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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

My Troubled Relationship With the BJCP

Last year, I reviewed a book that contained style guidelines for beer. Usual enough, but these came from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)--which is not usual. Google "beer styles" and the BJCP's are the third option. There's a BJCP app. As the public gets more and more familiar with the idea of beer style, they look to a guide to describe what a doppelbock is or what distinguishes a saison from a biere de garde. I tend to get a lot of blowback when I suggest it, but for those people, the BJCP guidelines cause more harm than good.

Let's start with the broadest critique first: there's no such thing as style. What we refer to styles are useful categories that help us understand general characteristics about beer. But styles are not, like humulus lupulus, genetically-specific species that can reside happily in taxonomic perpetuity. A style is more like an ethnography; it gathers together the incomplete, blurry, and constantly-changing history of the style and offers a provisional designation.

Almost everyone, encountering the concept of beer styles for the first time, thinks they represent unanimous consensus and are fixed. Like the ancient wine appellations of Europe, to know what a mild ale is now is to know what it was in London two hundred years ago. But since beer is a recipe-based beverage and a commercial product, styles fluctuate constantly. Most styles look different today than they did 100 years ago.

To narrow the critique a bit, the trouble grows when we begin to parse the larger categories (which do have historical and regional significance) into small sub-categories. For the BJCP, there's a method to this madness; they're trying to offer guidelines so that judges can evaluate several beers in a flight. Yet the division into sub-categories is mostly an artificial process of distinguishing between categories of beers that have no historical or regional distinction and which may not vary much at all by gravity or ingredients. Even the BJCP recognizes this reality: "Many styles are quite broad and can encompass multiple stylistically accurate variants."

In the context of a judging panel, there have to be criteria. But the descriptions that appear in the BJCP aren't prescriptive, they're descriptive--a fact almost certainly lost on most average beer drinkers. There's nothing innate about "English pale ales" as written in the BJCP. I wish people would hold these concepts lightly and leave them behind when they don't seem useful.

Let's say you've got an amber lager in front of you and you'd like to know if it's supposed to be a Vienna lager or a marzen. It's fantastic to understand what distinguish those two styles historically, and to know how the development of Vienna and Munich roasts help define the malts that made them famous. But let's say that beer was brewed stronger than either style and made with American hops (which, if you're sitting in an American brewpub, will likely be the case). In the context of judging the beer, you might be able to say whether it's brewed "to style," or not, but so what? At this point in your tasting experience, the idea of trying to match it to a style is just a distraction.

Anyway, I wish the BJCP guidelines were less broadly available and average drinkers were mainly consulting guidelines that were broader, had more (and better*) histories, and less technical. The BJCP guidelines are great for judges, but not so good for the public.

_____________
*Each style described in the BJCP guidelines is accompanied by a brief history, and many are pretty bad. I wish they'd clean them up--at this point, good, reliable historical research is broadly available.

14 comments:

olllllo said...

The BJCP Style guidelines are written for those that want brew to those specifications and be judged by those specifications. The brewpub example is a case of someone using the incorrect tool.

Turns out a screwdriver is not very effective at driving nails.

Seanywonton said...

I very much agree with olllo's assesment here, Jeff. The BJCP guidelines are very stringent because their main focus is to be used as judging parameters for competitions. Speaking as a BJCP judge of 5 years, and having judged many competitions, the guidelines are a great. Like any tool, they take some experience to use, but they try to make things as clear an concise as possible for beginning and experienced judges. Whenever you try to systematically categorize something you run into certain pitfalls, but if you believe (as I do) that they are necessary for competition, then the BJCP does an outstanding job. The guidelines were completely overhauled and updated as of 2008 and rigorously clarified and corrected for previous errors and unclarity.

Also, there are catch-all categories for beers, so any beer you can possibly fathom brewing can fit somewhere and win an award if it tastes good. That hypothetical example of a brewpub brewing a stronger vienna or marzen with American hops, that would go in style 23:specialty beer. Actually, it wouldn't go in at all, because it's a pro-brew, and would be judged at a pro level competition that would most likely use a different set of guidelines.

There have been many times when I have had a very good beer, but clearly it's not a good example of the style it claims to be. I can still enjoy that beer while also noting that it is not really a good example of the style. It shouldn't be hard for most beer lovers to hold those two separate ideas in their heads at one time. Even if a beer is not to style, maybe that was not the brewer's point, and I'm only going to consider that a big flaw if they enter it in a competition under said style.

This is not to say that I don't have any nitpicking to do with the way the style guidelines are set up, but I do want to defend the hard work that has been done to make them so cohesive and representative of what is really out there (the style guidelines will change, slowly, as beer styles change too). Some of my small critiques are, as you mentioned, the whole broad category for English pale ales, which really only distinguish themselves by strength. More importantly, I think the way specialty beers are entered needs to be refined. There is not enough room for the brewer to describe what they were trying to do with the beer, only a small space for a few words. So, the judges have only a few words to go off of to sort of form a style guideline in their head about what the beer should taste like, and then judge the beer to that. These beers have problems in competition because too often it seems based on luck, whether the judge understood your intention, or whether the brewer managed to call it exactly the right thing. Also, I think there should be a catch-all category for specialty sours, so they can compete along with other sours. Right now they are judged with other "Belgian Specialty" ales, saisons, bier de gardes, and wits.

Jeff Alworth said...

That's pretty much my point: the BJCP guidelines were set up for a specific purpose--one they fulfill adequately. The problem is that they appear to be spreading into other uses and I fear that they're in danger of becoming a definitive guide to style. In this purpose they are misleading and inadequate.

Jeff Alworth said...

This is really weird: I got an email alerting me to a comment Doc Wort left on this post, and yet it's not here. And I had a great reply!

dr wort said...

WORT BATE?!

Weird! Here it is, Jeff... Awaiting your rebuttal...

Being a long time home brewer and involved in many judging comps, I understand how the BJCP guidelines work within the judging system. The fact that you seem to be ignoring is that these style guidelines are used to teach professional brewers. Brewers that are producing the beer that you state...

"Let's start with the broadest critique first: there's no such thing as style."

This is completely untrue. Professional brewers are taught all about brewing in-style based on the BJCP guidelines, ergo there is a major purpose for style guidelines for brewing base beers style. Styles that do exist and not a figment of our imaginations.
Whether they evolve or not; the styles do fluctuate, but they do exist.

Proof, you ask? Here it is...

From: http://www.siebelinstitute.com/course_desc/master_beer.html

Siebel Institute - The school is the oldest brewing school located in the United States and has been in operation since 1872.

Why would an Internationally known school for professional brewers acknowledge and use the BJCP Style guidelines to teach professional brewers if Beer Styles DON'T exist?

A description of their Beer Style Course from their web site:

The Siebel Institute Master of Beer Styles course is designed to give professional brewers the skills they need to create award-winning ales, lagers and specialty beers. Using the styles guidelines created for the Association of Brewers' World Beer Cup, this course provides in-depth analysis of the techniques and technologies used to design and brew the full range of established and emerging styles. Topics included in this intensive 3-day course include:

* The purpose, origins & evolution of styles

* Recipe formulation mechanics (grist bill and hop bill calculations)

* Style-specific formulation and process planning

* Benchmarking style parameters: gravity, color, alcohol, BU, and more

* The flavor contributions of raw ingredients: malts, adjuncts, hops, water, specialty ingredients including details & contact information on raw ingredient suppliers

* Yeast: selection for style, propagation, sources, alternate fermentation organisms, handling multiple yeasts

* Brewhouse: dealing with difficult ingredients, sour mashing, adjunct use, alternate mashing techniques

* Fermentation: pitching rates, temperature effects, high-alcohol fermentation, multiple fermentations, specialty (steam, cream) and more

* Aging & maturation: effects of aging, storage on wood, bottle and cask conditioning

* Beer evaluation: benchmark comparisons, key attributes by style, off-flavors & aromas, competitive judging

dr wort said...

Don't know what happened the first time.... But interested to see your response.

dr wort said...

It keep saying my comment is too large! I shortened it...

Being a long time home brewer and involved in many judging comps, I understand how the BJCP guidelines work within the judging system. The fact that you seem to be ignoring is that these style guidelines are used to teach professional brewers. Brewers that are producing the beer that you state...

"Let's start with the broadest critique first: there's no such thing as style."

This is completely untrue. Professional brewers are taught all about brewing in-style based on the BJCP guidelines, ergo there is a major purpose for style guidelines for brewing base beers style. Styles that do exist and not a figment of our imaginations.
Whether they evolve or not; the styles do fluctuate, but they do exist.

Proof, you ask? Here it is...

From: http://www.siebelinstitute.com/course_desc/master_beer.html

Siebel Institute - The school is the oldest brewing school located in the United States and has been in operation since 1872.

Why would an Internationally known school for professional brewers acknowledge and use the BJCP Style guidelines to teach professional brewers if Beer Styles DON'T exist?

A description of their Beer Style COurse from their web site:

The Siebel Institute Master of Beer Styles course is designed to give professional brewers the skills they need to create award-winning ales, lagers and specialty beers. Using the styles guidelines created for the Association of Brewers' World Beer Cup, this course provides in-depth analysis of the techniques and technologies used to design and brew the full range of established and emerging styles.

Bill Schneller said...

As someone involved in treaching BJCP classes, I have to chime in. I, too, have a love /hate relationship with the guidelines and even the idea of the guidelines. Ron Pattinson has pointed out that people judged beer for a couple hundred years without any notion of "style" the way we see it now.

I think detailed style guidelines are valuable in a competition, because you define an ideal, even if it's somewhat broad, and then you judge an example against that theoretical, idealized example. But it also brings the unintended consequence of making many (all?) of us think in terms of "is this to style." And I absolutely hate that. I'm aware of it and am sometimes guilty of falling into that kind of style nazi mentality.

Before I bash them further, I will say that the BJCP gets better in general with each itteration, but that much of it is still horribly flawed and tends to force beers from around the world to fit our notion of styles. There's the whole alt/koelsch things about them being German "ales" when such a category doesn't exist in Germany. They're top fermented lagers legally in Germany, but that doesn't fit our US centric beer view where all beers are either ales or lagers and are divided by the yeast that's used. No wonder US Koelsch's taste like golden ales and not like lagers.

Like Sean and Olllllo, I'd point out that the BJCP was designed for homebrew competitions not for categorizing the worlds beers, but unfortuantely, that's what it's become. The styles as they define them are all about 30 years old (or newer); their history sections are often laughably bad, but become gospel truth to homebrewers. When I teach classes, I have a section for each style where we talk about what the BJCP misses, or where they get it wrong. The guidelines are far from perfect, but adequate for what they were designed for, but not at all for what they've become.

Much of them was drawn from Michael Jackson (careful, I'm about to blaspheme) and often times he made broad categorizaitons about beer that didn't exist previously. The whole difference between Northern and Southern English brown ales was essentially pulled out of thin air. It has no historical precedent but Jackson was writing at a time when their were two big brands of Brown Ale in England: Newcastle in the North and Mann's in the South, and each of those then typified a "style." Prior to Jackson, there was ale and then there was porter and stout. Porter and stout weren't considered ales, they were considered porter and stout. Totally separate beasts. I'm not faulting Jackson, because he was writing about beer when no one else seemed to care, but his opinions have also become gospel.

The real issues I have (on my seemingly endless rant) are with the BJCP adherents who don't realize that styles are nebulous and do change. They aren't fixed. And all that history they read in Charlie Papazian? It's all BS. But yet they remain, stalwart in their beliefs and ready to pounce on anyone who doesn't agree with their fairy tales even though they have no real proof of their beliefs other than the self-referential body of homebrewing literature. I think those BJCP zealots are the real issue.

Matt at Double Mountain said...

Excellently presented Jeff. I couldn't agree more. Strict adherence or reference to BJCP guidelines are a disservice to the public.

Matt
Double Mountain Brewery

dr wort said...

don'tBTW Jeff.... I didn't know you have a "relationship" with the BJCP.... As far as I know, you don't work with them; You don't lead classes for them; You don't hold a BJCP certificate. But you certainly do bitch about them and probably have never offered or asked to interact or work with them.

Your a "supposed" Beer guy, who loves to rant on about beer styles or at least BJCP beer styles... Even though your evaluation skills are limited. Maybe you can offer to teach one of the Siebel classes?! I'm sure you have something of importance to add to the Professional brewers curriculum!

All this crap being said, I will not deny that they have chronic ongoing organizational and PR Political problems. ;-}

olllllo said...

The fact that some are using the BJCP guidelines in ways that it was not intended tells me that there is a need for something very much like it. So what should replace it?

The BJCP is not the only style guideline out there.

Shouldn't professional brewers use and direct their comments toward the BA style guidelines http://www.brewersassociation.org/attachments/0000/2207/BA_Beer_Style_2010.pdf

or the ones for the WBC?

http://www.worldbeercup.org/pdf/2010_WBC_Style_Descriptions.pdf

Is this more useful than the BJCP style guidelines?

B. Subcategory: International Pale Ale
International-style pale ales range from deep golden to copper in color. The style is characterized by wide
range of hop characters unlike fruity, floral and citrus-like American-variety hop character and unlike earthy,
herbal English-variety hop character. Moderate to high hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma is evident. International
pale ales have medium body and low to medium maltiness. Low caramel character is allowable. Fruity-ester
flavor and aroma should be moderate to strong. Diacetyl should be absent or present at very low levels. Chill
haze is allowable at cold temperatures.
Original Gravity (ºPlato) 1.044-1.050 (11-12.5 ºPlato) ● Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato) 1.008-
1.014 (2-3.5 ºPlato) ● Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 3.5-4.3% (4.5-5.5%) ● Bitterness (IBU) 30-42 ● Color
SRM (EBC) 6-14 (12-28 EBC)
C. Subcategory: International Strong Pale


I don't believe so.

Jeff Alworth said...

Bill, agreed all around. I apparently didn't make it as clear as I intended, but I acknowledge that for judging purposes you have to have guidelines, and that the BJCP is adequate for that. (It's not great, but it's adequate.) My post was mainly about how the BJCP guidelines have now penetrated the world of casual beer fandom, and here they're inadequate.

Doc, sometimes you throw hissy fits to your own detriment. Just sayin'. It's particularly true when, in cases like a misreading of the definition of "relationship," you go on a rabid, ad hominem attack.

Now, to your point about professional brewers. Yes, they obviously need to understand beer styles, both current and historical. This is relevant to my point, how? As to Seibel teaching the BJCP styles, I can't say--I haven't taken the course. Your link, however, undermines your point. Nowhere that I see does it mention BJCP. Styles yes, but not the BJCP.

And nowhere in this post did I argue styles should be abandoned.

All of which will no doubt have little effect on the force of your rant. Carry on.

dr wort said...

OK... Jeff... at least I know your paying attention. You caught my rouse on the Siebel example! The Siebel Course is Based on the BA/WBC Style guidelines, not the BJCP. Just checking to see if you knew the difference. ;-}

The BJCP is flawed, as are their archaic descriptions. The BA/WBC are far better.

Going back to your original statement:

"there's no such thing as style."

You constantly want to blow your horn that Beer styles shouldn't exist or don't need to exist or don't exist. Don't know where you're ever going with this concept. Then, you'll back peddle and say they do exist and have a purpose. Which is it? Do Beer Styles have a purpose?

You said, "Yes, they obviously need to understand beer styles, both current and historical."

So... You're saying Beer styles are important and professionals need to study them, but the BJCP sucks? That I can agree on, but saying Styles don't exist and have no purpose is a soap box you need to get off.

Carry on with your mixed messages. ;-}

Bill Schneller said...

Jeff, I think you did make it clear. I was just kind of jumping on the band wagon in bemoaning how the BJCP has become the go-to authority for beer styles and how they're inappropriate for that. At least they're better than they were, but the US bias is still a bit of a problem. Olllllo's comment about using a screwdriver as a hammer is right on.

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