After a long night at the Stone Release Party at Maduro last night, I've come to the conclusion that there are essentially two types of people in the universe. Those like me, and those not like me. Which seems a bit obvious, and perhaps I should explain a little.
Part way through the evening, the guys from Stone broke out some of the "good stuff" for us to sample – a Stone XI, a Double Bastard, a Russian Imperial, an Old Guardian. It was during the tasting of the XI that I began to realize that some people are like me, and others are not. If you've never had the XI, it's not like anything you've had before; it is a testament to Stone that they have many beers for which you could say that. We tasted it before we knew what it was, and I had guessed that it was a super-hopped up stout – it was dark and smooth with some roasty notes and lots and lots of hops, it was missing the body of a stout, particularly a Stone stout, but it otherwise fit into a notion of something that seemed similar to a stout to me. Everyone seemed equally confounded by it, but we all really liked it. Of course, Stone calls it a Black IPA and when we read that on the label we all immediately said "What?" Then we said "Oh. That makes sense."
But, the bigger point is this: how do you sell these things, these beers, that really kind of defy any sort of typical classification system. I've found that there are two responses to this: 1) it is what is, you just describe it, and the consumer trusts the brewery that it is brewed with quality; 2) you find comparisons that are a close fit and shoe-horn the description into something a bit more familiar. And, before you accuse me of slobbering on Stone again (or, how did Chris say? Tonguing the kernels of the corn in their shit?) there are a number of American, even Wisconsin, breweries that are making these beers that don't fit neatly into categories: Furthermore's Makeweight comes to mind immediately, many of Tyranena's Brewer's Gone Wild Series, some of New Glarus' Unplugged stuff.
Anyway. I subscribe to theory #2. Many others subscribe to theory #1. My argument for this shoe-horning is less for my own benefit than an argument for the average person who approaches these beers. A person who probably does not have the beer-vocabulary to get at what a Black IPA might be, or have the industry knowledge to implicitly trust Stone. So under my theory you could argue that this thing is a bit like a stout, creamy and roasted, crossed with an Imperial IPA, super-hoppy. Taking two categories that a person would be familiar with, and using them to shoe-horn the beer into expectations. Because, really, a beer that is "a nice blend of intense hop flavors, hop bitterness and roasted malt notes" could also describe the Central Waters Glacial Trail IPA, which is a very, very different beer.
Of course, the counter-argument is: it is what it is, the consumer needn't have any expectations when the bottle is opened. Trust the brewery and decide if you like it. If you like it, work backwards from that.
So. Where do you, assuming there is a "you" out there, stand on this? Do you see something and trust the brewery and make a determination if you like it? Or do you seek to form some sort of pre-drinking expectation based on the familiar? There is also the recognition that these are not exactly mutually exclusive positions; you can make sure those that approach a bottle under theory #2 have some basis for comparison by effectively using the language on the bottles to convey those comparisons, but those that subscribe to theory #1 could just refrain from the reading the bottle.
By the way, and I don't know if I'm supposed to mention this or not, but I figure if you've read this far that I'd throw you a bone, there may be a slight chance that the Stone XI will have the same fate as the Stone V. But you didn't hear it from me.