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Thursday, March 06, 2008

The DSM-ing of Beer Styles

Every year, as American brewers get more creative with ingredients and methods of brewing, the brain trust in Denver tries to keep up with new style categories. As Stan points out, this year there are 11 more. The metastasizing of beer categories bears some resemblance to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which began with 106 disorders and now contains 297. The unique variances among individuals dictate an infinite range of possibilities, and at a certain point, the DSM will create more confusion than clarity (many people feel we've passed that point). And so it is with beer styles.

The function of categories and styles is to bring some coherence to comparison. There's just too much difference between a doppelbock and an IPA to meaningfully compare them side by side. But what happens when a brewery uses an alt yeast for its doppel and tosses in a few extra new world hops. Is it still meaningful to make a new category, or just compare it with other doppels?

Reasonable people can disagree, but I want to lodge my own personal, perhaps futile, protest right now. Looking through the current list (.pdf), I can see absolutely no justification for these kinds of distinctions:
Light American Wheat Ale or Lager with Yeast
Light American Wheat Ale or Lager without Yeast
Or the inclusion of these unnecessary categories:
Fresh Hop Ale (new)
Ales which are hopped exclusively with fresh and un-dried (”wet”) hops.

American-Belgo Styles Ales (new)
These beers portray the unique characters imparted by yeasts typically used in fruity and big Belgian-style ales.

Gluten-Free beer

Pumpkin Beer

Garden Beer (Garden beer? Because you have to distinguish between "pumpkin" and "garden"--someone might use zucchini!)

American Style- (pick one, they're all unnecessary: strong pale, IPA, imperial IPA, red/amber, etc.)
Here's the thing, a fresh hop ale, to take one example, is brewed in a recognizeable style--usually pale ale. It doesn't need its own category. American styles are distinguished from their British counterparts by their hop character solely. Every time we get a new hop, we have to come up with a new style? Absurd. And imperializing something (there are now 47 categories for "imperial" styles) means you've just made a strong ale, not an Imperial or Double India Pale Ale. For the love of Pete, just collapse these damn things. Gluten-free beer? Really?

I know that this creates a way for more breweries to win more medals, but that's actually a problem. I need six beers to win in the Light American Wheat Ale or Lager with (or Without) Yeast categories? No! It adds nothing to clarity and creates a huge headache for everyone involved as people try to figure out in which precise category a beer should be placed.

If I ruled the world, there'd be a lot more good beer available, but you'd know it by a lot fewer names.

[Note: post cleaned up for clarity of prose and bitterness of spleen.]


  1. All I can say is AMEN. As an avid homebrewer and consumer, all I can say to this is pashaw. I think the beer drinking community is creeping so ever slowly to the grade school participation ribbon era, thus diminishing the very thing they wish to celebrate. In my humble and likely uninformed opinion, beer falls into a few simple categories based on base malt and yeast strain. Fortunately, the great beers of the world will survive not because they win medals, but because they are really, really good.

  2. Coming soon, the BDR --- Brewers Desk Reference...A big, thick sonofagun...

  3. Couple of things:
    1) the Brewers Association is located in Boulder, and believe me there is a big difference between Boulder and Denver (Denver is where the GABF is held every year though)
    2) the Style guidelines are for the competition and are a reflection of the styles being brewed & entered in the competition.
    So what I'm getting is that you want the brewers in the US to stop being creative and to stop trying to find lost/nearly lost styles of beer from other world cultures and bringing them to the attention of the drinking public. When is there too many styles and who gets to decide this? I'm sure the Industrobrewers would have been happy with just the American Light Lager Category. Especially today, with so much emphasis in the big and/or outrageously hoppy beers in the past few years, brewers are going to have to be more creative with the increased cost of malt and hops (let alone the lack of availability)in order to be able to keep on making beer. Looking for other styles that are more moderate in strength and use alternative ingredients should be championed, not ranted over.
    20 years ago no one had heard of some of the beers we now take for granted, would you eliminate Double IPA's for instance or American IPA's or Robust Porters. Prior to Americans researching and brewing what are called 'Robust Porters' in the style guidelines the only Porters in the US were the east coast Porters brewed by the 'Heritage' brewers that were roasty lagers not ales at all, nice beers, just not a traditional Porter at all. When the GABF started up way back in '82, nothing like traditional Porters was being brewed, so instead of excluding those beers, they decided to be inclusive and try to represent and celebrate all of the styles being brewed in America, few that they were.