One of my first posts was a screed on the proliferation of beer styles. Since then, I’ve started reading the Brewers Association’s Classic Beer Styles Series. Having worked through the Porter, Mild Ale and Brown Ale guides I’ve come to several conclusions:
- Understanding the history of classic styles provides an insight into both the history of taste and the history of brewing techniques and technology. Now I know the difference between a Burton Union and a Yorkshire stone square and the problem such appliances were designed to solve.
- Historic styles are far more fluid then current thinking about styles would lead us to believe. Initially, Porter was aged and Mild wasn’t. Later, after Porter fell from favor, Mild became a darker, less hopped alternative to Bitter. When bottled, Mild was known as Brown Ale. Then along came Newcastle and redefined Brown Ale.
- We really have no idea what the earliest versions of these styles tasted like. Porter, for example was brewed from Brown Malt, which hasn’t been made since 1800, and then aged in wooden vats for up to a year. Modern attempts to reproduce Brown Malt suggest that the classic Brown had relatively low levels of diastatic enzymes. This would have produced a wort containing significant quantities of non-fermentable sugars which would have been fermented in the aging vat by brettanomyces or lactobacillus, giving a rather sour beer. Not at all like a modern Porter.
Recently, no less a personage than Stephen Beaumont has raised this same question regarding styles. His take on the subject is definitely worth a read.