New Zealand and Kentucky get their own styles, while Belgium adds a category after significant revisions.

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The Brewers Association (BA) has released its updated 2021 Beer Style Guidelines—and not that anyone's been noticing a shortage of IPAs on the shelf, but according to the trade group for independent brewers, America can add one more version of the popular craft beer style to the official list.

Among the usual laundry list of "revisions, edits, [and] format changes" made to the guidelines each year, 2021 has also seen the addition of four new beer styles (or at least styles that are new to the list): Kentucky Common Beer, Belgian-Style Session Ale, and New Zealand-Style Pale Ale and India Pale Ale.

glasses of beer
Credit: Brewers Association

Even if you've never traveled to New Zealand, those latter two styles are probably the ones drinkers will know best. New Zealand made hop history in 2000, releasing the distinctly-intense Nelson Sauvin hop. This new variety quickly became popular in brewing circles and suddenly "New Zealand-style" beers were being produced around the globe. Two decades later, the South Pacific has now pioneered a number of popular hop varieties—with names like Waimea, Motueka, and Rakau—and plenty of pale ales and IPAs are now "New Zealand-style" whether they state it on the can or not.

Interestingly enough, however, New Zealand hops aren't explicitly mentioned in the new styles' descriptions. A New Zealand-Style Pale Ale is simply billed as "exhibiting [hop] attributes such as tropical fruit, passionfruit, and/or stone-fruit, cut grass and diesel" to create and overall impression that is "a well-integrated easy drinking, refreshing pale ale style with distinctive fruity hop aromas and flavors."

Meanwhile, a New Zealand-Style IPA is similarly not tied to any specific region, only hop aromas and flavors that are "floral, fruity (tropical, stone fruit and other), sulfur/diesel-like, citrusy and grassy," likely resulting in "a crisp, dry beer rather than a malt-accentuated version" with "dominant" hop attributes that are "balanced with malt character."

So why aren't New Zealand hops mentioned in New Zealand-style beers? "Several hop aroma and flavor forward beer styles were updated in 2021 to remove reference to the origin of the hops used," Chris Swersey, the BA's competition manager, told me via email. "Two primary drivers for this include enormous innovation in hop breeding around the world, and brewer creativity with a hugely expanded pallet of hop varieties. As recently as five-to-ten years ago, the aroma and flavor experience provided by hops from individual countries carved out much narrower lanes and largely defined the flavor experience offered by beers from those countries, whereas today hops from the U.S., Germany, U.K., Australia, and New Zealand all offer much wider flavor and aroma experiences which can and do often overlap."

Swersey admits that even the styles we thought we knew and loved have changed significantly. "As an example, the meaning of American-Style Pale Ale has really broadened in recent years," he continued; "the floral, citrus and currant-like attributes typical of the U.S. Cascade variety still represents the stylistic epicenter, but tropical, stone fruit, pine and herbal are all welcome and accepted now. The same goes for ales from the U.K. and down under." In that regard, look no further than New Zealand's Down Under neighbor: Since 2018, Australian-Style Pale Ale is listed both on its own and as a "Classic" Australian-Style Pale Ale.

Speaking of classic, the two other "new" styles actually take their cues from the past. Describing Kentucky Common Beer, the guidelines state, "This American-born regional style proliferated around Louisville, Kentucky, from the Civil War era until Prohibition. Corn grits or flakes were commonly used at a rate or 25- to 35-percent of the total grist. Minerally attributes resulted from the use of hard brewing water. These beers were consumed very young, going from brewhouse to consumer in as little as one week. Early 20th century brewing literature mentions a slight tartness developing during fermentation as a characteristic attribute of this style. If tartness is present in modern versions, it should be at very low levels."

And the "new" Belgian-Style Session Ale category stemmed from what the BA called significant revisions "based on numerous comments from judges and Belgian beer experts"—with Session Ale intended to "recognize the uniqueness and traditions of Belgian brewing" while also essentially serving as a broader catch-all for beers that share "a modest alcohol content of ranging of 2.1 percent to 5 percent ABV." Worth noting is that the BA Style Guidelines have now lowered the maximum alcohol on Belgian Table Beers from 3.5 percent ABV to 2 percent ABV, meaning the Session Ale category would seem to offer a home for beers that aren't quite Table Beers anymore but also don't reach the higher ABVs of other Belgian styles.

The full 2021 Beer Style Guidelines can be found on the Brewers Association's website. The group says that the new styles will take effect for the 2021 Great American Beer Festival competition which is currently slated to take place this fall. The 2020 event had to be held virtually due to COVID-19.