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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

What to do with styles?

I have been wrestling with this question over the past week: are bitter and pale ale two styles? What if you include American pales? Into my consciousness comes Alan McLeod, who offered this fascinating rumination on Michael Jackson and the origins of styles--the concept, not styles themselves.
What it really represents, as Martyn's article points out, is the beginning of a concept that he and others used to go on to define how we beer nerds think about beer. Yet, as far as I can tell, what we now call "styles" were really, in 1977, "types" to him. Consider this: these days the general convention is that 100% of beer brands need to fall into one style or another. There is no room left over for un-styled beer. Back then, by contrast, styles were not all the wedges on a pie graph. They were classic examples arising from groups. And groups related to types. For Jackson, at the outset, "styles" were still something of a hybrid idea somewhere between "type" and a further fifth category which he went on to call "classics" - which is an idea, from my reading, which leaned heavily towards the singular rather than the class. Perhaps archetypes. Or maybe just best beers ever. All very good ideas in itself to be sure. But ideas that were not yet fully formed.
The comment thread continues with interesting observations. Martyn Cornell, who wrote the story Alan was referencing, added this:
[I]t appears Michael's initial movements towards the concept of "beer styles" in the [World Guide to Beer] were not the same, more fully formed, ideas that he, and others, developed later. Certainly it's true that to begin with, Michael had no conception, explicit or implicit, that all beers had, of necessity, to be slotted into one style or another, and I'm not sure that he ever did: this was an idea that seems to have developed as the concept of beer styles themselves gained acceptance. If you're going to write about world beers for a world audience, though, especially an audience that was likely not to have drunk many/most of the beers you were writing about, the categorisation of beers into styles made the job of writing about those beers hugely easier, I'd suggest, which is why Michael pioneered and popularised the concept of beer styles, because he was a natural teacher and found, through the idea of beer styles, an easy way of teaching people about beer.
Stephen Beaumont continues:
In other words, he was liberating these beers from their national and, in some cases, decidedly regional straitjackets.... Today, on the other hand, we see beer style as the imposition of a different kind of straitjacket, as in, "this isn't really of this style because it doesn't look and smell and taste like A, B and C." Rather than liberating beer, this approach seeks to pigeonhole brands for ease of evaluation, or "rating."

The irony, of course, is that this is all occurring during a period of unprecedented innovation in brewing and internationalization of beer sampling opportunities. Which is why I suspect the GABF will soon be judging several hundred different beer "styles."

To which I'll add a modified version of my own comment there. I expect every beer writer confronts the question of style at some point and, like Jackson, many probably commit provisional, murky, and inconclusive markers to paper--some overly general and some overly specific. One day, I plan to do that, too, but I'm still not there yet; my thinking has yet to clear up to become just murky.

Three factors intrude on the discussion and I'm not sure how to handle them. The first is evolution. Beer styles change, sometimes very quickly. When we talk about "traditional," what do we mean? Take pale/bitter, for instance. On the one hand the style has evolved and individuated a bit. It has sort of split, but the overlap is pretty profound. Add to it American pale ales and you create a third thing at least as distinct as the first two are from each other--and one that has ricocheted back to Britain. So what to do? Porters/stouts, wit, spontaneously fermented American sours, American ales--these and many more have multiple definitions. Which to use?

That takes us to the second problem: the human desire to solidify things, which obviously runs smack into the changing nature of beer styles. Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell have done a lot to knock down some of the old myths Americans continue to tell about certain styles, but we're constantly making more. This Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale thing is a good example. No amount of arguing will convince me that a hoppy strong dark ale is in any way novel or deserving of special identification, yet we're well on the way to making it so. As a beer writer, I must acknowledge that, while BIPAs aren't really a new or unique style, they are a commercial style and a style many humans recognize. Like money, if enough people believe in them, they come to be.

Finally, beer styles should bring clarity to the discussion, not confusion. An ever more byzantine catalog of beer styles surely doesn't add clarity to understanding beer, but oversimplification doesn't, either. And, as Stephen notes, this age of unprecedented innovation needs to be documented in a way that allows readers to understand what connects different beers taxonomically and historically, but also to what distinguishes them. Are they innovations, or do they just seem like innovations to people who aren't familiar with the long history of the art?



  1. Maybe beers fall into styles the same way Wine can be broken down into varietals? This way we can easily discuss and identify similar qualities within a genius type?

  2. Jeff, check out Terry Foster's Pale Ale (2nd ed). There's some 50 pages in there simply about English Pale Ale vs Bitter vs IPA. To add in another wrinkle, many English breweries make a mild on draft and bottle it as a bitter, because bitters sell better on store shelves. To me the question is entirely marketing and labeling. Commercial brewing is less an art and more a consumer product, and its history must be catalogued as such.

    To anonymous, wine varietals are essentially tied to material origin. A california chardonnay is made with chardonnay grapes grown in california; a chilean malbec is made with malbec grapes grown in chile, and so on.

    Materialism should be a mandatory consideration of any kind of type description of beer, but thanks to process-blind style guides like the BJCP, it isn't. According to the BJCP, there are classic style examples of ESB made out of north american lager lager malt, and Vienna lagers out of corn and 6-row.

  3. Bill Schneller6:57 AM, May 04, 2011

    Wow Jeff, we may need a college of cardinals to debate this one. I'm also really interested in how styles are defined and change, but this is a debate I'm not sure I'd enter. I think a lot depends on how precise and how many sub-types you want to get into. If you go the overly obsessive and granular GABF route, yes, they're different (but don't ask me to define them and say where one bleeds over into the other because it's fraught with peril and I'm not convinced I believe they're that different), but if you look at broader more manageable categories they way I'm told less obsessive people do, I'd keep them the same. Interestingly, the obsessives in CAMRA/GBBF keeps them to three categories bitter, best bitter, strong bitter (note, not ESB as a style name).

    My pet idea for the more obsessive types who go the GABF route would be to split Mild into two categories: US and UK. US would be defined by the use of roasted malts for coloring (since so many US versions of Mild seem to use chocoalte or black malt for color) and UK would be made with dark sugar since most seemed to be brewed that way). If we needed more granularity, I'd break them into subcategories by days of the week when they meant to be drunk(ie, US Mild Monday style, UK Mild Wednesday style, etc.). That would give lots of leeway for people to make up history of each substyle (Monday Milds had 8% more alcohol than Wednesday mild because many mill workers in the midlands typically had crappy Mondays and needed a slightly stronger beer to keep them from beating their dogs, etc.)

    But debate whether Pale and Bitter are different? Not going there...

  4. Daniel,

    I've definitely been reading through the literature. Commerce definitely plays a role--once there appeared to be a market for beers called "Cascadian Dark Ales," breweries started labeling them that way. But it's not only commerce. Beers do differ. But how and in what degree....

    Bill, I hope you're being facetious about having eight different mild categories. Kill me now!

  5. Jeff, I am kidding about Milds - well mostly. Mild is one of these styles where homebrewer misperceptions about the beer have infiltrated how it's made in the US. There's this idea that small amounts of roasted grains are typical in Mild, but all of Ron P's research shows that in the UK dark sugars are where they get their color (at least through the 1960's). So we're actually creating a new style of beer based on our lack of knowledge of the original. It's interesting to watch a variant like this happen. It's style divergence in action.

    Same thing happened with US brewed Koelsch's. We've brewed them as "German ales" instead of top fermented lagers for so long, so most of the US ones taste like Golden ales and not like the real thing which are much more lager like. So we invented a new style. (Even the BJCP now recommends that most US brewed Koelschs's be judged as Golden Ales.)

    Sociologically, it's interesting to watch as we create a new variant all while thinking we're brewing the real thing.