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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

My final post on beer styles

I've been swayed by some of the really interesting points in response to yesterday's post - but also reaffirmed in my conviction not to stay in these murky waters any longer than I have to. There is no right answer. It's fascinating that on one side, you have people arguing that an obsession with beer style liberates craft brewers and inspires them to be more creative. And on the other you have equally qualified, equally talented people arguing that it stifles creativity. I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that one any further.

But the very debate there brings me on to my second observation on beer styles - the argument changes entirely depending on whether you focus on the brewer, or the drinker. So...

2. The drinker doesn't need 133 beer styles. Or 70. Or even 30.
Most people who cook have only seven recipes in their repertoire.  Even if they have shelves full of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, when it comes to planning what the family meal is going to be that night, research shows they revert to a list of no more than seven or eight choices. If they learn a new favourite dish, they forget one of the regulars they used to rely on.

Hold onto that thought - I promise it's relevant.

On Monday night, in a very engaging defence of rigorous beer style definitions, Meantime's Alastair Hook repeatedly made the comparison between wine and beer.  Wine, he argued, has triumphed over the last twenty years by focusing on style and educating the consumer in that style spectrum. Beer is lagging behind, and needs to do the same.  I think he is absolutely, 100 per cent right in this.  I couldn't agree more.

Allow me a little thought experiment. I drink a lot of wine as well as beer.  I love it.  I've done a ten week wine tasting course.  I'm now going to name as many wine styles as I can think of off the top of my head.  Ready?  Here goes:

Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc.  Cabernet Sauvignon.  Merlot.  Shiraz.  Pinot Grigio. Um...

I do know some more, but those ones came easily.

Let me think a bit harder:

Bordeaux.  Burgundy.  Claret.  (Are those styles?  Isn't Claret the same as Burgundy?).  Cabernet Franc (I only know that one because of the course). Sauternes. Viogner. Rose (!?) Chablis? (No, that's a Chardonnay).  There's an Italian red I like, begins with P... no, it's nearly there but... and what's the really famous Italian Red?  Hannibal Lecter - Chianti!

No.  I've been sitting here for thirty seconds and that's as many as I can get.  I'm having to work harder and harder to get each new one.  Of course I know more styles - I probably have at least twenty in my cellar.  Under hypnosis I might get to thirty or forty.  But as a knowledgeable consumer of wine, that's the limit of my short term, top level, easily accessible memory.

How many did I get spontaneously? Six.

How many recipes can we store in our heads at an accessible level? Seven or eight.

You can see where I'm going.  Wine is indeed a useful comparison if we want consumers to engage with craft beer.  But it shows you how simple you have to make style.

Let's take Chardonnay as an example.  As I mentioned, Chablis is a Chardonnay.  So is Blossom Hill Chardonnay.  There couldn't be two more different wines, but from a consumer point of view, they're both Chardonnay.

Maybe behind the scenes, the wine guys behave in a similar fashion to craft beer geeks.  Maybe Chardonnay breaks down into New World Oaked, New World Unoaked, Old World Unoaked, Old World Oaked Premier Cru, New World Single Estate, and so on.  But if it does, then as a heavy wine drinker and passionate adorer of good Chardonnay, I have no awareness of it.

From a brewer's perspective, if you're going to have 133 beer styles, why not knock yourselves out and have 500? If the system inspires one guy to produce one amazing beer that he otherwise would never have come up with, then it's worthwhile.

But please, don't foist it on me, or anyone else who doesn't want it.  And don't foist it on beers that are obviously more one style than they are anything else but 'not to style' according to a definition that's meaningless beyond the circle of enthusiasts who created it.  (The comment about Fuller's ESB not being 'to style' makes me want to reach for a shotgun - of course it's a fucking ESB.)

Learn from wine.  Of course there are more than ten wine styles.  But I would hazard that most wine drinkers wouldn't be familiar with more than that number.  Keep it simple.  Keep it relevant. Think about it from the point of view of the time-pressed, information overloaded consumer.  This is one of those occasions when I realise the marketing guys have something to contribute.  Sometimes, the reason they simplify stuff and reduce it down is because they understand that most people give a fraction of a second to each purchasing decision they make, and things have to be simple in order to register.

Beer styles help inspire some people to better brews.  I'm very happy about that.  But that's ultimately meaningless if it doesn't help - or in some cases even prevents - turning more people onto great craft beer.

39 comments:

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

I like the approach based on the drinker, but the caveat them comes down to the type of drinker and who you're appealing too.

I largely agree that the one thing many people don't understand about beer is it's diversity. Recent articles and video diaries of journalists trying real ale all seems to start with "I didn't realise their was so many different types".

If your game is trying to make the overall image of beer look better, I can think of worse places to start than with simple style. Say, seven to begin with?

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

To make things even simple for the consumer, because it is dawning on me that all this debate about beer styles seems to be about (thank God we don’t have a similar surge in music or literature — right there are only two types of novel!), you could reduce wine to Red, White and Rose or even Red and White with all the various growths, terroirs, countries, methods of production etc acting as branches of red or white rather than styles; as a non wine drinker (though I used to love it, especially the big heavy bruisers from the Cahors and Cote d’Rousillon) I am forever fascinated by the way terroir defines certain wines, that is something beer should be making more use of.

Martyn Cornell said...

You are so utterly right, Pete – crap like 'is Greene King IPA really an IPA?' and even "what's the difference between stout and porter?'is so far from the average slightly-interested-in-beer pubgoer's daily experience as to utterly miss the point about how to foster a wider interest in and appreciation of beer.

The Bocking Kellys said...

Is the Italian red beginning with 'P' Primitivo?
I like that, it's lovely.

Pete Brown said...

Primitivo, that's the fella. Lovely and fruity and light with just a touch of tannin in the finish.

Hey, sod this - let's do a wine blog!

(That. Was. A. Joke.)

Laurent Mousson said...

What your average consumer needs to know, really, is how to decipher the usual denominations found on labels/pumpclips. To have a general idea of what the beer is going to be like when he or she reads "bitter" or "stout".
hats' why I'm more and more a proponent of explaining beer diversity in terms of families of denominations.
Style guidelines have some justification for competitions, in terms of judging together beers that can be compared. But that is not the only way.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Laurent
why are you worried about what the average consumer needs to know, I mean isn’t that the job of the people who sell the beer, we communicate about the stuff but I would have thought it’s not job — I see my job to excite and enthuse people about the art of beer and brewing and pubs (and I suppose thus help sell beer) but also go on my own personal journey of exploration, but I would certainly shrink from talking about ‘educating’ people — that’s what PR people get paid for.

Mike said...

Why is it that the greatest proponents (and creators) of style guidelines are the same people who praise to the high heavens the "innovativeness" of small US brewers? How can one be both "traditional" and "innovative" at the same time (http://bit.ly/cM1hbF)?

I started drinking beer before styles were invented. At that time, it was a German beer or Belgian beer or dark or bitter or crappy or strong.

What has happened to our powers of description? Why do we now need a multiple-choice list that we can tick off?

Last weekend, I went to a jenever pub in Schiedam. I told the barman what I liked and he came back with six new (to me) jenevers, each of which I enjoyed tasting. Why couldn't that work in the beer industry?

bierfesten said...

From a wine background I can say classification and style definitely helps to introduce the styles of wine. With beer and the new creative styles coming on board a list of names is something that is going to help new people.
The Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA, or Dark Hop, Hop in the Dark that is trending in the US, now even in Canada. We had one from Ontario that we all thought seemed like a Stout/Porter with tonnes of hops. Nobody is wrong, but its pretty confusing to new and existing people in beer.

Phil said...

I'm sceptical about the value of talking about beer styles and very, very sceptical about the value of multiplying the number of 'styles'. But Martyn's reference to stout and porter got me thinking. When porter first started appearing on bars, I was intrigued; I tried it, liked it, and told anyone who would listen what a distinctive and unusual flavour it was. At this stage I liked a nice pint, but I wasn't nearly as much of a ticker as I've since become - and I was convinced I didn't like stout (because I didn't like nitrokeg Guinness). So it was only that differentiation between stout & porter that drew me in, even though it doesn't have any real basis in the way it's brewed.

Perhaps one difference between the real ale and wine markets is that the former is constantly trying to draw new people in - it needs new blood to survive - and a bit of creative labelling can come in very handy in that respect. And perhaps in an ideal world there would be a demarcation line between marketing labels and Officially Recognised Styles: a brewer might trumpet a Black IPA or a Golden Porter (give it a couple of years), but sensible people judging competitions would put them into one of about seven categories, derived from the last few centuries of brewing rather than the last six months. But the relationship between enthusiasts, experts and breweries - micros especially - is probably far too close for that to be a runner.

Gary Gillman said...

Maybe we are coming full circle, back to a simpler scheme a la Jackson 1978, although his approach would need to be updated and corrected in light of recent research. But the pre-Jackson classification of beers, at least as viewed internationally, was inadequate and I don't see any return to that soon.

Ah, Fuller ESB. It seems to have become more hoppy in recent years, so I'll grant it's a bitter.

Plus, Fuller says it is, and it should know! But its original palate seemed to me to speak more to the strong ale tradition formerly known in various country seats and I understand Fuller only adopted the ESB name in the early 1970's. Before that I think the beer was called winter ale or a similar name.

Gary

Alan said...

The underlying premises are far more interesting than the style discussion. I think my "job" if I have one is to think seriously about what is said and written in the press and by boosters about beer and determine if I believe any of it. So far, not so much.

This is not an accusation of wickedness but in a trade where journalist and consultant have no dividing line there has to be a realization that much of this discourse is driven by the interest of achieving various sorts of status.

"I am right because I am an expert" happens far more often than "I am an expert because I am right" in the beery discourse. And who gets to proclaim the status of expert? The expert, of course. Who else could?

Andy Crouch said...

Interesting series of discussions. I think non-American beer folks get caught up in the Brewers Association's use of style guidelines in a way that seems oddly personal. From my view here in the states, the Association doesn't spend much if any time promoting beer styles or trying to convince consumers that more than 130 styles really exist. And we can certainly find the whole thing ridiculous, but the Association uses the guidelines for a single purpose: to bring some semblance of order to the judging of 3000-4000 beers at two competitions (GABF & WBC). Beyond that, it just promotes craft beer and fumbles over its silly membership definition.

So style really exists in the judging room and in blogs, that's about it. The average American consumer likely comprehends, as Pete does with wine, about a half-dozen or so styles. And that's all they need because that is all they drink. They're not concerned about whether the Original Gravity of a beer in style #107 makes it more of a style #108. Only hard core beer geeks (as you have CAMRA nerds or people who apparently hate Greene King) debate minutiae like this.

As Laurent noted, style monikers are helpful to consumers in the sense of providing them some general understanding of the pint they are ordering. They don't care about the history of IPA (sorry Pete) or whether all stouts are porters or the reverse (sorry Martyn and Ron P). They just want to know whether their beers will be light or dark, bitter or sweet, or just similar to something they've liked in the past.

So let's keep this in proper context and not make it something that it is not, which is an academic or philosophical argument conducted among geeks.

Cheers,

Andy

Antony Hayes said...

I think that the BA and BJCP, amongst others, have muddied things by confusing specification sheets and styles.

A specification sheet sets out parameters for beers entered in competitions. If the beer is in spec, it is judged, if not it gets kicked. The spec sheet is the prerogative of the competition's organiser. If one competition's Black IPA is another's Hoppy Stout, so be it. If you enter your version in the Pilsner category and get kicked, it is your own fault.

Competitions with vague spec sheets are difficult to judge. I often get to judge the "Other" category in England and get unhappy brewers who think that I have misunderstood their beer. One person's "off" is another person's "Belgian". It is much easier to judge against a tight spec sheet - less room for the brewer and the judge to have different interpretations.

But a spec sheet is only one interpretation of a style and its main use is for competitions, where precision is needed. For most other purposes such precision is not wanted. Further, I can't see consensus being achieved as to which spec sheet is the most appropriate, nor am I sure that this is desirable.

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, ESB was a new beer that replaced their Burton as a strong winter seasonal beer. The two beers have nothing in common and are in completely different styles.

Maybe Fullers will brew one of their old recipes again sometime and you'll be able to see the difference.

Ron Pattinson said...

As for beer styles, I could only see four really distinct styles of British beer. Five, if you include Lager.

Ben Ronck said...

Spot on Allan!

The average drinker and even the average american beer geek has no idea what all the styles are. The brewers do, and they certainly use the system to their advantage. one of my favorites is the local St. Arndold Oktoberfest. It has 2-3 GABF medals. All in the catagory "Scotch Ale." Yum Yum.

From a hombrewing perspecitve I think styles are important in the same way chefs going to culinary school all have to learn to make the same dishes in the "right" way their first term. If I can figure out how to make a beer taste like a "to style" Helles Lager or London Porter or Witbeer or whatever-then I can make anything I want. That is the use of style guidlines and focused competition to me. YMMV.

@Pete-So whats the simplest way to "style" beers? For Wine I generally agree with Red-White-Rose, I would just add dry/off dry. And bubbles/still I guess.

So- Basic beer flavor characteristics?
Malt-Roast-Hops.
Those are three decent "all encompasing" flavor descriptions. Anyone else have an idea?

Gary Gillman said...

Recently in a Toronto bar, an American visitor requested a "cloudy beer". The server, as so often the case, had no clue what he meant or even what the bar had, since Hoegaarden draft was available, yet she suggested a locally made lager, crystal-clear and as far from what he asked for as you could imagine. I twigged him to the Hoegaarden on the way out and he thanked me and said, "right, I meant a wheat beer".

The consumer knows what he wants but cannot always articulate it. It's the job of beer writers, and brewers and their publicists, and bars who want to increase sales, to help put him (and her) right. To do that, a reasonable number of styles are needed but not too many since I believe this gentleman really would not have cared whether he was served a Belgian wit or a South German weizen (and anyway they are in the same tradition, just variants).

On the other hand, Andy Crouch has explained very well why a more complex scheme is used by the BA.

The two ways of looking at it can co-exist because they serve different purposes.

Gary

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, thanks for that, I thought it was just a re-branding. The beer ESB replaced was Old Burton Extra (see Wikipedia on Fuller's brewery). However, especially before the increase in the hop rate of ESB some years ago - I recall clearly reading this occurred - and still to a point, ESB reminds me of the strongish old country ales. It brings to mind Old Peculier or, say, Owd Roger, more than pale ale/bitter, for example. Perhaps it is a hybrid and indeed especially in America, it has always been recognized as a singular style of very high quality.

Gary

Alan said...

Andy's comment does beg the observation of the inherent circularity. We have the styles to have the judging... but why have the judging in this structure?

More important elements of the judging from the consumer's point of view, such as relative value, are left out so why leave in "degree of truth to style" as an evaluator when it is ultimately largely irrelevant? Others, such as product stability, are in there but sort of dependent in the sense that an infection might be judged as true to style or not.

One important reason for judging (and therefore a system such as style upon which judgement may be given) could be the demand of judges to be recognized and allowed to exercise their powers from time to time.

Jim R said...

As an avid Anerican homebrewer since 1969 and an even more avid beer consumer I like the proliferation of style definitions. Here's why: As a homebrewer I can get an idea - just an idea mind you - what a particular kind of beer should be so I can think about whether I'm going to enjoy it and whether to make one of that sort. I don't take "style guidelines" too too seriously but don't ignore them either. In short, they are useful to my brewing endeavors, more useful than just a vaguely described 6 or 7 styles would be. As a consumer I encounter an enormous number of draft beer and bottled beer offerings said to be one of a plethora of styles, some rahter off the beaten path...Imperial Wit, Cascadian Black, Heller Bock...etc. Since I have some idea, usually, what this style is supposed to be I can decide if I want to buy one. Nor do I carry this approach to the extreme, for sometimes I think I won't like a style but know I like the brewers other work, so I'll give it a try; Sierra Nevada's recent release of Tumbler Brown Ale is an example. So here, too, I find the large number of styles useful to me in a way that a drastically reduced set of same would not be. How many do I need? Enough to help me navigate through the brews I want to drink and make.

PivnĂ­ Filosof said...

Bugger, too many comments, I wish I had time to read them all, just in case I'm about to say something someone has said before. If so, I'm sorry.

The parallel wine "styles" is really good, but flawed at the same time. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet are actually kinds of grapes that can be turned into wine in several ways. With beer that's something completely different, beer styles are something rather artificial: this beer is a (insert name of style here) because the brewer has mixed certain types of grain, mashed them in a certain way and added certain type of hops according to a certain schedule, then the resulting wort was fermented with a certain strain of yeast at a certain temperature for a certain number of days, and after that, the beer was matured/conditioned for a certain period and under certain conditions.

Wine, on the other hand, is far simpler. If a wine is the result of fermented grapes from the Rioja region that were picked in 2008, then it will be a Rioja 2008. Simple as that. And that's why wine has been so successful, the consumer gets the picture FAR easier than with beer styles, and on top of that, the whole winemaking process has a mystique that I doubt brewing will ever achieve among the average consumer.

ZakAvery said...

Great discussion, but I'm damned if I'm getting involved.

Eddie86 said...

I think firstly you have to decide who you're trying to convey something to. So to average-pub-customer, a range of say 6 styles, but to american brewers 100+. For me personally it's enough for someone to describe a beer in relation to two styles so that I know roughly what to expect.

Jeff Alworth said...

To add a bit to what Andy's written, it's worth understanding the context of the BA's 133 styles. (Decrying them is a regular theme of mine, and always great blog fodder.)

We're in a little bubble here in the US. Most Americans still have no idea at all what beer is if it isn't served in a temperature-reading can. When we go to a neighboring country, exotic is Corona, which does very little to explode our sense of what "beer" is.

So the BA, in trying to track all the styles, is in a sense doing taxonomic work for a culture bereft of beer. We lack any sense of what might create a style, its history, or native context. We are so focused on style because we have so little access to it.

As our beer industry and culture matures, I expect this to all die down a bit. What you see now is the zeal of the converted.

Pete Brown said...

Thanks so much to everyone who has commented on the two beer styles blog posts - possibly the most involved and intelligent discussion I've hosted in the history of this blog.

But much as I love the hits and the attention, it only confirms my attention to steer well clear apart from this brief foray.

Just glad I still have all my limbs.

Anonymous said...

Any attempt at total clarity and consistency with things like this is doomed. There just doesn't exist a universally acceptable set of beer styles which carves the beer world 'at its joints' and is still remotely useful.
The only way to deal with something as vague and nebulous as the world of beer styles is to stop being so precious about it and be pragmatic.
So long as brewers find a beer style useful and it gives someone familiar with the style a reasonable idea of the contents of the bottle, I'm cautiously OK with it.
As someone, like most on this forum, who spends a lot more time reading about and drinking craft beer than the average consumer, I find the proliferation of styles quite helpful. Even oft scorned styles such as Scotch ale and Black IPA.
If a beer is labelled as a scotch ale, I know it's going to be an American-inspired malt-forward beer along the lines of a barley wine, possibly containing peat malt (probably with lots of supurious references to Scotland on the bottle).
If a beer is labelled as a Black IPA, I know it is likely to be an extremely hoppy, dark beer but without (or, if present, more subdued) the chocolately or roasty flavours I would expect from a beer labelled 'Porter' or even 'Hoppy Porter'.

For the average consumer, I think it's less about what styles are actually legitimate than about which ones brewer's use most obviously to market their beers and how they do it. Here, I think, consistency and simplicity is far more important and perhaps someone like Pete who is more savvy with the marketing stuff than most should come up with some guidelines which might be help brewers be as informative and simple as possible with their marketing and also to get some consistency between breweries.

People order wine in a very different way than they order beer and seem, to a much greater extent, to order a wine without having any real clue what exactly it is.
Vast swathes of the population are perfectly happy to order a bottle of 'house white' without knowing or caring whether they get a Chardonnay, Sauvingnon Blanc, Pinot Grigio etc.
How many people would happily order a 'house pale beer' without knowing whether they'd get a Tennants lager, Stella, Deuchars IPA, Punk IPA or White Shield? None.

The problem is that, to the uneducated palate, the difference between a given variety of white wines is likely to be less perceptible than the difference between a given variety of pale beers.
So whilst, for average, non-specialist wine drinkers, the easy categorisation into white, red and rose is (though obviously imperfect) pretty helpful; there is no such simple categorisation for beer.

So, basically, we should be as liberal and pragmatic as possible with beer styles, so long as they are fairly informative.
On the other hand, we need a simple classification of beers which at least minimally informs people who want to ignore the fine-grained distinctions between beer styles which interest experts.
Sadly, it's never going to be as neat as pale, dark and sour or whatever but it should be as idiot-proof as possible and we shouldn't worry about sacrificing a fair amount of accuracy, so long as the average drinker isn't particularly going to notice/be offended by it.

Flagon of Ale said...

All very well said. I agree that 133 styles is too many. Sub-styles of styles that are arbitrary to begin with are fairly absurd on top of that. However, I fail to see how they can possibly hurt anything or stifle creativity. They're intended as guidelines for judging, not brewing, and it's certainly helpful to have some sort of language to describe beer styles.

Dan said...

If you can find someone with intelligence and wit who can put forward a compelling or entertaining case for the recognition of a particular beer style, then it's a beer style.

Everything else is static.

Tom said...

Dark, light, sessionable, strong, bitter, sweet.
Let the consumer learn what he/ she likes. Baffling people with bull is one of the main reasons that people are wary of moving from lager - we need to be enthusiastic about beer and sing its praises, rather than come across as geeky and elitist. Encourage rather than educate...

Simon O'Hare said...

Funnily enough I recently had a conversation with Tom (of Reet Good Leeds) that was kind of about this subject. We got talking about it because I took part in a 'Secret Wine' competition - I had to taste unlabelled wines and guess where they were from (unsuccessfully as it turned out!). As Tom said, you couldn't really run a similar competition for beer bloggers, because there isn't really the close association with origin and taste with beer as there is with wine. You couldn't taste a beer and go 'that's from Knaresborough' or wherever. (...Although some kind of blind tasting for beer bloggers could be good....?)

Anyway I don't know where I'm going with this - apologies if I'm largely repeating what's already been said - other than to say beer and wine are just different.

But perhaps the difference I mention does make beer more difficult to market. Whereas the consumer might in their mind have an idea of what a Rioja or a Burgundy tastes of, there isn't particularly a beer equivalent, because beer doesn't taste so much of where it comes from.

Having said all that, as the craft beer market matures I reckon beer styles might increasingly be associated with the country they've come from. US pale ales are already a bit of a style category, I think? A bit like a beer equivalent of NZ sauvignon blanc.

In fact it'll also be interesting to see how craft beer drinkers' tastes evolve as the craft beer market develops. Which fashionable beers of today will be the Blue Nuns of tomorrow?!

Perhaps everyone will tire of a certain style of beer, much like wine drinkers became a bit tired of over-oaked Aussie chardonnays a few years ago... although I suppose that's a question for another post!

Thomas Barnes said...

I believe that beer styles are useful for 3 reasons:

1. To sort out categories in competition, both to keep judges from dying of sleep deprivation and alcohol poisoning and to give more brewers a shot at winning a medal. If the GABF and WBC didn't get thousands of entries, they wouldn't need 133 styles. (Also, to be fair, some of those 133 styles are "sub-styles.")

2. To help beer drinkers know what to expect when they order a particular beer. Conversely, style guidelines help people in the trade quickly describe a new beer to potential buyers.

3. To help classify the evolution of historical beer styles. Beer is a constantly evolving field and some beer geeks like to have their style guidelines to help sort things out.

Ron Pattinson said...

Simon O'Hare, I strongly disagree. British beers (or beers made with British are pretty easy to spot). As are American beers, or beers brewed with American hops in an American style.

I've judged international competitions blind and found it a piece of piss to identify the American beers.

Simon O'Hare said...

Ron, I should've made clear that for the Secret Wine thing we had to identify the region, not just the country, of origin. Apologies, I probably confused matters by then going on about the US, New Zealand etc etc.

Was just trying to make the point that French winemakers have to stick to rigid rules on grapes etc to get the AOC status (plus there's the local climate, soil etc), so you end up with very regional tasting wines. (Having said that, many wines are made in an international style so it's not always the case.)

I've no doubt you can generally tell US and UK beers apart. But faced with a load of unlabelled British beers, I think it'd be much trickier working out which county each one came from - although I'd be willing to bow to your (much) superior knowledge on that if I'm wrong. Not saying it's a good or a bad thing, just saying it might mean marketers have to think a bit differently to attract new craft beer drinkers.

Ron Pattinson said...

Thomas Barnes, I'm going to say this one last time: there have been beer competitions for more than 100 years that have coped with only fairly rough categories.

What is this effing obsession with beer competitions? Normal drinkers couldn't give a toss about beer competitions. Constructing this huge edifice of beer styles just for competition is ridiculous and, when it comes down to it, utterly pointless and futile.

Gary Gillman said...

Here's how I think it works. A homebrewer/craft brewer enters his beer in competition. A comment results: "not true to style since this stout has a strong C-hop odour and stout traditionally had no hop aroma, much less an American one". The rejoinder: "But I like stout with a C-hop aroma and a lot of my friends/competitors do, so let's create an American Stout category so my product won't be misunderstood".

And so on from there. Perfectly legitimate and the beer world does not consist only of normal drinkers but homebrewers who want commentary and publicity for their efforts and ditto for craft brewers, many of whom issue from the homebrewing community.

Apart from that, many consumers want to know what a beer is like before they part with their money for it. The splitter (vs. lumper) approach assists that. I see nothing wrong with this, it is serving specific purposes and no more. In particular, the splitter effort is not one intended to analyse beer from a historical standpoint. It is a description of beer as perceived today for certain practical purposes only.

Gary

Gary

Joe Gerteis said...

I really don't understand the way that a lot of the discussion tries to distinguish between creativity and styles. (And let me say right out front that I agree, it is stupid for the BA to have so many styles -- it seems designed for the sole purpose of handing out as many medals as possible.)

Styles are not the rigid things that they are made out to be. Sure, some styles (often German ones) are narrower -- proper German style pilsners have certain characteristics, fall into a narrow gravity range, and so forth. But they are evolving things, and for most of us there is no rule to say we have to or even should brew rigidly to style.

So why bother with the styles? Adrian Tierney-Jones was right to point to novels. I think painting is a better metaphor. There are certainly artistic styles that are recognized. Most artists want to make their own mark, and yet understanding the styles and how they evolved is important to most serious painters. Also note how even the innovators spend a lot of time mastering the tricks of different styles before they figure out how to make their own break from them. Picasso did a lot of copies of older masters. Rauchenberg and others have more recently done their own copies of Picasso!

To take Pete's example in a different direction, cooking is similar. Maybe the average cook can do seven (or whatever) recipes. But if you are aiming to be a chef -- that is, make a mark with your own twist on cooking, for example in your own restaurant, then knowing the tricks of given cooking styles and flavors (which themselves emerge in different regions as a result of different climates, crops, and cultures) is important. Admitting that there is a recognized style of Southern Italian cooking (or Thai, or Gujarati or whatever) is not the same as saying that nothing new can be done.

The point is, beer styles are a way to start a productive conversation with beer drinkers and brewers. It's hard to have a conversation without any common language or set of working concepts. No one has to brew "to style" but knowing some common points of reference is still a good thing.

Thomas Barnes said...

@Ron,

Good to see you in fine debating form. You'll be pleased that I agree with you.

Detailed judging guidelines are ultimately an exercise in futility and your average craft beer drinker couldn't give a rat's ass about beer competitions.

The point which I've been trying to make though, is that the two two most commonly encountered sets of style guidelines on the web (BJCP and BA) are designed to govern competitions. That is, they're deliberately excessively detailed, artificial and restrictive, whereas historical and commercial "style" categories generally are not.

Taken as historical documents, they're as quaintly amusing as anything from a Victorian brewing journal, and are just as much a reflection of the era and culture that produced them. Likewise, they're just as much of a technical tool as a page from a 1920s brewery log.

I think that we can agree that a huge problem with these sets of rules (let's not call them guidelines) is that they're so ubiquitous on the web, and seem so authoritative that they lead the ignorant astray. In extreme cases, you get idiots who try to apply them to every beer in the world; hence your "homebrew twats." That's just as stupid as applying the rules for Formula 1 race cars to an ordinary sedan!

Simon David said...

I just really enjoy the process. of discussion, any ways i have just come across one beer blog regarding styles of beer, hope it help u people
http://ctfinebistro.com/blog/