it tastes good?

Jeff Alworth said...

Mike, if first-hand knowledge of a beer is foundational to its authenticity, recreations of old styles are definitionally "inauthentic." It's a consistent definition, but not one I find useful.

Craig, you also have an idiosyncratic definition for the word authentic.

I'm going for one straight from the dictionary.

Zac said...

Great pair of posts and resulting discussion, Jeff.

It seems that some have different standards of what is authentic and what is not. However, if one looks at the dictionary definition, it seems that the Grätzer you reviewed is an authentic facsimile. (Is that redundant?)

From what I can tell, Mike is primarily calling out your authority to declare said beer as authentic. However, you know enough about the style and the process the brewer used to make a pretty competent assessment, IMO.

Still, it's an interesting discussion. The discrepancies in standards of authenticity seem to be at the root of many Euro beer enthusiasts' critiques of the American craft scene.

Mike said...

I think that Zac's closing sentence is an accurate description of why Jeff and I have often disagreed.

The beer scene in Europe, despite what some Americans may think, remains primarily quite traditional.

Part of the problem in this discussion is that there is an international treaty (http://goo.gl/NFWeG) to protect product/place names (such as Champagne, for example) which the US has never signed (http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/pijip_facsch/8/).

This is why Gose, Grätzer, lambik, gueuze and other European beer names can be used in the US (regardless of authenticity) without regard for the countries that created those products.

So, other countries don't have these discussions about authenticity since the beers (or other products) don't use the same names and, therefore, don't claim to be something that the treaty does not permit them to be.

Jeff Alworth said...

Mike,

I think you're identifying more a cultural clash than a legal one. Most beer styles aren't protected. Even Oude Gueuze and Oude Kriek have the weakest protection (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed). You're identifying the respect for tradition that would prevent one brewery from making a beer strongly identified with a particular place and associated local methods.

But these are cultural norms. There's nothing to prevent a French brewery from making a now-defunct gratzer. Indeed, the history of beer styles is one of borrowing, reappropriation, or sometimes outright theft. Porters and pilsners are brewed all over the world because countries liked the London and Czech originals and decided to make them.

Breweries in the new world will always appropriate European styles: they have to. They don't have long traditions of their own. (Except for primitive colonial styles like sap and spruce beer.) But I would encourage you to talk to European breweries about how they feel about that. In very rare cases, American breweries appropriate in ways that are offensive. But in showing interest in dying niche styles, brewing them, and educating Americans about those styles, they create a market that may well save those very styles. That is certainly the case in Belgium.

There's a real issue here; I just don't think it runs in one direction.

Mike said...

Jeff, if you think an international treaty is a "cultural clash", then, I'm sorry, but I don't see any point in discussing this further.

Jeff Alworth said...

Mike, this is a classic example of why discussions with you are so rugged. My post is on what qualifies as "authentic" in terms of beer and it ends with you storming off in a huff because I won't follow you down your rabbit hole about treaty rights.

It's especially frustrating because most beer is not protected--including examples you're in a huff about--and aren't subjected to European or national protection, never mind treaties. The one example you do give is about champagne!

In conclusion: champagne offers few clues about what makes a beer authentic.

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