Over this past weekend, my wife and I were sitting down at the table to sample Japanese brand Hitachino Nest's Nipponia beer. Hitachino is unique among craft brewers in that it's not trying to merely ape the styles of prominent American and European craft breweries. It goes out of its way to incorporate Japanese ingredients and brewing styles from Japanese beverages like sake and shouju. Nipponia's claim to uniqueness is that it uses a Japanese breed of malt called Kaneko Golden as well as a strain of Japanese hops known as Sorachi Ace.
But I digress. Wherever I've seen Nipponia for sale on the internet or even on menus here in Bangkok, it's billed as an ale or golden ale. Well, soon after I sampled a range of Hitachino Nest beers, I recommended them to a beer connoisseur friend of mine living in New York. He dutifully went out to a local shop and purchased four bottles, leaving a fifth variety on the shelf. "I'll sample the Hitachino pilsner later," he wrote me.
Pilsner? What pilsner? To my knowledge, Hitachino didn't manufacture a beer in the pilsner department.
"The Nipponia," he wrote back.
The Nipponia is a pilsner? News to me. I've had pilsners. They're light. They're clear. The most famous brand and example, exported worldwide, is Pilsner Urquell, the brew which first defined the term. Nipponia tasted nothing like this.
So what makes Nipponia a pilsner, a pale type of lager? For that matter, what is really the difference between an ale and a lager?
I used to think, until quite recently, that ales were just beers brewed according to an older style, heartier, with less chemical interferences, the brown rice or whole wheats of the beer world if you will. Lagers, by contrast, were the more modern version, possibly brewed with chemicals and fillers and much lighter, like white bread or white rice.
In a very general way, this is true, but it's not very scientific. And the matter gets more confusing with all the other varieties of beers which are ever more often used to market beers. Bocks, dunkels, lambics, IPA's, kolsches, saisons, altbiers. Are there really this many?
By scientific convention, there are only two types of beers. Yes, that's right. Just two. Ales and lagers. What differentiates the two is quite simple. Ales use top-fermenting yeasts and are warm fermented at temperatures between 15 and 24° C for a shorter period of time, about a month. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeasts and are cold fermented at temperatures between 0 and 10° C and can take 8 weeks at 0° C. Stronger lagers take even longer.
Ales were, by far, the more popular beer until the mid-nineteenth century because they were easier to brew. Refrigeration systems did not yet exist, so if one wanted to produce lagers, he had to do so in cool surroundings. Hence, lagering in caves was a noted practice as early as the medieval period in Europe.
There were limits though. A brewer didn't have the technology in 1750 to set up a full scale ‘modern' brewery (by the standards of that time) in a cave. Therefore, ales were the beers commonly served to the masses. Lagers became ever more popular and eventually supplanted ales as the preferred beer of choice with the advent of more modern refrigeration systems. In 1860, roughly a third of all Czech breweries were dedicated to lagers. Just a decade later, 98% were lager breweries. By 1891 in the United States, nearly every brewery was equipped with some kind of refrigerating machine, and the American lager style was already on its way to taking over the nation's palates.
Lagers and ales. That's all you have to remember to sound clued up about beer.
So where did all the other beer classification terms come from?
To put your mind at ease, there is no scientifically agreed upon classification system for beer. The terms you commonly see today are just accepted conventions borrowed from history. A brown ale, for example, is usually hopped very lightly and has a nuttier taste. I say usually. Modern craft brewers throw convention out the window. One of their brown ales may be heavily hopped with a stronger flavor, and although it's brown and nutty, people will classify it as an IPA because IPA's have now become a widely recognized and accepted style.
What separates an American lager type from a pilsner? Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Science doesn't play a role in the difference. The American lager type, if you want to think of it as a type, tends to be more watery and use adjuncts like rice or corn to bulk up sweetness on the quick without raising protein content. The ABV's are in the lower range, usually 3.5-4.5%. A pilsner tends to – notice I say tends, not has to – have more hops and use mainly malted barley.
Try to imagine going back in time. The first brewer brews a batch of pilsner in Bohemia and it's an immediate hit, only it's not called pilsner as pilsner has not yet become a widely recognized style. Naturally, other breweries got into the brewing of pilsner-type beers. When these later beers are marketed to consumers and to pubs, they're referred to as "beers in the same style as M?š?anský pivovar Plze? (the name of the brewery which first brewed it)." As the style spread abroad, it got linked to the location of its origination, the town of Plze?. Abracadabra. A new "style" has evolved.
Bocks? Same story. The dictionary definition of a bock today is a strong lager of German origin, first developed in the town of Einbeck in the fourteenth century. Bavarian brewers adopted the technique three hundred years later, and with their Bavarian accents, pronounced Einbeck as Einbock. Again, a new beer term is magically born.
Tomorrow, someone will likely invent more beer terms, but unless they invent a new type of yeast, say a middle fermenting one, beer will continue to be truly differentiated by just the terms ale and lager.
So getting back to to the question I posed in the beginning: is Nipponia really a pilsner? Some would debate that the definition of pilsner, codified over two centuries of brewing, has been abused by Hitachino with this brew. But Nipponia really is a lager, as it uses bottom fermenting yeasts and is conditioned like a lager. No one can sue Hitachino for deciding to call their particular lager a pilsner, an American lager, heaven's nectar, Japanese Salvation, or anything else they please.
Subcategorizations are largely subjective anyway. Pick a beer based on the style you desire (ale vs lager), sample it, and categorize it yourself.