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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The DSM-ing of Beer Styles

[I'm out of town until September 18 and away from computers of all sorts. On the assumption that you won't have read every post from the past 3 years, I'm reposting a few favorites. See you soon.]

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.]

Originally posted March 6, 2008


  1. Nice post and a cool read... and I agree fully..... there doesn't need to be 1000 different styles when if you look at the foundation of styles.. there are still truly only a few. Reminds me of a post I just read at the beeradvocate web forum in which some folks want a new style written in... a "coffee" beer. I rejected the idea, and thought it was crazy, since any brew with coffee as an ingredient is already a stout, porter, or something else.... maybe add tags... but don't create a whole new style!

  2. Why on earth does "Style" matter to you so much? Why can't you accept a name as just a name and get on with your life? Can't you appreciate that in a world of infinite styles, anything is possible? You seem obsessed with order for order's sake. Why Jeff? Why?

  3. I nearly wholeheartedly agree. My one acception is gluten free beer. This beer is primarily brewed for the growing number of people with serious gluten allergies.

    Everyone with this allergy knows that gluten free beers are inferior to normal beer. However, since drinking normal beer for these people can cause serious medical problems, denoting that a beer is gluten free is necessary.

    Gluten free beer is relitively new to most brewers. It tastes very different from normal beer. Most people who drink it only do so because they truly love beer, but don't want to die. Finding the best possible gluten free beer is of the utmost priority to these people. Having a style or category of their own helps legitimize the beer, and increases the chances of someone actually making a good one.

  4. Anon, two things. First, I've posted 1200 posts on this site, so the consideration of beer styles is naturally going to appear. Those posts I tagged "beer styles" number all of six. Figure that I've failed to label another six and you've got a dozen. Figure that another dozen or two mention beer styles and you've got maybe 30 - 40 posts that treat the subject at all, or about 3%. If 3% qualifies as obsessive, we are all in very big trouble.

    You seem obsessed with order for order's sake.

    As for this comment, aren't I making exactly the opposite point? Less order, that's what we need.

  5. In terms of judging more styles can be helpful. What if someone makes a great beer taste wise, but because of a few extra hops is no longer in the running stylisticly? It creates a more level playing field where a beer is judged on it's own merits, and not on how ridgidly it fits a style. That being said sometimes they go over the top in categories