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Saturday, February 28, 2009

What purpose do beer styles serve?

To my sort of incoherent post on beer styles below (my health improves, but slowly), Ethan John poses the right questions:
I guess I don't understand what the problem is. That it's harder to be a beer judge now? What negative consequence can more formally recognized styles possibly have?
Or, put another way, what purpose do beer styles serve? Certainly, when Michael Jackson began compiling books about world beer styles, there was a taxonomical purpose. In the 1970s, beer was at a low point of industrialization and consolidation, and the extant styles (some had actually died out) had been around for decades or centuries. He created an ethnography of beer, tracing the influence of history, regional climates and characteristics, and local ingredients in creating these styles. It was particularly useful for introducing the world to the full range of beer styles so that we had a sense of what existed and why.

The Brewers Association has essentially followed this model, forever adding styles every time a brewer does something different. The critique I have of their practice and methodology is that a) the new styles are now removed from the "ethnographic" context--adding coffee to a beer hardly creates a style as distinct and revolutionary as Czech brewers figuring out pale malts, b) the resulting categories aren't styles so much as ever sprawling categories of ingredients.

The result, rather than adding clarity to our understanding of beer styles, confuses it. In my earlier post, I used the example of a strong ales. There are now a whole raft of categories for what I would call a single, distinct style:
  • British origin: Other Strong Ales or Lagers
  • Imperial or Double India Pale Ale
  • Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer
There are actually more, like double red ales and barley wines and other high-alcohol beers. Distinguishing between the ones aged in wood and the ones aged in stainless is a distinction without a difference. It is also the case that the beer world is now international. I find the distinction between American-style ales and British-style ales wholly useless. There are regional variances between a Cascade-hopped NW pale ale and a Goldings-hopped London pale, but these do not constitute separate styles. In cooking, we wouldn't call a stew something else just because it didn't have potatoes.

And finally, distinguishing styles based on ingredients--there are a whole batch that exist only because of a single ingredient. But is a coffee stout remotely similar to a coffee schwarzbier?

If I were to play armchair psychologist, I would say we have this sprawling list because Charlie Papazian, a scientist, finds order in categories. Styles are an art, though. The purpose of having them at all is to bring coherence to a vast diversity of beers--not to merely create a name for every single variation.


  1. Wow, Jeff! I'm speechless! How long have you lived here in Portland? How much knowledge do you really have about BEER or even local Beer info??

    I'm beside myself on how you talk about Beer styles and the categorizing of beer styles without ONCE mentioning our local "BEER LEGEND" Fred Eckhardt!

    You know he's more than a guy who drinks beer and has a Hair of the Dog Beer named after him... ;-}

    For those new to the world of beer... and I guess I have to include Jeff....

    Michael Jackson did write the first Modern Book on Beer Styles, but the most complete book of BEER STYLES was written by our own Fred Eckhardt!

    "The Essentials of Beer Style: A Catalog of Classic Beer Styles for Brewers and Beer Enthusiasts
    By Fred Eckhardt"

    per Wikipedia:

    "The modern concept of beer style is largely based on the work done by the late writer Michael Jackson in his 1977 book The World Guide To Beer in which Jackson categorised a variety of beers from around the world into local style groups according to local customs and names.[1] In 1989, Fred Eckhardt furthered Jackson's work publishing The Essentials of Beer Style[2]. Although the systematic study of beer styles is a modern phenomenon, the act of distinguishing between different varieties of beer is ancient and widespread, dating to at least 2000 BCE."

    Along with writing The Beer style book, Fred also wrote books on Sake and Brewing Lager beer.

    I'm just amazed how the Words "BEER STYLE" and Fred Eckhardt don't appear in your posts! Can Mr. BEERVANA not know about the cornerstone BEER Legend of Portland??? I am disappointed and amazed! :-O

  2. Jeff, I agree this is a silly number of categories. For instance, I'm all for Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project, but how is Session Beer a style?

    But I think we should also keep in mind these guidelines are written for competitions. Granted, when a brewery wins a medal and advertises it got gold for the best Vanilla Beer Brewed Under A Full Moon then consumers may wonder about that "style."

    However it is nonetheless important to recognize the difference between categories in a competition and styles in "real life."

    I'd suggest this post by Ron Pattinson on Czech beer styles also adds something to the conversation.

  3. Stan, I think you're right about the judging aspect, but I think the incidence of metastasizing style categories weakens the GABF. At 141 categories, we have a potential 400+ medals. That a brewery wins--nevermind a gold, but a bronze--for "best Vanilla Beer Brewed Under A Full Moon" cheapens those breweries who have brewed exceptional beers.

    It's like the phenomenon of rewarding children for "graduating" from grade school. The problem isn't just that kids develop an off-kilter sense of accomplishment, but that they fail to distinguish between real accomplishment and phoney ones.

  4. Jeff, it doesn't change your point but the GABF collapses some of these categories so there are "only" 75 or so gold medals.

    So were you referring to 5th grade or 8th grade graduations ;>)

  5. sort of off-topic: i think they now celebrate a "graduation" from all the elementary school grades...i seem to remember someone saying their kid was having a 3rd grade graduation ceremony.

  6. Stan - agree on the "session beer", not really a style, maybe a category like "import", but it seems too broad. I also am uncomfortbale with use of "drinkability" as one of the defining characteristics of the seems to be a sad validation of marketing speak.

  7. Hate to say it, but right now there is a craft beer bubble, and this style creep is a symptom of it. There will be a culling of herd over the next few years.

    I don't celebrate this, because the more the merrier when it comes to beer, but still.

    And despite style-creep the breweries tend to follow each other around pretty closely. Everything is a double, imperial, strong or barley wine right now.

  8. Sam,

    Why let the marketers corner 'drinkability?' We've already largely ceded "crisp", a perfectly good beer descriptor, to them. Otherwise, we're left with Michael Jackson's "moreish," as in a beer that tastes like having 'more.' Okay, but I prefer drinkable, quaffable, poundable. I prefer having my options open, and I refuse to stop using a word just because ABIB marketers have seized it.

    "Session beer" a style... As if.