Wednesday 20 October 2010

Beer Style: Does it Matter?

Does beer style matter? Does it mean anything? That was the essence of the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual seminar this week. Three stood up and talked, giving their different views, then the floor added to it, and then, as we rose from the theatre-like seating, we continued our talk in small groups and one thing was clear: we all have different viewpoints.
Understanding beer style, for me, is split into two audiences: the informed few and the couldn’t-care-less many. The informed few want to understand style from a composition point of view, they have a vested interest in whether that beer is a porter or a stout, whether it’s a pale ale or a golden ale, of where it’s brewed, how and with what ingredients. These are the brewers, the marketers, the writers, the industry insiders, competition judges and those with a higher interest in beer. These are the people who want to know the ins and outs in order to dissect it and understand it. For this group it’s important to understand differences because they have a more challenging job: to explain these beers to everyone else.

To ‘everyone else’, there is little desire to pull apart a style guideline before drinking. They want to know one thing: how does it taste? It’s then a communications thing: how can the informed few tell the drinkers what it tastes like in the simplest, most effective way. It comes to presentation and included in this is a pump clip, the bottle label and the person selling it. If someone usually drinks Guinness then perhaps they’d like this porter (with a description of dark and roasty); if they usually drink Landlord then maybe they’d like this beer or that one (maybe with one described as a fruity and fragrant best bitter).

Being able to communicate style is key to being able to encourage people to drink good beer. It doesn’t matter that it’s an IPA, what matters is that it’s pale, 5% and really fruity with a dry finish. Would you like a sample before you order...? But the communicators face a different challenge.

To the people who do find beer style interesting it’s a real minefield. One thinks styles are moving targets, one says it’s evolution, one says style doesn’t matter, one says styles need to be rigid and others just don’t know. I think style is very important. Give me a beer called ‘Square’ and I have no idea what it is. Sure, I can drink it and say whether I like it or not - which is ultimately the most important decision - but something within me niggles to know, at the very least, what the brewer was aiming for (and what they want to tell others it is) as if knowing the style privileges me with extra information. It’s human nature to want to attach labels to things in order to understand them better.

Yet knowing style only helps to label something and a mild is a pallet of possibilities, likewise lager or IPA (order an IPA in a pub in England and then order one in a bar in America and you’ll probably get something very different; go back in time 50 years and it’s something else). What’s a best bitter taste like now? What does it look like? What did it look like 10 years ago and what will it be in 10 years time? It’s like trying to match a fixed point on a moving target, like pin the tail on the donkey, only harder. Maybe having 29 styles of lager is necessary to break it down further, but maybe this just makes it more confusing.

I’m interested in style because I’m interested in beer but it’s an open box of possibilities and one which is as fluid as the topic in hand. Most people don’t care about style, they just want to know what it tastes like. For those who do care then they have the challenge of trying to understand guidelines which are forever changing. But that keeps beer fresh. If guidelines were rigid and inflexible then all beer would taste the same as the others in its class and that’s not a good thing.

From Mantis Design
So how do you label style? Michael Jackson did a fine job of describing and distinguishing them. CAMRA keep it simple, only breaking things down into a number of categories, but I think it’s too reductive and needs expanding slightly. Alex at ALL Beer breaks it into the organism of fermentation – ale, lager and lambic – before breaking it down within those areas. The BJCP has 23 categories broken down into 79 different styles. Then there’s the Brewers Association style guideline which is enormous (over 130) and essentially ridiculous, exemplified by the following ‘style’: “Out of Category – Traditionally Brewed Beer... They may be light or dark, strong or weak, hoppy or not hoppy.” This document has ripped apart beer style and listed it scientifically and in doing so it has stripped an essential creativity from the process and placed restrictions on what style should be (and the worst thing? When beers are judged using this and they don’t exactly fit what the brewer has classified it as... they are removed from the judging table regardless of whether they are good or not!).

What is beer style? For me it’s a label the brewer puts on something they have made; it’s what they want the beer to be enjoyed as. If they call it an IPA but it’s closer to a golden ale then so what? It’s their beer and who are we to complain. It’s nice to have an understanding of style but if it goes too far then it can strip the soul from a good beer. And probably the stupidest thing is saying that they need to be categorised in order to be judged in competitions... Whatever. Yes, style is important, and yes it’s important to pass on information about it, but it needs to be done simply or it just confuses everyone. Leave it to the brewer to tell us what they want their beer to be seen as, then we can drink it and enjoy it (or not) for what it is and tell others how it tastes.

Style: what do you think? Does it matter? Do you care whether something is labelled as a best bitter but tastes more like a mild, is it important that your pale ale is ‘to style’? And how can we communicate what different styles are like in the easiest way?

The Many Varieties of Beer from here. Style spectrum
from here. Periodic table of beer from here


  1. Morning mate. I used to be really hung up on style when I was younger, slatng beers for not fitting, and confusing the hell out of me! Then, I started homebrewing. I realised that Beers that I wanted to make might not fit the 'Style Guidlines' set out in various reference books/sites. So over the last 2 years, I would say that personally, style is nothing more than a touchstone for me. However - I do cherish it as just that - a marker, a guide, something to put you in the 'ballpark'. Sometimes, people (newbies especially) need it to guide thier way. Once there, they can slip the leash and do thier own exploring. So basically, I'm sitting on the fence a little, but to me personally - it's not something I take too seriously these days.

  2. BTW - that awesome 'many varieties of beer' poster? Set is as your desktop background, it looks great!

  3. Agreed - your first illustration - so long as I never have to tae it seriously and actually use it, is bloody lovely.

  4. Leigh - I like what you are saying. One of the comments on Monday was from a brewer saying that beers should be made based upon what the brewer wants it to taste like, not what a style guide says it should be like. My thoughts change all the time: I'm interested in style from a geeky point of view which is interested in trying to understand beer better but I'm also in the 'does it really matter?' mindset where it's good that things are flexible and evolutionary...

    As for the top image, it's pretty cool, but it makes me dizzy!

  5. I only really notice style when it gets in the way - if something's labelled as one of the styles I like and doesn't taste how I think it ought to, I feel let down. If a beer does taste like one of the styles I like, I don't care how it's labelled.

    I reckon that as long as they can tell us whether it's bitter, mild or stout - and if it is bitter whether it's pale-ish or dark-ish - that's all you need to know. And sometimes not even that. I've been halfway through a pint before I realised I was drinking an unusually light stout rather than an unusually dark old ale (and I'm still not sure what I'd call Dark Island).

  6. Back in the old days of Usenet me and my Yank buddies use to take the piss out of the style police. It was us I believe that coined the phrase "Good or Shite?" That is too basic, but actually for 90+% of drinkers will probably be good enough. Most like to drink, not analyse.

    I do kind of like Leigh's argument that style is a touchstone and something to put you in the ballpark. When you get down to it, it can be useful in a broad sense; then you know that you like stouts, or pale hoppy beers etc. We all have to start somewhere and style in a real way, helps in that process, though I'm of the broad brush ilk for that purpose. (I am generally, except in some limited cases which I won't bore you with.)

    When it goes too far though, it becomes anal. That's why most people with any sense take what the Americans do with a pinch of salt when they extrapolate their categories, designed for their own purposes, (beer judging) into the real drinking world. They are perfectly entitled to the former, but not the latter.

    Lastly for now, what the brewer is aiming at in taste profile is well and good - though in most cases you'll never know - but I wouldn't trust them on style any more than the next man.

  7. I know it's a homebrewing text, but if you've not got it, check out Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher. Not only is it incredibly useful, easy to understand and gorgeously illustrated, the main theme in it is in fact 'brew what you what'. Some of his mixed-up styles sounds great -Chipotle Stout, Passionfruit Wheat and Jaggery Pale ale amongst many, many more. You should be able to pick it up cheap enough on Amazon etc...

  8. Numerous debates about beer styles have posed me a fairly awkward question — what are beer writers/bloggers for? Are we there to be another arm of the brewing industry or are we there to be independent observers of the industry? Can we really talk about the art of brewing when our angst about beer styles is about communicating with the drinker? We obviously have a relationship with the industry or we wouldn’t visit breweries or taste beer but to what extent are our views on beer styles influenced by said relationship with the industry? Should we be doing their job for them? Just a thought.

  9. To me there are two styles of beer; good & bad. I can see how it works for competitions and for describing beer to people who relate to it in that fashion but when I go to the bar I'd rather be told it's hoppy, roasty, sweet, sour etc. rather than being told a style.

  10. You forgot to reference a large segment of the population: the informed couldn’t-care-less many. I think ATJ has made progress towards the connection. Style interests those who have an interest in style - and often it is a monetary interest, though it is often the interest of status. Writers seeking comfortable compensation are better rewarded when their subject matter is complex. Consultants are not needed when their clients do not face the obscure. Judges need something rarified to judge. Style as currently structured helps those on the receiving end.

    Would things be different if taste were the primary basis for a consumer focused classification system? Not sure.

  11. I like styles for consumer education, but rarely brew to exact style guidelines. I sense education of beer styles (or types) will need to evolve as more brewers break style, and consumers have difficulty understanding what is in their glass.

  12. I think styles are useful as a very broad guide for the homebrewer, but agree that the casual or new craft beer drinker does not find them particularly useful - and certainly most of my favorite beers don't conform to any strict style guidelines, which I'm happy to declare, even as a BJCP judge.

    Yes, it's helpful to give and receive feedback when you're judging or making something that is intended to be a very specific end product, but it also cuts out a lot of creativity. I like the approach of the bitter -> sweet continuum (and we could certainly include more education so that the aforementioned new converts don't assume that dark must equal heavy or bitter), but I think even most of my fellow geeks want to know two things: 1) is it good? and 2) how alcoholic is it? Obviously the first is subjective, and it can help to have a general category as a descriptor, but I think the second measure is useful to know how many I can sensibly sample (I'm only little!).

  13. Grr... just realised I put 'is' instead of 'it' as the title for this blog and now when I try to change it it completely buggers up the formatting!! Silly blogger. Anyway, I do know that it's very wrong but you all know what it's meant to be, right?!

  14. I must admit I haven't read the post, nor the comments yet. But I still want to answer to the question of the title.

    No the don't. Or at least, not as much as way too many people believe.

    They are useful to give you a certain idea of when you are at a shop or a pub looking at a beer you've never heard of, but that's just about it. And even then, if that said beer happens to be "not true to style", it still should be judged on whether it was a nice drink or not. And that's it, at least to me.

  15. Tandleman - I agree with you. Style is a good starting point but it should be broad. As for 'trusting' the brewer on style... it's the same as believing any style guide, the thing with taking a brewer's word is that this is what they want their beer to be judged (in the general sense, not necessarily competition) as by others. If they call a pale-ish beer made with lots of crystal malt and hopped with Amarillo and they want to call it a kolsch, then fine, that's what they want people to view it as.

    ATJ - is the beer writer's job to communicate all round? It's about taking a subject, understanding it and presenting it to others in the best possibly way. It's also about knowing the audience and being able to pitch it right. But, in a way, we are helping the breweries, but then that's in the general interest of the industry, so it's not a bad thing.

    Alan - the informed-couldn't-care-less is an interesting other group, but it's almost contradictory? To get the level of information there needs to be an element of caring, right? So is this something which disappears over time or are the lessons learned through dispassionate ears and eyes?! Then when it comes to telling others there's an interpretation of the information to make it most accessible for others which has to come from an informed place.

    Lisa - I like the visual continuum scales which 'show' taste and I think they work well on bottles. Does it then become a threshold that people want to cross and once they pass that they want more information? Style is a guideline and it's there to be stretched!

  16. Mark - Exactly. I wasn't having a pop at brewers, just saying that in the way of things style isn't the answer. I agree it's nice to know what they are aiming at, so if the description was "upfront hops against a strong malty base and a long lingering bitter finish" I'd know what he was trying to do. If he said an "IPA" it wouldn't be that helpful.We'd be back to "what is an IpA?"

  17. Tandleman, that is exactly the right sort of one line tasting note that tells the customer what the beer is like. much better than any Cyclops descriptions I've seen.

  18. @ATJ Should bloggers/writers be doing anything at all? Do we have a role and responsibility within the industry? Does it depends on our motives?

    If the answer is we should be doing something shouldn't we storming the gates of Tetley Carlsberg and Enterprise Inns in a bid to bring equality and brotherhood to the beer industry, or is that down to the French beer writers and bloggers?!

  19. To worry about a style is to go beyond whether something should be enjoyed at base level.

    I spent far too many years reviewing night clubs, DJs and releases where the "punters" would throw an absolute wobbly if you placed a certain tune in the wrong genre.

    I've also known DJs who would whimsically invent new genres just to see how long it took for club (in the case of beer - pub) bores to start proclaiming something as the latest sound, and that they've been in to it for years - only for it to consist of one track, one mickey taking DJ - who set up a trap for lots to fall in to.

    The other thing about relying too heavily on style is that people will instantly discount something - if they've not enjoyed that style before. Was having a chat at work about a colleagues friend who won't drink French wine because they don't like it - but love Chardonnay and Merlot???

    In a (few) word - an emphasis on styles only creates a reason not to like something

  20. Mark: that is a good point but there is no requirement that anyone believes in something to understand it. Like any rhetorical argument or arbitrary construct, style is just a set of allegations, an overlay. Critical review requires that it be tested and it can only be tested well by being informed. So, when you think about it, the informed-couldn't-care-less is the only group to be trusted, especially with a subject matter with so much elbowing for an associated pot of personal interest that is cash, recognition, access to brewers / media and those beery treats delivered to your doorstep for free..

  21. Mark — I agree with communicating but surely we are an independent arm of communication through blogs, papers, magazines, visual art and even poetry, while the Beer Academy, Cask Marque etc are the ones in ‘the industry’ talking to the punters. And if we do have an influence in ‘the industry’ that is positive then all well and good.
    Mark Real Ale — do film writers have a responsibility to further the career of Spielberg or Julian Fellows or do they celebrate the art of film-making and films with a critical eye? As for storming the gates of Tetley what happens afterwards? ;-))

  22. @ATJ Drink the good stuff, throw the rest in the Aire and head to the nearest proper Yorkshire pub or a pie and a pint!

    You in?!

    As for writing, your film writers anecdote is no different - depends on the writers motives for writing!

  23. Mark
    “Drink the good stuff’ that won’t take long then will it!!
    My days as a protestant are long over…

  24. Beer style continues to inspire and obfuscate me at the same time. I believe our heirarchal systems that exist today (TBA guidelines, BJCP, etc.) are principally flawed. In many regards, these guidelines serve the purpose of educational foundation but lack the flexibility to be adaptive at the rate which modern brewing is changing. Much like a brewer or drinker may have differing objectives and levels of desired granulatity, we should construct an adaptive guideline which allows the brewer to be as descript or non-descript as they see fit.