Boak and Bailey provoked what turned into a longread last week by asking “What’s the reference beer for each style? Especially more obscure styles, we suppose.” @BoakandBailey quickly added, “So, to clarify: reference doesn’t necessarily mean the best, just the most representative. If you’d never had style X before, would that beer help you understand it?”
Start at the top, keep scrolling, take your time, feel free to wander off into some of conversations within the conversation. I’ll wait.
QUESTION: What's the reference beer for each style? Especially more obscure styles, we suppose.
Wit = Hoegaarden
Saison = Dupont
ESB = Fuller's, obviously
Mild = ???
Gose = ???
— Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) October 16, 2019
At the end, @joelandrewwinn writes, “Curious to see the responses when North America wakes up tomorrow. My guess is there will be opinions.” If comments broke out, I didn’t find them. That doesn’t matter. This isn’t about the best American reference for a mild (although Rocksteady on cask at Good Word Brewing in Duluth, Ga., was awfully good Saturday before last). Or a reference for Americanized or “traditional” German pilsner, or pastry stout or whatever.
Along the way, @JamesBSumner provided a bit of context, writing, “Summer Lightning is the reference beer for the concept ‘reference beer’. (In my drinking lifetime, at least. Perhaps once it would have been Draught Bass, or Guinness Extra Stout.)”
Why would a beer that was once an excellent, maybe even the best, representative of a style no longer be? Because the beer has changed or because the style has changed? (OK, could be both.) Who decides? And is this good or bad? (OK, could be both.) I don’t have the answers.
Consider one of the examples Boak and Bailey provided: Wit = Hoegaarden. Not everybody agreed with their choice. Hoegaards Wit was one of 42 beers Michael Jackson awarded 5 stars in his first Pocket Guide to Beer in 1982. Jackson describes the brewing process as well as listing the ingredients. “A very distinctive top-fermenting culture is used, in open tanks, and the beer is warm-conditioned for a month before being given a dosage in the bottle,” he wrote. “When young, it is faintly sour and sometimes a little cloudy, but with maturity it becomes demi-sec and almost honeyish, and gains a shimmering, refractive quality called ‘double shine.’”
That’s not the way Hoegaarden White is brewed today.
Jackson changed his rating system for his second guide (ultimately there were seven), making 4 stars the top rating, and gave Hoegaarden Wit 4 stars in the second and third. He lowered his assessment in the final four, to 3 1/2. Beginning with the fourth edition (published in 1994), he awarded Celis White 4 stars. The history of Celis in Texas was relatively short in 1994. Pierre Celis, who revived the white beer style at Hoegaarden and then sold the brewery, founded his namesake brewery in Austin, Texas, in 1992. It was an immediate success. Jackson continued to give Celis White 4 stars in the 1996, 1997 and 2000 editions.
Celis sold a stake of his business to Miller Brewing in 1995, the remaining portion in 2000, and a year later Miller closed the brewery. The brand lived on in various forms and on multiple continents. It’s complicated.
In the 2000 pocket guide, Jackson mentioned Coors owned SandLot Brewery and the “sometimes more interesting specialities under the Blue Moon name.” He did not rate Blue Moon Belgium White.
When Keith Villa wrote the recipe for Blue Moon White his goal was not to emulate Hoegaarden Wit. He based it on his experiences in Belgium while studying in Brussels, where he earned a Ph.D. with high honors in brewing biochemistry. Villa grew up near the Coors Brewery in Golden and went to the University of Colorado 20 miles up the road. He had never been east of Nebraska before Coors sent him and his wife to Belgium between 1988 and 1992. After he returned, he took charge of new product development at the brewery.
“To me, the standard white style didn’t have that nice, smooth flavor the American palate would be looking for,” he said. Instead of using unmalted wheat in the recipe for Blue Moon, which was common, he included oats. Oats, less common, were a part of the Celis version of Hoegaarden, but are not in the current Hoegaarden recipe. Rather than brewing his White with Curaçao, again common, he decided on Valencia and navel orange peels.
Blue Moon White became, and still is, the best selling wheat beer (of any style) in the United States ever. It didn’t change the witbier style, and even putting aside the “craft versus crafty” debate it would be hard to find somebody to advocate for it as the most representative of the style.
However, consider this. People still walk into brewpubs, brewery taprooms and similar places, look at a list of what’s on offer and don’t know what to order. “What do you usually drink?” the bartender might ask, ready to use a bit of reference beer knowledge. There’s a better chance the answer will be “Blue Moon White” than “Hoegaarden” . . . or “Allagash White.” The Allagash White drinker probably doesn’t need, if that is the right word, a reference beer.
To the matter of reference beers for more obscure styles, that’s a discussion for another day.