Varietal: Are you using it correctly?

We love getting letters from readers—even if the letter claims our Best Bars list is bogus because it didn’t include a decent pub in [enter city you reside]. We’re gluttons for punishment, I suppose. But, seeing as though our readers are just as passionate about beer as we are, it’s not uncommon to get a note that actually teaches us a thing or two. Case in point: “varietal” vs. “variety.”

This week, one particular reader—one who holds a degree in agronomy and has a passion for hops—raised a question regarding our use of the word “varietal” in the recently published “Hop Around the World: 10 Hop Flavors You Should Know.” In the piece’s intro, we refer to the list as “10 hop varietals and the flavors they bring to your brew.”

Do you know what’s wrong with that sentence?

Granted, those two “v” words seem awfully similar, but that’s not the case. Put simply: “Variety” is a noun denoting a wide range of things (“Variety is the spice of life”), whereas “varietal” is an adjective used to describe a wine or cider made from a singular type of grape or apple.

“The liquor store doesn’t have much variety because it’s only stocked with Italian varietal wines.”

Seems pretty clear now. But could “varietal” be used casually to describe a particular type of beer?

One could argue that the word might be employed when talking about single-hop beers, especially now that they’ve become so common. Like varietal wine, single-hop beer labels typically just list the particular hop in the name: Westbrook Single Hop Citra or Flying Dog Single Hop El Dorado.

But, considering there are quite a few other ingredients that go into making delicious beer, perhaps “varietal” would be misleading—or at the very least, dilute the meaning of the word.

So, while “variety” is a perfectly acceptable word to use when talking about the growing diversity of our favorite bittering ingredient, perhaps we should just stick to “single hop” when describing a beer that showcases just one type.

Which beer styles or types would you casually use “varietal” to describe?


Posted on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
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