In Terms of Style, What's "Authentic?"

Last week, in the post about Flat Tail's Grätzer, I described it this way: "The first fully-authentic grätzer brewed by an American craft brewery (or anyway, one near enough to me to know about)."  Dave Marliave did his best to replicate a beer based on descriptions of the defunct style, using stiff hopping and a grist of smoked wheat malt.

A commenter named Mike, whom I'm assuming is the Europe-based Mike who sometimes comments, took issue with the "fully-authentic" comment:

"Jeff, when I was in university, many years ago, my English professor used to say: 'If my grandmother wore roller skates would that make her a motorcycle?'"
We arrive now at a place of some controversy: hair-splitting on the question of what qualifies as style adherence.  The problem is that certain styles require greater fidelity than others.  Two of the chapters I wrote most recently in The Beer Bible were lambics and tart Flanders ales, and they offer a nice contrast.  The former requires enormous fidelity of ingredients, method, and even chemical constituents (the presence of isoamyl acetate is verboten).  Flanders ales, variously referred to as red or brown, made with spontaneous or mixed fermentation, wood aged or not, have huge latitude.  German lagers tend to fall in a far narrower band than English or certainly Belgian ales.  In most cases, styles are matters of convention, but there are a few examples like lambics where laws actually play a role.  "Style" is far from a consistent measure.

Then we have the grätzer case, which falls in that category of recreation and raises a whole new set of issues.  The biggest barrier is that for any style brewed before the 20th century, the ingredients were different enough that it's essentially impossible to accurately recreate them.  (Actually, that may not be the case for lagers, but I haven't gotten to that part of the book yet.  It's definitely true for any ale made in Britain, Belgium, or France.)  The act of recreating these styles means trying to figure out how they might have tasted and brewing them to produce those flavors with modern ingredients and processes.  The only reasonable goal is to try for fidelity to flavor.  Grätzers aren't a 19th century recreation, but the style has been extinct for 18 years--and in decline for decades before that.  We know that style variability diminishes as producers quit making them, and probably that last holdout was just one data point on a wider spectrum.

So is Dave's grätzer "fully authentic?"  There is, of course, no answer to this.  The style itself evolved and expressed variation among producers.  There are two qualities that make it distinctive: a smoked wheat grist and stiff hopping.  There are other aspects I guess you could argue are critical as well, like the yeast strain and need for Polish hops, but I wouldn't call these markers of style so much as locality and tradition.  Those demands are matters of preference.  Some traditionalists require extraordinary fidelity to a particular example in order to clear the "authenticity" bar, but breweries themselves have never adhered to this dogma. (I'd be interested to know if Mike would give Choc's Grätzer the thumbs up.)  There is no style authority, so the best we can do is try to find agreement.

For my purposes, I wanted to understand what a beer made with very smoky wheat malt and stiff hopping would taste like.  I've never encountered those combinations in a beer before.  Dave's beer was easily close enough. As with most discussions in the realm of style, your mileage may vary.