Sunday, 24 January 2016

Mother Styles

One hallmark of French haute cuisine has always been its dizzyingly huge and diverse range of sauces. One of the first attempts to impose some sort of order on the whole proceedings was made by the great 19th Century chef Marie-Antoine Carême - the Heston Blumenthal of his day - who determined that in fact, a great many of them could be seen as being derived from four "mother sauces" - espagnole, velouté, allemande, and béchamel. Under this system, a Mornay sauce could be described as a béchamel with cheese and an egg yolk added, while a sauce chasseur was a sauce espagnole beefed up with mushrooms and shallots.

Carême's original list has been modified over the years - sauce allemande has been demoted to be a derivative of velouté, while sauce tomate and sauce hollandaise have been added - but the idea of the mother sauces remains one of the foundations of French cooking, and mastering them is an essential element of a French chef's education.

I've recently started to wonder whether a similar approach could also help a beginner homebrewer like me to navigate the maze of beer styles and recipes. Rather than starting from scratch with every style and every recipe that we try to brew, can we look at a lot of them as being basically variants on another style that we've already tried? Does beer have "mother styles"?

What constitutes a mother style would probably vary from person to person - an American hophead might see US IPA and American Amber as mother styles in their own right, whereas I treat them as basically derivative of American Pale Ale - but at the moment, most things that I brew are basically variants on one of:

  • American Pale Ale
  • Euro-hopped Blonde Ale
  • Porter
  • ESB
  • Saison.

That isn't to say that I have a single APA recipe that I tweak when I want an American Amber or a US IPA, but it does seem helpful that when I brew one of those things, rather than thinking about stuff that I already know and about new lessons that I learn as being specific to that style, I can think about them in the broader context of American Pale derived beers. Similarly, for anything dark and roasty I can start off by thinking about how I'd get there from Porter.

Does this way of thinking ring bells with anyone else? What would your "mother styles" be?

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