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Friday, March 21, 2014

Style Ontology and the Everyman Rule

One of the constant, unanswerable questions in the universe of beer concerns style.  A gueuze and a pilsner are obviously different beasts, and noting the history, national tradition, and methods of each helps us understand them.  But what about the difference between a German pilsner and helles?  Or, since it has been a topic on the blog this week, Irish and English stout.  One of the blog's best commenters, Daniel Warner, characterizes the thorny issue beautifully in this paragraph:
It's not really a historical question, but one of ontology. Does changing brown for patent malt change the essential nature of a porter? Which is to say, a dark beer of the style made in the UK, made like most UK beers of a combination of UK-style pale malt and cereal adjunct, with UK style top fermenting yeast and UK-style hops. All beers made in the region are made using similar styles and methods, so the "Irish" type is at best a subtype, and one I'm not convinced exists, given that brown malt was phased out almost entirely over the next few decades. [My bold.  Incidentally, "ontology" is concerned with the nature of being.]
There's actually a lot more, including a nice contribution from the Beer Nut.  I won't re-litigate the arguments here--you can go have a look and see where you fall on the (unresolvable) debate.

Source: Beer Growler/Juliano
It reminds me of a dimension to this discussion I've often wanted to include.  The question of style shifts before our eyes depending on what criteria we happen to be using at the time: history? brewing methods? ingredients?  They're all relevant, and depending on what style you're arguing for, you can make a case that a style exists based on a particular criterion.   To help cut through some of the over-considered haze, I'd like people to consider the everyman rule:  If you sat a random person in front of two beers, could she tell the difference?  This is not meant to trump any of the other ways of thinking about beer, just to clarify them.  A random person isn't going to be able to distinguish between a German pilsner and a helles.  Or Dortmund export.  On the other hand the everyman rule would, I think, support a difference between Irish and other kinds of stouts (even if we had to run it as a thought experiment in mid-19th century Dublin).

It's relevant partly as a check against hyper-geekiness.  When you spend a lot of time studying, brewing, and drinking beer, you tend to see subtle differences as gaping chasms.  But I spend a lot of time drinking beer with non-beer geeks, and I sometimes have the emperor's-new-clothes experience when I'm attempting to justify how one beer is meaningfully different from another.  To beer geeks, yes, the distinction between San Diego IPA and Portland IPA has meaning.  To everyone else, this is pointless hair-splitting.  Unless we want beer to become a tangled world of byzantine complexity, it's wise not to ignore that view.  The everyman rule is a good check on over-thinking style.


  1. My Mum divides beer into about four categories: stoutish, wheat beerish, lager, bitter. Most drinkers couldn't tell the difference between a pint of dark mild or a pint of porter if it wasn't written on the pump clip. In fact, nor could I about 80 per cent of the time.

  2. As the number of "official" beer styles continues to balloon outwards, it's inevitable that you'll get convergent evolution, and it has ever been thus. Black IPA is a prime example: two of my favourite Irish beers at the moment are Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX Stout and Kinsale Black IPA. I think their respective style designations owe more to the fact that the former was first brewed in 1996 and the latter in 2013 than any difference in recipe specs, methods or historical antecedents.

    I like Pete Brown's thesis that we need designate no more than 7 or 8 different types of beer, tops. Anything more is overthinking style.


  3. I'm not sure that such a debate is "unresolvable" and I think the appeal to philosophy here (by way reasoning from ontology) is informative. Many "unresolvable" debates in philosophy are more or less resolved in the minds of philosophers. The mind-body split is one such resolved unresolvable debate. least resolvable by our current epistemological/methodological instruments.

    If there is a true ontological difference between these styles, we should have the tools necessary to discern what that difference is. Your "everyman" test, if a little legalistic, is a good start. Similarly chromatography and chemical analysis would be good too. Why just the random chap, why not judges?

    Because of variance between batches, and variation between brands, we won't come to a hard line that separates the two styles, even if such a line holds _in reality_. However, the evidence should nevertheless express itself in a noticeable and reproducible way. If it does, philosophy yields to science. If it doesn't hold, then philosophy holds sway and the debate remain "unresolvable"..._for now_.

  4. Beer Nut, I have made a similar point about just a few styles, but for some reason people remember Pete's observations more than mine (funny, that). On the other hand, to Jim's point...

    "Similarly chromatography and chemical analysis would be good too. Why just the random chap, why not judges?"

    My grand European beer tour was incredibly enlightening, and afterward I was less confident about my opinion of styles than before. Germans (or Bavarians), for example, are very, very clear on the style differences between helles and pils. They even distinguish between north German pils and Bavarian-style. And, from their perspective, they have ever reason to.

    This is just the problem: each way of establishing style is internally valid, but they don't all reconcile. And they're not about to change their definitions just to make things taxonomically-coherent. I'd argue that the geek has to accept them all and admit some humility, but also recognize that there's the regular joe version in which you've really got about nine styles (by my count.)

  5. The nine styles: pale lagers, dark lagers, hoppy American ales, English cask ale, sour ales, Belgian ale, dark ales, wheat beers, and flavored beers.

  6. "I'd argue that the geek has to...admit some humility." And therein lies the problem...

  7. Mmm . . . . the use of brown malt isn't what distinguished Irish Stout from English Stout. It was the use of "heading".