Category Controversy: What a Hybrid Beer Is ... and What It Isn't

From Kölsch to cold IPA, American brewers, scientists, and aficionados are viewing the old ale-lager dichotomy as increasingly misleading—and what matters, in the end, is what we taste in the glass.

Precision Fermentation (Sponsored) Aug 25, 2022 - 9 min read

Category Controversy: What a Hybrid Beer Is ... and What It Isn't Primary Image

What Defines a Hybrid Beer?

The man who claims to have originated the term has strong feelings about what a “hybrid beer” isn’t—or at least what it shouldn’t be.

“The typical [American] description is an ale brewed with lager yeast or a lager brewed with ale yeast, but Germans would call it a bottom-fermenting or top-fermenting beer. Americans tend to think of beers in terms of the type of yeast used, but in Germany they don’t,” says Gordon Strong, president emeritus of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). “And you shouldn’t go dragging people into these U.S. ways of thinking.”

So, in order to make its style guidelines more universal, in 2015 the BJCP dropped the “Light Hybrid Beer” and “Amber Hybrid Beer” categories it adopted in 2004, replacing them with references to geographic origins and sensory descriptions.

“The word didn’t really evolve so much as it was obsoleted,” Strong says, “to reflect, ‘Here’s what beer looks like in the world,’ instead of ‘Here’s what you would find if you go into a beer store in the US.’”

What Is a Hybrid Beer?

Many might agree that a traditional hybrid beer—think Kölsch, altbier, cream ale, or California common—is brewed by treating a yeast against type. However, the nomenclature and old system of categorization are maturing as American brewers and enthusiasts think more globally, as scientists learn more about yeast composition and behavior—and the hyper-trendy cold IPA captures greater marketshare.

“Some people have more of a romantic notion that we should call ales ‘ales’ and lagers ‘lagers,’” says Lance Shaner, owner of Omega Yeast. “I’m in the camp of it being kind of semantic.”

As an example, Shaner points to a 2016 yeast sequencing project in which some so-called “industrial lager” strains revealed themselves to be ale strains. “Before we knew what they were, they were treated like lager yeasts,” he says. “Does that mean we have to go back and call them ales?”

Strong says the word “hybrid” came out of a compromise between BJCP committee members who didn’t have full-flavored altbier unfairly competing for awards in the same category as more subtle Kölsch. “We were using hybrid as a lay term, like anyone in the public would: a combination of two dissimilar things,” he says.

Josh Weikert, a BJCP grand master judge who’s written about hybrids in the beer trades, agrees, “If we were creating a taxonomy today, we wouldn’t have a “hybrid’ because it’s not really about using ale yeast or lager yeast, it’s about how the beer comes out at the other end.”

Strong elaborates: “Their ‘hybridness’ isn’t the primary driving point.”

Now, the BJCP puts cream ale and others it calls “everyday American beers” into a category called “American Standard Beer,” containing both ales and lagers. The definition states, “The beers of this category are not typically complex, and have smooth, accessible flavors. The ales tend to have lager-like qualities.”

Altbier, meanwhile, finds its new home in a category called “Amber Bitter European Beer,” while Kölsch takes shelter as a “Pale Bitter European Beer.”

Despite the shifting zeitgeist, the Brewers Association is sticking to its own groupings. Beers such as cream ale and California common huddle into a catch-all category called “All Origin Hybrid/Mixed Lagers or Ale,” with their specific yeast and fermentation profiles showing up in the notes. (Kölsch and alt fit into the “German Origin Ale Styles” category, with the BA that explaining Kölsch’s primary fermentation calls for ale yeast at lower-than-normal temperatures while allowing for lager yeast during conditioning.)

“How do we define a hybrid? We don’t,” says Paul Gatza, senior vice president of the BA’s Professional Brewing Division. “It’s not a style definition, it’s just a way of sorting categories [that] recognizes that the style has qualities or ingredients that can be of both”—that is, of both ale and lager.

Brewers Aren’t Leaving Cold IPA on Ice

Calling it a style that appears to have staying power, Gatza expects the BA to add cold IPA to its guidelines within the next two years if brewers continue to make it. As with any style under consideration, the organization will likely wait and watch to see how brewers standardize their interpretations before codifying its parameters.

“We want to know where are the innovations and variations,” Gatza says. “Some of the earliest versions had corn and rice. Must it or may it have corn and rice?”

Sierra Nevada Brewing lists only barley malt in the online description of its first cold IPA, Cold Torpedo. Saying that “the cold IPA brewing process isn’t universal,” and that ”some might treat this style as a heavily dry-hopped lager, while others manipulate ale yeast to achieve their desired flavors,” Sierra brews Cold Torpedo with lager yeast fermented above normal temperatures, aiming to strip out any sulfur-like notes or esters that might distract from the hop flavors.

“A cold IPA is going to deliver the hop intensity that drinkers expect from an IPA but restrain the malt character so the beer is ultra-crisp. The hops really take center stage, and the finish is dry in a way that beckons you back in for another sip,” says Isaiah Mangold, brewer and innovation supervisor at Sierra Nevada.

Best Yeast Strains for Hybrid Styles

If both ale and lager yeasts work well in a hybrid, which one might work best?

Weikert says, “If you’re going to take an ale yeast and ferment it cold, your biggest problem could be diacetyl; [with] lager yeast hot, unpredictable esters.”

Weikert favors the Weihenstephan 34/70 lager strain for its attenuation and ability to leave behind diacetyl precursors when it ferments warm.

Shaner likes this popular strain, too, because its lack of ester production means the yeast character stays out of the way of the desired malt/hop balance. Additionally, he explicitly markets a kveik strain called Lutra to ferment hybrids, which he calls “pseudo-lagers.”

“It allows brewers who’d like to have a lager in their catalog but don’t necessarily want to commit to the time of a slow-fermenting lager yeast turn them around in a typical ale timeframe and gives them something they’re more familiar with brewing with,” he says.

That sounds like a style most brewers can support, regardless of what they call it.

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