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Better Brewing: Why We Study the Classics

Few experiences in brewing are more rewarding—or make for better practice—than bringing some undersung, underloved, old-fashioned beer styles to life in your own brewhouse. Josh Weikert makes the case for learning, drinking, and brewing the canon.

Josh Weikert May 31, 2021 - 14 min read

Better Brewing: Why We Study the Classics Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

In the long, long ago days of April 2007, when I started homebrewing, it was in part because of the challenge of finding “exotic” beers. But what were those beers, really? As crazy as it sounds today, I’m talking about the far-flung, intense flavors of Baltic porter and rauchbier; the subtle genius and nuance of English mild and schwarzbier; the esoteric and creative aromas of saison and Belgian pale ale.

Yes, I was seeking the classics, which were so hard to find in American bars that they were not just unusual, but practically fugitives. The tide was turning, though. Before long, the craft-beer explosion brought us a wondrous assortment of those classics, fresh and bright instead of dull and flat from weeks in shipment. It was, in a word, marvelous.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the brewhouse: All of those exotic, rare classics became too “boring” for the American beer scene. They came, they were popular, and then they largely went. Don’t get me wrong: They’re obviously not gone, but they’re certainly being squeezed out by tap lists besotted with hazy IPAs and barrel-aged bruisers.

So, coming up on 14 years later, I’m back to brewing for myself what I may not be able to find on tap: the classics.

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Knowledge Is Power

If you want to brew classic beers—and you should, but we’ll get to that later—then you’re going to be learning as much as you are brewing.

One place to start is published style guidelines, such as those from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Brewers Association. Both provide detailed interpretations of various beer styles. These may reflect a beer’s origins and require no further contextualization or research. The BJCP guidelines, however, include a section with every sub-style for “History” and “Characteristic Ingredients.” Those sections include (often quite detailed) historical footnotes that not only add interest but provide useful guidance for those looking to brew authentic versions of the styles. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to try brewing the “historic” or “original” version of a style—but knowing whether you want to is useful because you can trace how the style got where it is now.

Your research could start there, but it doesn’t need to end there. Any brewer without access to Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer is missing out on a great read as well as a valuable brewing reference. Brewers Publications produces a series of style-focused books by accomplished writers, and these can add depth to your understanding of classic styles. And, naturally, publications such as Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine® provide a compendium of fine pieces on the history and development of styles and their production. Know your target before you take aim!

When it comes time to aim, you can also learn from historical recipes. Medieval and Renaissance households (the wealthier ones, at least) not only ran their own brewing operations, but they also kept records of ingredient purchases—making it possible to know what, how, and why they were brewing. Famously, American colonial-era recipes from Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson have been preserved for posterity and shed light on the makeup and flavor profiles of common beers of their time. The records of 19th century breweries that pioneered modern malting, kilning, and roasting techniques show how recipes developed as ingredient options proliferated.

Also, obviously, recipes from present-day breweries—Sierra Nevada and its Pale Ale, Anchor Brewing and its Steam Beer, Uerige’s Altbier, Mikkeller, BrewDog, and more—can provide explicit guidance.

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Knowing the “Real” Beers

Knowledge isn’t all academic or archival, however. There’s a lot of value in drinking your way through a beer style to get a sense of it. This was probably the greatest unexpected benefit (though I should have seen it coming) of becoming a certified beer judge and cicerone: Evaluating flights of beers in the same style or category is a nearly irreplaceable learning experience.

The trick, though, is getting palate “experience” with the right beers—and I don’t mean from the right breweries. I mean beers that are in good shape and actually taste like they would in their place of origin and intended condition. Travel, heat, agitation, oxidation, and (most importantly) time are all going to change the flavor of the beer. If incautious, you may inadvertently develop a misinformed understanding of what a classic beer style actually tastes like.

My first exposure to this phenomenon came from a trip to the United Kingdom, shortly after becoming a semi-serious beer enthusiast. I had been (and remain) a huge fan of English bitter, and I resolved to try as many as I could when I visited. Imagine my surprise when, instead of the caramel-forward, modestly bitter beers I’d enjoyed in the United States, I was being hit with fresh grassy hops, toasty malt, sharper bittering, and beers that more closely resembled American pale or amber ales. The main difference? These beers weren’t spending a few months getting to the glass. Hell, in the case of the cask-conditioned ales, they were finished right under the bar where I was drinking.

We see this play out with most beer styles that come to us from overseas. There’s a reason that bland lagers circle the globe so effectively—not only are they often generically inoffensive and unchallenging, but they’re consistently so, even after a long ocean voyage.

So, to avoid mis-training your palate, some reasonable steps are in order.

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First, avoid bottled beers, unless you can verify their freshness. Exposure to light, crown caps that are more prone to oxygen intrusion, and a certain willingness to keep them around even if really old makes them unreliable markers for how a beer is “supposed” to taste. Instead, stick with cans, or better still, kegs. Kegged beer is not only impervious to light or oxygen intrusion in transit, but bars aren’t nearly as likely to leave it on indefinitely—as opposed to the three-year-old bottle of Fuller’s London Pride I once (literally) dusted off and drank. Beer on tap is just more likely to represent the intention of the brewery and the characteristics of the style they were attempting to brew.

Second, check the dates. “Best by” dates are okay, but better still are “packaged on” dates. Some breweries use traditional dating (month/day/year, or day/month/year), but others may use Julian dating (day of the year followed by the year—for example, 042-20 would be the 42nd day of 2020, aka February 11). If the beer is more than two or three months old, factor aging and staling effects into your assessment and remember that they might be subtle. Oxidation and age don’t automatically and instantly create paper-like flavors; they may simply dull the hops, or nudge up the malt, or result in finer carbonation with smaller bubbles that subtly change mouthfeel. Obviously, the longer a beer sits in its packaging, the greater the chance that it will exhibit these staling effects and (unfortunately) spoilage. Also, consider any handling or packaging effects. The classic example is probably the skunking of beers in green or clear glass, but it’s hardly the only one. A dented can, dirty bottle rim, or other physical anomaly could be a clue that what’s to come is not representative.

Lastly, don’t take any one beer as gospel on what a style “should” taste like. There are some that are clarion examples of what their style is (hello, Saison Dupont), but a preponderance of other beers in that style may lead you to other conclusions. Be promiscuous. “Taste around” to see what variations exist, where they overlap, and try to separate “distinctive” flavors that are idiosyncratic to a certain brewhouse from those that are truly representative of the classic style.

Brewing a Classic

So, you’ve looked up the vital stats, read up on the history, drawn inspiration from vintage recipes, gotten your hands on lots of examples, and vetted them for quality. After all of that reading and tasting, you’re in a much more informed position to actually brew up a classic style. So, let’s get to it!

In terms of recipe development, don’t necessarily just brew up the “classic” recipe. Many of those recipes rely on the available ingredients and technology of that time. It’s very likely that you can do better. My advice is to pay less attention to the specifics and more to the big picture, and especially in this way: Source regionally appropriate ingredients. Terroir is a real thing in brewing ingredients, just as it is for wine grapes, and brewing up a hefeweizen with German wheat and barley or a Czech pilsner with Bohemian Saaz is a good strategy to adopt. (I especially recommend British crystal malts for British beer styles.) Freshness still matters, though, so if your choice is some five-year-old regionally appropriate hops or fresh home-grown equivalents, maybe go ahead and “go local.”

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Likewise, when it comes to brewing processes, at least consider adopting the classic methods … but don’t necessarily stick with them. It’s true that some brewing practices—such as decoction, kräusening, and cask-conditioning—yield unique flavors. What is less clear is how essential those practices are to creating a convincing version of your beer, since their flavor effects tend to be subtle and can sometimes be “faked” by recipe adjustment.

Initially, my standard practice when working with a new style and recipe was to stick as closely as possible to classic methods, while also producing a version of the same recipe in my “standard” brewing process, and then taste them both side by side. In most cases, there was either no discernible difference, or the difference was too subtle to be evident. In that scenario, my standard process wins out, since brewing is like golf—doing it the same way every time reduces errors and improves quality. But now and again, a brewing practice would genuinely yield a better result—for example, extended aging of my dopplebock in a cool corner of the basement instead of a near-freezing fridge—and I’d stick with it. Try, evaluate, and then trust (or not).

In both cases, however, brew with the end in mind. Don’t become a traditionalist for its own sake. If you’re making a beer with authentic ingredients and process, but then it doesn’t taste like your research suggests it should, then what’s the point? Brew the beer you want, using whatever tools and techniques get the job done. Take dead aim, and you’ll be more likely to hit your target.

Rhyme and Reason

So, why brew the classics? It’s not just nostalgia or seeking out what’s comfortable—quite the opposite, in fact. Knowing the rules also means knowing when, how, and why to break them.

Keeping in touch with the roots of beer is a way to know and appreciate when you’re being offered something genuinely unique and interesting. When a brewer says that they’ve made a fascinating beer that’s clean and simple but has a bright floral-herbal hop nose, students of German pilsner know they’ve heard this song before. When another releases a sour-cherry wild ale, the kriekenlambic devotee already has a point of comparison. Creative, original combinations of ingredients certainly do come together in the modern brewhouse, and being able to separate the new from the rediscovered is a useful tool.

History doesn’t repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it does rhyme. In the same vein, seeing how a genuinely “modern” beer relates to its classic forebears enriches the experience of it. You have to know where you were to see how far you’ve come. It’s also a great way to test your own skill and expand your own palate experience. Knowing that you can brew—and tell the difference between—a roggenbier and a dunkelweizen gives you confidence in your ability to control ingredients and fermentation for a more adventurous beer down the line.

Ultimately, this is about knowing beer and brewing. If you want to brew for the future, start by brewing the past. The classics are classics for a reason.

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