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Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Beer Styles Matter, and Why They Don't

All this week, there has been a great deal of discussion among the British beer bloggers about beer styles and the extent to which they are a pain in the ass. (It followed a seminar lots of local bloggers attended.) Of course, the conversation migrated to our continent, and Stan has a nice collection of links to the original post. Alan has his own very nice post. As I have talked about beer styles extensively here, I thought I'd take a pass. Yet the damn thing won't die, and so I have to weigh in. However, rather than go on too long about a well-discussed topic, I will pecha kucha things into two easy-reading paragraphs and you can ease into your weekend quickly.

Why Styles Matter
Most people don't know anything about beer. This is especially true in the US, where until the last generation we had rubbed out all memory of 99% of them. Styles matter because they organize beer by type, region, and history, and map out the terrain for folks who wonder why anyone bothers distinguishing between, say, Vienna lager and amber ales. In 1984, Orwell wisely observed that they "who control the past control the future." Beer styles did not emerge from the ether; understanding their history and context is enormously useful in understanding "beer" in the largest sense.

Why Styles Don't Matter
Ultimately, identifying styles just gives us names and a common vocabulary. Styles don't characterize the nature of a beer--they're just shorthand. Styles help collect beers together, but imprecisely--there's always overlap and confusion. Styles identify commercial products, and commerce has no fidelity to tradition. We can complain that the IPA from Brewery X is really just a pale ale, but so what? They can call it a platypus for all beer geeks can do about it. And of course, styles are constantly changing and evolving, so styles, even to the extent they're useful, are provisional.

Beer styles are like grammar. It's good to know the rules just so you know what you're doing when you break them.


  1. Coincidentally, I'll be brewing platypus-style beer this weekend but I'm going to keep this "style" a secret all to myself. ;)

  2. David, do you use fresh platypus, or is it dried? Or the pellets?

  3. RE: 'commerce has no fidelity to tradition'

    Recently in the Canadian Maritimes, I purchased a 6pack of Alexander Keith's IPA.

    Founded in 1820 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Keith is one of the oldest breweries in North America. Keith through Labatt is now part of AB-InBev. Keith's IPA lacks any similarity to India Pale Ale standards; present, recent past, or distant past.

    I wanted to report the brewery to the 'Style Police'; 'Beer Style Police', that is.
    Are they part of the RCMP?

  4. Great synopsis... especially summed up at the end: "Beer styles are like grammar. It's good to know the rules just so you know what you're doing when you break them."

    Similarities to musical genres, etcetera would also fit.