When people first get into beer, they sometimes make the mistake of thinking of “beer styles” as concrete, calcified concepts that have been established long enough to be unimpeachable, but in reality this is rarely the case. Instead, what we think of as “styles” are fluid and ever in flux. “India pale ale,” for instance, has meant an incredible array of different things to different people in the last 20 years. And although no one body is really able to claim an ability to “officially” define the characteristics of a style at any one moment, there are a few groups that do wield a lot of influence here. And along with the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), one of them is the Colorado-based Brewers Association, which released some interesting new style additions today, which should have an impact on some of the most important categories such as American-Style IPA and Hazy/Juicy IPA.
The Brewers Association’s style clarifications matter for one reason in particular: These are the styles into which beers are grouped for the blind tasting competition at the heart of the Great American Beer Festival, the largest yearly beer fest and blind tasting. GABF was dealt a heavy blow in 2020, being forced to move entirely online, but organizers are no doubt hoping to bring it back in a big way in 2021. And a couple of these new additions should catch the interest of brewers.
New for 2021 are the following styles: Kentucky Common Beer, Belgian-Style Session Ale, And New Zealand-Style Pale Ale/New Zealand-Style IPA. We’ll explain the first two briefly, before jumping into the always more heated IPA discussion. You can read full style descriptions here.
Kentucky Common Beer is a fairly obscure regional style that was popular around Louisville, KT from the Civil War era through Prohibition—they are described as malty-sweet hybrid ales using lager yeast at warmer than normal temperatures, in a manner similar to California Common/”steam beer,” while also having a subtle tartness in many examples. “Belgian-Style Session Ale,” meanwhile, is more of a new catch-all category, created to include low-strength, thirst-quenching, non-barrel-aged, non-fruited Belgian ales between 2.1-5% ABV. You can safely assume that both of these new additions will be fairly niche categories at GABF.
New Zealand-Style Pale Ale and New Zealand-Style IPA, though, have the potential to be much bigger right out of the gate, for the simple fact that plenty of the beers in the competition could likely already qualify as NZ Pale Ale or IPA, given the hop varieties they’ve used. This has been true of other “shades of grey” IPA categories added in recent years, which serves to potentially draw some entries away from the extremely stuffed American IPA and Hazy/Juicy IPA categories, which already get hundreds and hundreds of entries at GABF every year. The NZ versions of pale ale and IPA, meanwhile, are meant to specifically spotlight popular New Zealand hop varietals such as Motueka, Rakau, Riwaka and Nelson Sauvin, all of which have now made their way into the wider brewing world. Most of these hops are typically categorized by bright and exotic tropical fruit flavors, which means that they’ve already been heavily co-opted by the dominant broader trend of hazy/juicy IPA.
As a result, some breweries may have an interesting choice to make—whether to enter their latest hazy IPA in the “juicy/hazy IPA” category, or whether to send it over to a smaller NZ-Style IPA category, provided it uses the right hop varietals. We’ll be interested to see how many entries these new categories get in their first year of being on the books, at GABF 2021—which will also be the 40th anniversary of the Great American Beer Festival.