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‘Native ales’ and ‘Spokane Style’

Christopher Staten writes about “native ales” in the current DRAFT magazine (March/April, “25 Unexpected Getaways” on the cover). Even though the tagline here reads “celebrating beer from a place” I have to pause when considering his conclusion.

But in terms of the big picture — that “what story will they tell in 200 years?” question — native beers have the potential to define the American craft beer industry’s legacy.

That’s bold.

Although Lakefront Brewery’s Wisconsinite is made with all Wisconsin ingredients this is really a story about yeast.

Case in point: Vinland One. For the series’ first release, [Mystic Brewing founder Bryan] Greenhagen isolated a yeast strain from a Massachusetts plum he bought at a local farmers market. Called Winnie, the wild yeast imparts plum, mango and touches of spice to the saison base, giving it character more akin to wine. Technically, One isn’t an ale or lager; it’s something unique. Greenhagen’s also working on developing yeast cultures from blueberries in Maine for Vinland Two, slated for release this September, and berries and grapes from a family farm in Vermont. While the lack of local ingredients suited for his recipes (mainly noble hops) prevents him from brewing a complete native beer, his use of local, wild yeast makes Vinland exclusive to his region.

“Biodiversity can help us make our own unique beer,” he says. “Even though we work within the Belgian tradition, how can we bring that back to make things that are actually distinctive and, in some cases, beer you couldn’t make anywhere else?”

Hold that thought.

Now consider the news earlier this month that No-Li Brewhouse in Spokane, Washington, successfully lobbied for the “term and beer classification Spokane Style.” Spokane Style beer must be brewed and packaged in Spokane by Spokane residents and use all ingredients exclusively to the region (meaning from within 300 miles).

So just what is ‘Spokane Style’? “Like the Matrix, no one can be told what Spokane Style is”, said [co-founder John] Bryant with a laugh, “but you must taste.”

“When you pride yourself on using only the finest ingredients and the greatest attention to detail”, said co-founder and Head Brewer Mark Irvin, “you know what Spokane Style is. You can taste it.”

Can you taste it?


Does it matter?

These, in fact, are the questions I’ve been asking here for more than seven years. Maybe it’s time to get serious about finding some answers.

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19 Responses to ‘Native ales’ and ‘Spokane Style’

  1. brewolero April 24, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    Now the federal government has jurisdiction over the style debate?

    At most, shouldn’t that definition be considered a terroir rather than a “style”? The No-Li article references two of their beers by style (Pale Ale and IPA), but then purport to assign them both as “Spokane Style.” Even though Spokompton shall always have a special place in my heart, that’s a dissonant statement.

  2. Bill April 24, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    This search will be interesting should you choose to do it. While i heartily (but hopefully respectfully) disagree with a former commenter’s frequent assertion that U.S. brews are unbalanced messes, I tend to agree with his assertion that there isn’t much sense of place in many U.S. brews. Maybe that’s due to the malts and hops not being localized and yeasts being pretty much standardized, maybe that’s due to folks making sure they brews beers that folks want to drink. I can get house styles from breweries — if you hand me a Bell’s brew without telling me who made it, I might recognize it (but then, they have a distinctive yeast strain) — but that’s really different from a true sense of place, isn’t it? It doesn’t suggest Michigan, it suggests Bell’s, and brews from Founder’s, say, don’t suggest that. I don’t think there’s a commonality among Michigan breweries that suggest a sense of Michigan.

    I think there are still vestiges of a sense of place — there seems to be a common thread in many Wisconsin lagers, from breweries to brewpubs, that I don’t find in lagers brewed in IL or IN. Or not. But moving from house style to suggest a sense of the area where the beer is from? Tough, when regional styles become so popular that folks want to duplicate them. I hope there’s still something unique about, say, Pacific NW brews, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if that turns out to be the case.

  3. Alan April 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Isn’t getting official certification of a regional style something of an admission that it does not exist organically?

    • Stan Hieronymus April 24, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

      Alan – This appears analogous to “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC) in France and “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) in much of the rest of the EU. Those exist organically and are established officially to protect producers.

      But I do think it is a fair question to ask if brewers elsewhere – Minnesota? South Carolina? – were marketing their beer as Spokane Style and confusing the heck out of beer drinkers.

      • Alan April 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

        I might argue that the European wine classifications are an artificial regional overlay upon legitimate distinctions. If you look at how Germany classifies wines it is entirely rotated 90s degrees and seeks, to degrees of bureaucratic success, to identify what is in the bottle by maker, site, grape, sweetness level and vintage. Bordeaux is the most calcified with the “growths” of 150 years ago guiding priority today. There may be an attempt at analogy but I suspect it is less of that but more of “made in the USA” or “Atlantic Canadian first” – jingoism. Or Balkanization perhaps. It’s one think to support the brewers of Rhode Island and Saskatchewan if you are from those jurisdictions but to suggest that they are unique and even definitional in their regionalism is both needy and ripe for failure.

        • Stan Hieronymus April 24, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

          This is just a side thought, but I’d rather consider beer as a food product than getting caught up along the lines of wine designations, particularly the “first growth” bullshit.

          When I think of place, personally, I’m pretty focused on a single location, one where brewers might draw on, well, whatever, although I’d like to think it is local. Bell’s makes great beer, so I’m a big fan of beer from Galesburg, Michigan, until some guy opens a brewery cooking up beer 15 gallons at a time and it sucks. Then I’m a Bell’s fan, not so much a Galesburg fan.

          • Bill April 25, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

            I’m kinda bummed if that’s all you mean by “place.” I love your writing, but have been waiting for a few years to see the subtitle of the blog get explored from a US perspective. You hint at it and you talk about place extensively when you discuss beers from overseas. But from the above comment, it’s hard to see any difference between “place” and “brewery.”

            You wrote about Alaskan Smoked Porter (I think during your family’s many-month road trip) and it convincingly argued that the brew was linked to where it was brewed. I was hoping for more like that — or for a recognition that that actually rarely exists. I’m sure the fault is mine for having differing expectations than what you apparently intended, but if, say, Urban Chestnut could have opened in any city and produced the same beers, what does place matter? Or if I go to a brewpub and order from a guest tap, is there no difference in the experience than if I ordered one of theirs? Perhaps “celebrating beer from a place” should just be “celebrating beer” if place doesn’t actually contribute anything.

          • Stan Hieronymus April 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

            Bill – I have to start by saying hold these thoughts because I’m not going near this space again for a few days. We’re driving to New Orleans, where the importance of place is obvious on many levels (if not beer).

            I’m sure that brewery and place are different, perhaps overlapping circles, but would like to be able to express that in a more specific way. In the case of Alaskan, because they use native alder wood and smoke it themselves we can point to obvious physical reasons Smoked Porter tastes different. But I think there is more, that if they did the smoking and shipped the malt to a brewery in New Mexico the beer would taste different than from Alaskan. But why?

            And thinking about Urban Chestnut provokes several questions. We’re here in St. Louis, headquarters to a brewing company that does its best to take place out of the equation. Budweiser is now made at 42 location worldwide. So Urban Chestnut uses Bavarian malt and hops, most of its beers made by Bavarian yeast under the supervision of a Bavarian-born brewmaster. When I am sitting in the beer garden (or biergarten) on a sunny Sunday afternoon drinking Schnickelfritz how does the fact I’m in St. Louis factor in? I could have been drinking Schnickelfritz when I took this picture: Hmmm. Like I wrote at the top, hold that thought.

  4. SteveH April 25, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    Okay, call out my old-age skepticism and/or stubbornness, but

    “When you pride yourself on using only the finest ingredients and the greatest attention to detail, you know what Spokane Style is.”

    sounds like old-fashioned marketing pap to me. Maybe Mr. Irvin is a big fan of Mad Men or something, but that line screams of Old Style commercials from my youth.

  5. Jeff Alworth April 26, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    I had hoped to get into this issue, too, Stan–it’s a pretty remarkable development. I’m reminded of the early patents tech companies finagled by hoodwinking judges into believing they had actually created something new. (“One-click purchasing” remains the standard.) The legal system is often not adept at handling novel things, and the idea of native beer is unfamiliar to most folks.

    Even in Europe, where they actually have real regional styles, the issue is a bear to deal with. The breweries in France struggled to come up with a definition of biere de garde that both protected long lager times but allowed newer, undercapitalized breweries to make the beer faster. At Rodenbach, Rudi Ghequire showed me their actual submission for red/brown Flanders ale. They were trying to combine both Rodenbach and Liefmans style into one category, but smaller producers who didn’t use wood complained about the definition, and Rodenbach was loath to leave out the wood-aging piece. (Which is, to brewers and historians, obviously a key to the style.)

    So just slapping the name of a city on a beer and calling it good seems a little suspect. On the other hand, there is an actual designation for “Suffolk ale,” the one example of (I think) is Greene King’s Strong (or in the US, Olde) Suffolk. John Bexon told me that if they relocated the brewery out of Suffolk, they couldn’t still call the beer by that name. Of course, that’s a pretty specific designation. Is Spokane willing to get down to that kind of definition?

  6. Bill April 26, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    I’m waiting for someone to call bullshit on these PR stunts. Wait, I call bullshit, heard it here first.

    • Bill April 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      That’s a different Bill! But yeah, my reaction of Spokane Style echoed SteveH’s too…

      Enjoy New Orleans, Stan!

      • SteveH April 29, 2013 at 5:50 am #

        Yeah, I thought marketing pap was in the dictionary as a synonym to BS. 😉

  7. Nate O. April 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    Urban Chestnut is an interesting case. A Bavarian brewer making Bavarian-style beer in StL is distinctly, wonderfully American.

    I see an opportunity for a more segmented beer market. The typical brewery today serves a bit of everything, and very few do any one style particularly well.

    I’m starting to see a bit more specialized breweries, but I think the whole “we brew an IPA, brown, stout, and cream ale” paradigm needs some shaking up, and would help give a sense of place to breweries.

  8. Stan Hieronymus April 29, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Nice comments here in my absence. I have no idea if declaring a beer’s region of origin has legs. Does Asheville Style, Grand Rapids, Portland, Bend, Fort Collins, this list is getting long, mean anything?

    Nate – There’s been some commentary about the “bit of everything approach” and that probably deserves its own post.

  9. Aleksei Saunders April 29, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    I’m not fluent on the subject but I’ve always thought that “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC) and “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) had much more to do with products that show a definite terroir (which will probably lead to a different argument about beer) or are, in some cases, trade protectionism.

    Certainly we have had occurrences of regional distinction in the history of beer. It seems to have been based on unique properties that weren’t, at the time, easily replicated: water – Burton on Trent, Plze?; yeast – Coppenhagen, Belgium; technique – help me here – lagering, cask conditioning?

    Does beer have these distinctions now?

    I’d argue less so than in the past. We understand yeast, water and technique much better than we did in the past centuries. I can take RO water, turn it into a reasonable facsimile of Burton water, buy English hops and grains (thereby grabbing the local terroir) and brew with WLP-002 to mimic the yeast. If I’m obsessive I could also research technique, open ferment, blend, etc, etc.

    Hops and grains both show terroir – but when you can source the originals do those components make any beer truly representative of a place anymore?

    I’d suggest that yeast is a good bet for regional differences – but then only if you are using wild yeast that has some distinct personality (that isn’t already found or available in the myriad of Wyeast and White Labs yeast bank samples). Isn’t this why the Belgians are so careful with their strains?

    Perhaps we’re back to technique. I’d agree with the idea that instead of regional styles we’re actually looking at “brewery” styles – Crooked Stave, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, Goose Island (before), etc, etc. We have a set of founders that broke ground (or perfected the “style”) who become the “style” guideline nationally (or internationally).

    On the other hand – are we pigeonholing these breweries into irrelevance? If these brewers were (are) inventive enough to produce something distinct do we want them to continue plugging away with what we know? If Vinnie turns around and starts with clean, crisp lagers would we burn him in effigy for betraying “Pliny the Elder”?

    This brings me to another thought.

    It seems that we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too. For years it appears that brewers and beer writers have argued that beer is so much more than wine. More complicated, more fickle, more inventive and more exciting.

    Now we’re trying to slap labels on a “style” that can only be experienced not explained – hmm, vino anyone?

    As humans we like to label stuff. It helps us talk about things, separate them from other things and bond with people that like the same labels we do. But these labels need to mean something; something solid and observable and definitive that a majority can agree upon.

    I think we need labels for beer styles but this isn’t it. This, this is marketing.

  10. Jordan May 3, 2013 at 1:12 am #

    It seems like what’s missing in the earnestness of the comments is that the No-Li guys are clearly in on the joke. That may have even been the point of their getting the appellation. Their press release reads an awful lot like they’re gloating about their victory over some absurd government office straight out of a Monty Python skit that has the misfortune to be in charge of these things.

  11. Tom May 6, 2013 at 1:56 am #

    Being in on the joke doesn’t mean that they are not cashing in on the joke. The high road and having your cake are not the same thing.

    • Jordan May 6, 2013 at 11:08 am #

      @Tom I agree with your first sentence; could you explain your second one?

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