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Peter LaFrance

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Evolution or Intelligent Design?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a chap who markets beers from specialty breweries in Italy.

While sipping a brew, he related the story of the development of the microbreweries in the Piedmonte region in Italy. Of particular note was the prolific use of what beer brewers in the United States and Germany would call “adjuncts.”

There are many in the beer brewing world that will use only three ingredients in their beer: malted barley, hops and water. Yeast, with notable exceptions, is not actually an ingredient. Yeast, with the beer brewer, is a creator of beer. Since the sixteenth century the Bavarians have a word for that style of beer brewing “Reinheitsgebot.”

Please note the use of the word style. There are specifications regarding color, ingredients, yeast and alcohol content for over two hundred “styles” of beer. (Ale is a style of beer… enough said.) The same sorts of folks who cling to the Reinheitsgebot also seem determined to cram every beer brewed into one of their determined “style.” Any beer brewed outside of the style parameters is a badly brewed beer or not even worthy of the moniker. Their “Intelligent Design” take on the fermented malt beverage may give them a sense of place in the world. Perhaps the need for specificity answers a control need. Perhaps it answers a need for power, the power that comes in determining the parameters of conformity. Whatever the need, we are left with a fine set of beer styles with names and even nick-names. However there is discord among the ranks of conformity. To my point, if you have a great deal of time on your hands, try getting a British beer brewer to give the specific parameters for a Pale Ale.

This brings me back to the “Evolutionary” beers being brewed in Italy. The microbreweries in the Piedmont region alone use Chestnuts, Tandoori spices, blueberries, peaches, and honey. As there is no tradition of Italian beer “styles” they have seized the opportunity to brew some unusually tasty and unusual tasting brews. Of particular interest is the use of the word “Saison” by the beer brewers of Piedmont. In the countries north of Italy, and here in North America, the word “saison” is used to name a style of beer that has been a part of French beer tradition for centuries. The beer brewers of Piedmont use the same word to describe a beer that has herbs and spices used in the brewing process. This mercurial definition leads to beers with very different flavor profiles, none of which would ever be found in the French beers. The style-police wring their hands and gnash their teeth and deride this abuse of a style name. (I now draw their attention to the fact that a bottle of Bass Ale has the initials I.P.A. on it and there is no way in this world or any others that what is in that bottle has the flavor profile of an India Pale Ale.)

What are we left with? In the end we are left with a fantastic range of fermented malt beverages to taste and enjoy each in its own time and place. Sometimes we will taste a beer that disappoints for one reason or another. Sometimes we will taste an elixir of such wonderful flavors we will remember the event all our days on this earth. Yes, the folks from “Intelligent Design” have given us a fine framework to admire but the exuberance of the Evolutionaries will get my support every time.

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