Beer drinkers have a variety of opinions on the idea of beer styles. From fanatical adherence to a brazen defiance of the idea of styles, everyone has an opinion on the topic.
When we discuss beer styles, the main set of guidelines that most folks refer to are those of the BJCP program. Started in 1978 by Charlie Papazian, a noted homebrewer, author and beer enthusiast, the AHA (American Homebrewers Association) was aimed at “promoting the community of homebrewers and empowering homebrewers to make the best beer in the world. ” Part of this mission statement led to the creation and ongoing development of the BJCP program in 1985.
The BJCP mandate, as stated on its homepage, is to
Encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world’s diverse beer, mead, and cider styles;
Promote, recognize, and advance beer, mead, and cider tasting, evaluation, and communication skills; and
Develop standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking and feedback of beer, mead, and cider.
These are lofty and noble goals that are made with nothing but good intentions. The programs aims to constantly change and move forward, developing processes, idea, guidelines and judges to evaluate and improve craft beer. And this is where the problem starts for some.
The BJCP, via competitions and its judges, aims to quantify, describe and rate beers according to recognized styles of beer. To assist in this process, the organization developed a living document (currently undergoing another revision) that codifies beers according to recognized leading beers in each style.
Using these style guidelines, competitions judged by trained evaluators aim to determine beers that best represent these styles in opposition to similar beers.
I would argue that while some folks dislike the idea of beer styles, they represent a necessary evil for the craft beer drinker. I have discussed the topic with many people over the years, and given it much discussion and thought. What follows is an incomplete (but well-intentioned) list of reasons why beer styles are necessary.
In order to discuss beer, we need a common language. From colour and flavour descriptors, to words to capture the measurable characteristics of beer, a common language is absolutely essential to a reasonable discussion of beer.
Imagine entering a craft beer bar and knowing roughly what kind of beer you are in the mood for. (a relatively common occurrence amongst the folks that I know) Ordering a “type” of beer without an associated beer style can lead to heartache. <the example I have used is wanting a “brown beer”, and ordering one as such. You could get served anything from an English Brown like Newcastle to an American Brown such as Palo Santo Marron to an Oud Bruin like Petrus. All are clearly brown, but not even remotely similar. and yes, it is intentionally an extreme example>
Can a traditional German lager contain citrus peel or American Hops? Sure if you want a fun beer, but this certainly isn’t accurate to classic beers of the region.
Most folks would agree that a classic example of a type of beer will exhibit certain characteristics, or the lack thereof. An American IPA is expected to be quite hoppy and bitter, moreso than most other beers, and anything less is generally consider to be “less” than an IPA.
Within these arguments there is of course overlap. Beer is complex though and discussion around it will contain overlap as well.
What of the nay-sayers? They too have some points worth examining.
Beer X doesn’t conform to a style.
In any quantified system there are outliers although these tend to be more rare than many people realize. Closer observation will show though, that outliers can be both good and bad so this is hardly a solid argument. (Maybe the beer would have been better if it did conform more closely to a style? Of course the opposite is true as well)
There is no style for beer Y.
Certainly this is an issue, and there are a few responses to this.
There are some catch-all styles within the guidelines.
Is the beer a trend that will fade?
Is the beer a riff on a given style that should be mentioned?
The style document needs time to catch up to emerging trends and possible new trends of beer. Black IPA, Grätzer/Gratzer, Gose, Brett dosed beers, and Imperial strength versions of standard beers are all on the upswing, but the document hasn’t had time to be updated yet. (note: the latest style revisions are due out this year.)
I just want a beer that tastes good to me.
While understandable and fair, this ideas is not necessarily exclusive of beer styles. I have had (and brewed) many beers that are not great examples of their style, yet are still good beers. A brewer I know loves his “hoppier wheat” and while it is not a classic example of its style, it certainly does have roots in a wheat beer style.
Clearly both lists can be expanded, and more discussion would tease things out, but I really think these things are best drawn out in live discussion. Over a beer.
Tweet me @beerideas if you have something to add to the discussion.