The differences between two different beers within the same style can run the gamut - from barely noticeable to disconcerting; from “I’m not sure if these two beers are the same or not” to “these beers can’t possibly both be from the same style.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise. While beer styles are determined through a single, unifying style guide (the Beer Judge Certification Program’s collection of detailed styles), there’s nothing that stops a brewery from calling its beer whatever it likes. For example: we all fell in love with the traditional American pale ales - Boulevard, Summit, Sierra Nevada, but my favorite “American pale ale” - Grand Teton’s Sweetgrass American pale ale - is barely an American pale ale at all. (Nerdy things like IBU measurement and more logical things like general flavor tell us it’s more of an IPA.)
When sipping beers on their own, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between one beer and the next. Supertasters may be able to squirrel away the nuances of a beer they tried weeks ago, but I need a side-by-side comparison. I need to be able to refer back, to move back and forth, to test my assumptions with these beers in real-time.
It’s why I’ve always loved creating flights within a same style. I’ve written a articles about Belgian wits and American pale ales and porters, highlighting each beer’s differences - both those that are to style and those that feel way out of scope. In the past few months, we’ve seen breweries make this process a little easier, creating their own “style sampler packs”, allowing us to try the differences between similar styles or, in some cases, allowing us to compare the subtle differences between one single style.
Sierra Nevada, creator of the nation’s first popular pale ale, has shipped a new sampler pack, “4-Way IPA.” This sampler gives you the chance to breeze through all of IPA’s recent branches, from the easy-drinking session IPA to the doubled-up and boozy double IPA. Trying these in tandem gives you a glimpse into the lengths in which the IPA label can go.
Nooner (session IPA) is almost too easy to drink, thin and tame compared to the rest of this sampler’s stars but still worth knocking back in mid-afternoon on a lazy Saturday. Torpedo (double IPA) is an extra strong and extra piney hop lover’s dream, the rare double that isn’t too cloying. Blindfold (black IPA) pulls some char into the mix, feeling like someone accidentally dropped porter grains into the brew kettle, while Snow Wit (white IPA) imagines the opposite - a Belgian wit that’s been overhopped. None of the beers are top of their style - Torpedo is excellent, but it’s a crowded field on top of the double IPA mountain - but their all great introductions to both the individual sub-styles and the new expanded IPA umbrella as a whole.
Schell’s, on the other hand, doesn’t want you to worry about all of those sub-styles - they want you to learn the subtle changes that history has on an individual style. In a few weeks, we’ll start seeing the Pilsner Series sampler, a celebration of Schell’s Pils’ 30th Anniversary, which will include four different pilsners: the original 1984 recipe, the current 2014 recipe, and two new beers - a Roggen Pils and a Mandarina Bavaria Pils.
We’ve seen the definitions of beers expand, and we’ve seen breweries fight to distinguish themselves by going harder, faster, stronger. We’ve seen certain styles shift to include extremes, and we’ve seen beers that simply call themselves whatever they want. This will always happen, which is why side-by-side comparison - self-education into what we really like about each style - is always going to be a fun experiment.
And then, sometimes, that side-by-side comparison can really be a lesson in history. I can’t imagine there’s a huge difference between Schell’s Pils 1984 and Schell’s Pils 2014, but tasting them in tandem will do more than highlight what I like most about a German pils - it will help bridge 30 years of craft brew history, to a time when the only styles we really cared about were those that differentiated themselves from mass-produced American light beer.
- Corey Vilhauer