German Hybrid Koelsch Lager Ale??

Posted on 05.22.08 8:15PM under Ale, Brewing, Lager

Ron Pattinson, perhaps the greatest beer researcher of our day, is really neck deep in a…discussion…about the nature of ale vs. lager, especially from the German brewing tradition.

I guess it all started over at Ratebeer, somehow, a debate about “is Kolsch an Ale?” Ron has read and analyzed numerous primary texts from the German brewers that are responsible for the dawn of the style. If you’ve read his blog before, you might have seen tables of data detailing gravities and grain bills and brew logs for many traditional European beers.

Ron made the argument that just because a Kolsch (or any beer for that matter) is top-fermented, doesn’t make it an ale. That’s not what the Germans that made it would call it, and furthermore, it’s aged cold for a while before serving. His point is probably a bit more in-depth than that, and I might be slightly inaccurate in my reporting of his facts. Check his site for the real truth. But this is what I get from the posts I’ve read.

I see all these angry internet transactions, and I can’t help but wonder: “What’s the point?” Is it really worth it to go through so much angst and anger and insults and arguments over what should or should not be called an ale? In my view, as long as we all understand the flavor profile of a particular style, isn’t that good enough?

This sort of gets at a bigger question of the validity of the concept of a beer style. I’ve written a little about this before. Each beer is its own beer. It may be made in a certain style, but at times a style guideline is more of an impediment or afterthought than an item of actual importance. Often times I think that beer styles are mainly for beer judging competitions.

Sure, it helps to know that the brewer is calling a beer a “stout”. You know it will be dark and roasty, probably pretty bitter, but not necessarily highly hop flavored. If you’re getting an “IPA”, you probably expect it to be very hoppy and bitter with a golden red color. But one person’s Pale Ale is another’s IPA, so you can never be sure exactly what’s in there until you have tried the beer. Style names give us a guideline of what to generally expect, but they’re not difinitive of what the beer that you’re about to drink will be like.

This really hit home to me when I wanted to make a low alcohol IPA. I went on the homebrew boards looking for advice for a good recipe and technique to accomplish my goal. About 75% of the responses I got were along the lines of “well an IPA has high alcohol by definition…” or “that’s really more of a Hoppy Pale Ale…” etc. I made it very clear that my intention was to achieve an IPA flavor profile with a low alcohol content. And it was also clear to me that there was no existing style that I know of that includes the statistics of the beer I was about to produce. Furthermore, it was not at all important to me what style the beer would truly fall into. I had styles as inspiration and baseline references, but it was not my goal to make a specific style of beer. In this case, strict adherence to style guidelines had become not only pointless but a downright impediment to my mission.

So to take this one level further and bicker about ale vs. lager seems to me to take all the fun and enjoyment out of it. I don’t care whether certain styles of beer should be called ales or lagers. I don’t care what the Germans used to call them hundreds of years ago. I don’t care to fight about it with anyone. If someone wants to call a Kolsch a lager, that’s their perogative. I’m quite happy with my misleading interpretation of ale, and that’s my perogative. It is simple to think of top-fermenting=ale. And I think it’s pretty commonly accepted. Finally, it’s perfectly adequate for 99.99% of any interaction I might have with anyone in my life about beer.

There’s really no way to win this argument on either side. There are lots of things that people hundreds of years ago believed that we know to be untrue now. At the same time, there are lots of commonly accepted things with which I do not agree. When it comes to something like this, nobody’s really wrong, and so nobody’s really right either. There are just different perspectives on the topic.

If I ever meet Ron Pattinson, I might have a reason to question whether German top-fermented beers are ales, but until that time, I am not going to worry about it too much.

Read Comments

  1. Posted by The Dude on 05.24.08 9:27 AM

    Bravo on the message Keith. I just drink what I like to drink. What you’re getting at is the crux of what annoys me more than anything about some beer snobs. If drinking beer becomes a point of serious argument for me then it ceases to be enjoyable. I drink because I enjoy beer, not because I enjoy arguing about what beer falls into what particular beer style guideline. Bottom line for me? Relax. Enjoy a beer. Maybe (hopefully) even a homebrew.

  2. Posted by Ron Pattinson on 06.10.08 11:59 AM

    You’re right there are better things to argue about. That’s why I usually try not to get involved in this sort of thing. You just get sucked in without realising it.

    I’ve just posted the first article in a series on decoction mashing. I’m translating passages from old German brewing manuals spanning the period 1820 – 1970. Should be interesting to anyone who wants to learn more bottom-fermenting.

  3. Posted by Keith Brainard on 06.11.08 8:10 PM

    I think that a friendly discussion over the finer details of style history has its place. I can also see how passion for a subject can overtake an otherwise sensible person driving them to the point of ranting. I may have crossed that line a few times myself in my life. Like the other day on the phone with HP tech support…

    Ron, I saw one of the decoction articles on my RSS feed. I love that stuff. Where else could I turn for that type of information? I only know English (I’m American after all) so I’d be stuck if it weren’t for you. But I don’t know if I could handle the long brew day that those 19th century Germans were apparently accustomed to. Oh yeah, and I love the hate list.