Developing a Bolivian Style of Brewing (pt. I)

Or, what would it mean to brew a distinctly “Bolivian” beer?

The question of what it would mean to brew a distinctly Bolivian style of beer has been occupying my thoughts a fair amount lately. This, as it turns out, is a very, very complicated question with far more nuances than anyone will probably care about or for. I’ll divide this into a series of posts, because otherwise no one’s actually going to read it. Also, while this is essentially an attempt to figure out what a Bolivian-style beer might look like, it’s not an exercise exclusive to Bolivia. It’s really more of method for determining what goes into a “local” style that draws on history, narrative, gastronomy and geography to create something unique.

I’ll try to look first what a style amounts to and where they come from, which is something I am wholly underqualified to do. There are beer historians out there who are doing research and writing books and can give you a much better idea of what goes into this process, so this is my amateur reading of history and narrative and how styles came together. Because styles are so related to language, itself a vague, cultural, constructed and living thing, the nomenclature is also often frequently unspecific. Nonetheless, by looking at the styles outlined in the BJCP guidelines, you can distill two or three primary factors that go into a style. I’ll try to apply that framework to Bolivia, examining some national tastes and culinary staples, and then move on to a consideration of unique ingredients as an entrance to a unique style.

Also, full disclosure: this turned into a full blown essay pretty quickly, so it’s going to go on to like 10 posts or so. I still haven’t actually written the conclusion, so we’ll see where it takes us. And input from others certainly would enhance the discussion, so please feel free to chime in, the three of you or so who apparently read this. Ha.

The Existing Styles

Let’s start by looking at the BJCP guidelines for style. Obviously the first breakdown is between ales and lagers–and even those have exceptions (e.g. Altbier or California Common/Steam). After that, the larger categories begin to take a certain amount of geographic association. At this level you have these geographies specified:
English Pale Ale
Scottish and Irish Ale
American Ale
English Brown Ale
German Wheat and Rye Beer
Belgian and French Ale
Belgian Strong Ale

These all represent strong historic traditions that developed over, generally (ahem, Europeanly) speaking, centuries. Really, the most recent addition to this is American Ale, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see more additions at this rather general (umbrella) level. Rather, it’s more likely that additions will come in at the next level down, the specific designations under each category—we’ll call these styles. Look at “Stout,” for example, which has:
13A Dry Stout
13B Sweet Stout
13C Oatmeal Stout
13D Foreign Extra Stout
13E American Stout
13F Russian Imperial Stout

Some of those have obvious geographic designators, others don’t, but they all can trace themselves to particulars that come out of geographic traditions. For example, Sweet Stouts are related to the milk stouts of 18th-19th century Great Britain, and so on. And what makes American Stout distinct? Largely its high levels of bitterness and hops, just like American IPAs and American Barleywines. The “American” designation has generally come to mean high hop rates and bitterness (not universally, but close).

It does seem quite likely that innovations and additions to recognized styles of beer are most likely to show up at this level. For example, Cascadian Dark Ale is unlikely to become another category altogether, it is more likely to gain style recognition under #10 American Ale (I’m not expert to these discussions, but this seems a fair possibility). Or Black IPAs–if they remain considered primarily as IPAs, they’ll probably end up eventually fitting into 14 Indian Pale Ale (pale though they are not)–granted the “Black” might eventually justify a separate category.

Eventually a new style?

Note of course that Black IPAs aren’t something that developed in a particular geographic location. Which brings up another question: with the internet and globalization being what it is, along with the proliferation of homebrewing globally, how likely is it that anything so distinct as to claim a geographic designation or style is likely to exist without it taking off and just developing all over the place simultaneously? What are some elements that go into defining these?

The next step in this will be to look at an expert’s discussion of global homebrewing and how people in other countries approach homebrewing in relation to their locations.

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