The Utility of Beer Styles

This post is in direct response to Andy Crouch’s article “The Futility of Beer Styles” in this month’s (October 2013) Beer Advocate magazine [Edit: Andy has made me aware that this was only part 1 of 3 and these concerns will be addressed in future parts. A fact not mentioned in the magazine]. If you haven’t read it yet then I won’t fault you for reading it before continuing this post. However, if you don’t get Beer Advocate magazine or don’t want to wait then the quick summary is that he advocates for discontinuing the use of beer styles.

Beer Style Poster

Without beer styles we couldn’t have awesome posters like this!

Moon dust?

Through the article he cites a list of reasons for the erosion of styles including “wild and sometimes ridiculous ingredients” and “hop levels in today’s IPA evoke yesterday’s DIPAs”. Those examples try to demonstrate that beers are changing  faster than styles can keep up.

I strongly reject the argument that new ingredients, like Blank Slate’s use of mushrooms, somehow damages beer styles. It helps styles, and the brewing industry as a whole, evolve in new ways. Once enough brewers use similar ingredients a new category will be born. Just as the continued use of rye or wheat has resulted in them becoming styles.

Though I do agree with him to an extent that Dogfish Head and a few others have a tendency to go way overboard with crazy ingredients, most recently using moon dust in an oktoberfest… just like how the German’s have always done in Munich…

Increasing IBUs and hop usage again shows the evolution and development of new styles. The IPA style itself – which Crouch later says is only likely to survive as a style in advertising – is in fact, as far as the beer is concerned, little more than increased hop usage over that found in Pale ales. Does the fact that we’ve kept adding more hops to the point that we’ve surpassed Double IPAs means we should abandon all styles? That seems a silly notion to me.

What’s in a name?

Shortly after complaining about those “ridiculous ingredients” and “questionable brewing methods” Crouch discounts those notions by saying that the existence of styles cause brewers to “focus on attempting to brew the perfect example of a style” to win competitions like the Great American Beer Fest. Some brewers going so far that “brewers just simply adopted the style in their beer names, as with Brooklyn Brown [and] Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”

I am quite content with breweries naming their beers to match a style. If I’m in the mood for a porter its easier to see Founders Breakfast Stout then to take out my phone and google Clown Shoes Vampire Slayer. His other point here about brewing to competitions is also a curious one. Competition wins have made many breweries by bringing that beer to the attention of a massive audience. Also, how else are we supposed to have drunken debates about the difference between a stout and a porter if there are no styles to go by or competition wins to use as examples?

Stuck in their ways

An argument against styles that I have but Crouch does not advance is the tendency for people to get locked into a style. I’ve had many people tell me they only like stouts and refuse to try IPAs, and almost everyone denies sours for quite a time, though eventually almost all have ventured beyond their initial borders and enjoyed their discoveries. If none of us had ever stopped drinking the mass produced American light lagers where would we be?

The flip side of that coin is that I’ve met a few folks who find a single beer and are afraid to venture beyond that 1 brew. However, when you can say “Oh, you like Dogfish Head 60 minute? That’s a great IPA another one to try is [insert your favorite IPA]” you can slowly expand someones horizons along lines they’re already familiar with.

What’s old is new again

Tastes and fads will always change over time and I think that’s mainly what his complaint it. Tastes have changed too fast to keep up with the style concepts we currently have. As bitters were all the rage in the 90s (or so I’m told) many new drinkers today have only had a few bitter while having a plethora of IPAs. Gose is an example of this in the other direction, it ceased to exist for almost 20 years and only now is making a comeback with offerings from a number of craft breweries.

Solutions and suggestions

The biggest problem I have with this article is the number of complaints is high while the number of solutions is quite low.  In his defense this problem is not an easy one to solve nor is it exclusive to craft beer. Battles over genrefication have been going on in music for decades. What are the Beastie Boys? Hip-hop, rap, punk? Perhaps it would just be easier to say they kick ass.

My suggestion is for a more frequent recalibration of styles, dropping off styles that are no longer widely produced and adding in new ones. RateBeer and Beer Advocate seem to add styles whenever they feel like it while the Beer Judge Certification Program hasn’t done so since 2008. 2008 may not seem that long ago but consider that the mighty Pliny the Elder was ranked only #23 by RateBeer that year.

What are your thoughts? Should we abandon all styles or do something else entirely? Weigh in below!

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17 Comments

Filed under Beer, Opinion

17 responses to “The Utility of Beer Styles

  1. Mike

    I think having “styles” is important because it gives people a benchmark to fall to. I think new and innovative beers and interesting ingredient usage is what makes craft beer fun. However it doesn’t negate the fact that there is still (usually) a base ‘style’ in there somewhere. As for beer judging, the BJCP offers several “specialty” categories for brewers to enter their “out of the box” beer in order to get feedback. Personally, I brew a lot of beer for both personal consumption and competition–and my favorite homebrew doesn’t ever score well in competition because it doesn’t fit in a box well enough. But I’m ok with that. I don’t put my (and neither should any brewer) self-worth on how my beers score. I’m more concerned about whether the beer is drinkable and my friends and I like it. When I hand a friend an IPA (even one hopped to DIPA levels, by golly) they’re still expecting a nice hoppy beer. The “style” is still the point of reference… Another opinion: As new “styles” emerge in the marketplace–if they have some staying power and are adopted by more than one commercial brewery–the BJCP should consider adding it to their style guide.

    • I definitely agree that the BJCP needs to update far more often. The number of commercial breweries making Black IPAs is far too many for it to still fall into the specialty category. 5 years is too long.

  2. This may only be tangentially related, but one of the biggest gripes I make is how people categorize beer styles by color or general descriptor.

    “I don’t like dark beers.”

    “I don’t like like lighter beers.”

    “I don’t like bitter beers.”

    My response is always the same: “You just haven’t had the right [INSERT BEER] yet.”

    The reason I’m rather passionate about this problem is that these are the folks who are ALMOST craft beer enthusiasts. They know they like craft beer, but they don’t want to move from their comfortable position to change their habits. They’re so close!

    • I’m right there with you. I got a buddy who initially only liked Guinness but I’ve slowly turned him onto other stouts but he still says he only likes dark beer. I figure I’ll have him broken within a year. Well, broken into IPAs at least… sours will come in time… they all come in time.

  3. I agree with Mike that styles are good to set benchmarks in your mind. When someone says IPA, in your head you know generally what kind of flavors and appearance are coming. It doesn’t matter that elf fart was added as a special ingredient, the base of the beer is something you’re familiar with before you order.

  4. hopelesslycruel

    Not to get too far off track, but could black IPA just be a note under the normal IPA’s? I think a reason they haven’t been added yet is because some black IPA’s are basically a “normal” IPA with just enough dark malt to give it color–but no roast/chocolate/coffee/pick-your-dark-grain-flavor flavor. Some of them are american stouts or robust porters with 50 more IBU’s… If you made it a stand-alone category you’d probably have to have sub-categories to cover all the different variations.

    • It would likely become number 14D. 14 being IPAs and then 14A English IPA, 14B American IPA, and 14C Imperial IPA. And there are certainly ranges for IBUs and flavor profiles.

      • hopelesslycruel

        Maybe, but I think that leaves too much variation. I suppose you could, but it would be one of those ‘sky’s the limit’ subcategories.

        It “may have…” vs. the “…it will have” drives me crazy about beer judging. If it says in the guidelines “…may…” it doesn’t necessarily have to have that character–something too many BJCP judges forget about and use their own personal preference in place of the “…may have…”

        I think I may have to start a blog on “stupid stuff beer judges say” in hopes of improving the quality of beer judging comments/feedback. …Stuff I’m probably guilty of saying on occasion too… When I hear the phrase “malt backbone” more than once in a judging session by someone that has no idea what different malts taste like, I want to shove pencils in my own ears…

  5. My issue with styles is accountability.
    I like the BJCP and/or GABF styles. I like having a knowledge of what I’m drinking, or being to able to steer a server to what I want. Without styles we would have to compare Pabst to Pliny to Ten Fidy to Lou Pepe Kriek. And what legitimate benchmark can you then set? Someone would would try a Lou Pepe Kriek and claim “I don’t like beer.” When they really are not a sour fan.
    The issue with styles, that is NOT touched on in the BA article, nor Tom’s article is this one: accountability. So we have the BJCP style guidelines or the GABF styles, who is holding the breweries accountable to that style?
    White Rajah, Ruination, Osiris; are these REALLY IPAs? They should be Imperial IPAs. And MOST if not all, brewpub IPAs, Mt Carmel’s IPA stands out here, are really just solid Pale Ales. Heck I talked to one pub owner in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan that told me, his beer does not change AT ALL. His Pale, IPA and Amber Ale are all THE SAME BEER! He changes the tap handle based on what is trending. So at the commercial level it is not a matter of brewing to style, it is brewing to what sells.
    Now I am not advocating for some government oversight committee to take over the TTB and make sure what is on the label, matches some style descriptor, which matches what is in the container. But there does need to be some consistency in matching the style to the label, or Andy’s right, we should do away with the style guidelines.
    The BJCP needs to get more proactive on the styles and get the guidelines updated. However competitions have jumped over 200% in entries in just 2 years. Just this month at the Dayton Art Institute they had 180 entries, and 7 BJCP judges. I judged over 35 beers and 2 mini-Best of Shows. Right now, I would rather the BJCP leadership be focused on getting exam sites, exams graded and more judges out there. With so many in the que, changing the guidelines right now would probably cause more problems then it would solve.
    Removing styles would be a huge mistake though. Even if they are dead, a style should stay, if for nothing else but a reference point. Gose is the perfect example. So what if noone’s brewing it, if someone wants to, the style descriptors are there to give a new brewer a reference to go from.

  6. Pingback: Local Beer Blog Spotlight: Oct. 10, 2013 | Hoperatives

  7. Tom Strycker Hull

    In my experience, one of the biggest culprits is usually the use of a style name in relation to a beer that does not meat the style guidelines. Your beer should be what it says it is. This also results in a confused consumer base, who no longer know what defines the beer styles they enjoy.

    In addition, the industry as a whole has been somewhat irresponsible in it’s dissemination of brewing terms and knowledge. We have thrown terms like gravity, IBU, and adjunct out to the consumer with only the barest explanation of what they are, and no explanation of how they intereact with each other in your beer. I spend a great deal of time explaining that a high IBU is absolutely no guarantee that you are drinking a hop forward beer whatsoever.

    That is not to say we need to go out of our way to provide this education. This is a sign that we are not being asked enough questions, and we are not giving enough answers. So go meet your local brewers, and ask us about our beer. We have a responsibility to teach, but beer drinkers have a responsibility to ask about what they drink.

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