Monday, February 15, 2010

Audience Participation: What The Heck Does "Specialty Grain" Mean?

So, as you're probably already aware by now, I drink and discuss beer quite a bit with my brother who lives back in Cleveland. In fact, many of these conversations turn into blog posts. Normally, I write it up a little differently because I take some time to do some research and to make it more "article-like". But, I thought this was an interesting conversation as it is, and I wanted to invite you in on the conversation. So, rather than CC everyone on the emails, just post some comments.

hey - I was at La Cave last night and had a New Holland Charkoota Rye, which is a Smoked Rye Dopplebock. Meaning, it could realistically be classified as a: 1) rauchbier, 2) specialty grain, or 3) dopplebock.

RateBeer classifies it as a specialty grain. I guess by their definition the moment it has rye in it, it becomes a specialty grain, whereas I would've thought the same would hold true for having smoked malt and being immediately called a rauchbier. But at the same time, the basic recipe is that of a dopplebock. So really it could go either way.

It's funny how some beers are supposed to be great examples of specific styles (which I'm starting to appreciate much more than these other beers that are usually all over the place and so much less focused), but in America as the melting pot of world beer continues, and the unspoken contest to make the biggest, boldest and weirdest beers ever goes on, fewer and fewer beers are remotely classifiable into any single category.

It's an interesting issue. But it's crazy how well I predicted the smoke and rye trend. I'm telling you now, the next trend will be ESBs. There's a brewery here making a rye ESB that's fantastically drinkable. [ed note: Red Eye's RyeESB] As for "style", it's ridiculous. I'm actually giving a talk in March where I'm going to discuss this exact issue and I'm going to trace beer style in Wisconsin (which mimics beer styles in the US) from the 1850s to today. You started out with a very monochromatic marketplace: ale, lager, and porter. [ed note: technically tri-choromatic, I guess] Ales were, pretty much, ESBs or simply pale ales (although, I got in this discussion with another beer history geek, "pale" would have been closer to our "amber" because they hadn't perfected malting processes; nonetheless they would not have been hoppy at all). Lagers were pale lagers, but not pilsners; a similar issue with "pale", think along the lines of an Export or non-Export Dortmunder. And porter would have been closer to our modern day "stout", but more "burnt" and less "roasty". Through the late-1800s and early-1900s we gradually introduced more styles - bock, pilsner, IPAs (I have an ad from the 1880s for an IPA made in Janesville!), dark, stout, - and then in the mid-1900s they all went away again and we were left with pilsners and stout. Starting with the craft revolution in the 1980s we started seeing more styles emerge again - dopplebocks, "American IPA/American Amber", etc. And, of course, now we have these beers that aren't styles at all - a smoked rye dopplebock - there is no basis in the dopplebock style for smoke, let alone smoked rye, so it's not a "dopplebock"; it's more like an "Imperial Dark" or something.

And trying to shoehorn style on RateBeer/BeerAdvocate is silly. "Specialty Grain"? Really? If you were searching for this beer by style, would you really look under "Specialty Grain" first? No. You'd look under "Dopplebock".

I can't say I prefer one form (strict style) over another (free form style), but I will say that a brewery like New Glarus that does both very well is extraordinarily rare. The problem in the first case is that if you "miss" the style, it's held against you. The problem in the latter case is that it is really easy to make shitty beer and just cop-out with "oh, we don't brew to style" or the age-old "you can't say it's bad, you just don't prefer it."

Hey would you mind if I posted your email (edited) and my response to MBR?

You surely can post it if you'd like. One thing to clarify ... it definitely had a backbone of a dopplebock. Very sweet and clearly a lager. The rye was less noticeable. I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read that part you wrote about the "specialty grain". It's such a stupid classification for beer. Not to mention it's silly in the first place to categorize the stuff they make now. They should classify anything that is really specific to a style as that style, but outside of that, everything should just be "strong/dark/amber/pale lager/ale", etc.
One thing that really has interested me lately is the so-far rather unnoticed difference in beer circles in a beer that's big and done well as opposed to a beer that's just big. There's nothing inherently great about brewing a beer that's 100 IBU or is 16% ABV or tastes like liquid chocolate. Everyone has these now. But there are great beers like this due to their balance and complexity. These are the types of beers I've been searching for more lately.

I think this is a great point and evidence of just how quickly the craft beer world is changing. Two years ago I could count on one hand the number of breweries that used rye in their in their mashes; it would have been considered "unusual" or "creative" to use rye in a dopplebock. Today, that's a very different situation, and while it's still far from the norm, the "shock and awe" of such juxtapositions has been eliminated.

So, how would you respond? Do breweries get credit just for trying? Is creativity worth anything anymore? If a smoked rye doppelbock is passe, what do breweries have to do to capture the attention of craft beer drinkers? How do you even begin to classify these things? Is classification necessary and what's the point? If the smoked rye doppelbock were entered into competition where would it be entered? How could you even judge it, what would be your basis of comparison?


  1. I think when you try to create a style for every type of beer, you just end up with too many styles to keep track of. Like music, not only do the possibilities greatly exceed the categories, but the categories themselves were created to describe existing music - not the other way around. How would you classify someone like Steve Earle? Country? Singer-songwriter? If you want to find a similar musician, I think your best option is connect with other people who like Steve Earle and find out what else they like. I guess that's what sites like RateBeer are all about. I think the sites should implement tags (if they don't already do so - I have no idea) instead of focusing on categorization. That way you could find Charkoota Rye by looking up rye, dopplebock, rauch, smoked or any other words that people attribute to it.

  2. I was once a big Steve Earle fan until he got fat and became a flamming liberal. Those are my thought so don't go "Travis" on me. As far as specialty grain catagory goes I agree with MBR that it's an Oxymoron. Why do we need to over catagorize things especially beer. If it's good it's good if it is not.., well you know what I mean.,been real nice talking with you.

  3. Ok, this has nothing to do with classifying beer (so feel free to delete this post after you read it, MBR), but I wanted to let you guys know about an upcoming bill in the US House of Representatives concerning the lowering of the beer excise tax for small brewers.

    Might be worth getting some public support behind it? Just a thought... There are NO cosponsors from WI for this bill, which I think is an absolute shame.

  4. This beer would be considered a specialty beer - a doppelbock with rye and smoked malts.

  5. Specialty malts are a vital component of modern beer brewing:

  6. I just came out with my "Matacabras" which is classified by some as "specialty grain" - really don't know what that means? Maybe it's, "grains not 'normally' used in most beers?" Do these grains have to go a special grain school?!?
    That's the problem with "style" or trying to classify something that's truly subjective. I really like to classify my beers first by the yeast I'm using, then try to give an overall "beer experience" descriptor, i.e. color, flavors, aromas, mouthfeel, abv - essentially what you *may* experience. Because we all know, "your blue ain't my blue" - everyone's perception is unique unto themselves.

  7. I like the idea of starting with the yeast as a descriptor. I also like Joe's "tagging" idea as a more practical online option.

    I don't know if it's fair to say that we've transcended style, but there is certainly a fair amount of the market that isn't easily pigeonholed. And even with yeasts, what do you do with something like Furthermore's Makeweight that uses three different yeasts?

    It's also interesting even where you have beers that ARE brewed to style. As I've seen through a number of style studies here on MBR (Oktoberfests, IPAs, and Porters) - the sheer range even within a defined "style" is often so broad as to make one question whether beers at the boundaries of the style definition are "proper".

    Honestly, this is one of the things that I like best about beer.

  8. This is the aforementioned Jeff's brother who wrote the initial e-mails from which this post derived.

    It usually wouldn't be such a big deal to differentiate those out to brew big or creative and those who brew to style. Really, what's wrong with letting brewers brew and simply tasting the results? But if you frequent BA or RateBeer, or simply look at your neighborhood store shelves, it's clear the envelope-pushers are winning out over those brewing to style. There's a reason Bells can charge $18.99 for a four pack of HopSlam and I can’t even buy classic German lagers anymore because I have no clue how long they’ve been sitting on the shelf.

    The "extreme" culture we live in of MMA, Man vs. Food, and reality shows about rich women doing nothing teaches us to seek and admire the darkest, bitterest, gimmicky-est beers we can find. Why else are 2/3 of Rate Beer's supposed "top" 50 beers in the world Imperial Stouts? I mean, seriously??? What inherently makes an Imperial Stout better than a Vienna or a Hefe or any other style??

    There are certainly brewers out there looking to make big beers that also are balanced and complex, and those beers are wonderful. It’s not as if I’m advocating turning the craft beer world back 25 years. It’s simply disappointing to see fewer American breweries brewing simple classic styles. It sucks trying a favorite brewery's new Oktoberfest only to realize it's little more than a gimmicky lager meant to appeal to the masses in the fall that tastes more like Bud than Spaten.


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