What’s in a Style, Anyway?
There’s been a lot of discussion online lately about the utility and value of beer styles in general, mainly among some of the European beer bloggers I read. There seems to be a growing consensus that current style conventions are overly complex, “a mile deep and an inch wide,” too beholden to history, etc.
For millennia, there really wasn’t a such a thing as “beer styles,” — beer was quite simply beer. Locally made, typically in the home alongside the daily bread, according to old practice. Only those who traveled widely (and few did) would realize that the beers made according to traditions in, say, Scotland differed from those in Bohemia (to name only two examples). For those situations, it was enough to make some general statement about color — typically “light” or “dark” to some degree — and perhaps to append some place moniker to the descriptor, “of the kind they make in Flanders,” would have been plenty descriptive for the time.
It was only with the work of the Beer Hunter Michael Jackson in the seventies that the modern taxonomic hierarchy of beer styles came into its own. While Jackson’s work was far from perfect, he basically codified the broad outlines of the beer styles that we use today. One of the things he did best in this regard was to set up a nested scheme of styles, much as a biologist uses taxonomic nomenclature to describe a species.
Consider the human species. Even non-biologists will know that we are generally referred to as Homo sapiens, but it doesn’t stop there. The full branching list describing our species is detailed here, and can be summarized Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo sapiens sapiens. (The second sapiens is not a typo — it represents our subspecies as compared to the now-extinct neanderthalensis.) Each term in that long chain represents a differentiation of one particular species from a larger group, so that one could speak of all the species of genus Homo, or drill down and speak of one of the subgroups.
Back to beer, then, we can say that we have two large overarching groups that cover some 99+% of beer styles: ales (top-fermented) and lagers (bottom-fermented). From there, we subdivide based on historical and regional branching for the most part, recognizing that brewing regions developed flavor profiles that differentiated themselves from other areas. A German kolsch and an English porter might both have been ale styles developed around the same time (give or take a century or two) but they come from very different brewing traditions and have very different flavors.
I think the issue that people are having recently is the feeling that maybe we’re chopping a bit too finely on the style markers, and judging by incredibly selective criteria. Does it really make sense to argue whether one American IPA is more west-coast or east-coast, especially given that brewers (unlike biological organisms) are not beholden to their regional style characteristics and can cross-pollinate from anywhere (whereas in biology evolution constrains future development, i.e. dogs cannot breed with cats to gain characteristics lost from a remote ancestor)? This is where thinking of beer styles as a nested hierarchy helps us, as we can always back up a rung and talk about a particular beer within a larger sub-group; if we can’t decide of that IPA is more west or east coast, we can always simply refer to it as a simple IPA (a luxury the biologists don’t have, short of declaring a single-species genus or similar).
In short, I’d rather see us spend less time dickering over the details of style guidelines (although it’s all in good fun for those who like enjoying the hobby that way), and more time appreciating the diversity and uniqueness in a particular glass of beer. Whether an IPA is more east or west coast is much less important than being able to appreciate a particular beer for exactly what it is, to admire the exact flavors you get in the glass, and to enjoy it!
That said, styles do have a big place in marketing, reviewing, and understanding. If a brewer calls a beer an English IPA, I have very different expectations that I would if she called it a West-Coast IPA, let alone than if she called it a pale lager or a stout or whatever. A style is a label that sets the tone for what I’m expecting from the beer, and in that sense styles are very useful.
As the industry grows over time and more and more beers become available, I expect the list of available styles to grow as well, as the more basic categories get “filled in” and brewers start to sub-divide more and more finely to properly describe their beer. In the IPA category, I wouldn’t be at all surprised in twenty years to see brewers simply start describing their beers by the hop variety that provides most of the flavor; calling a beer an “Amarillo IPA” tells me a lot more than just “West Coast,” if I know my hops properly. It’s just a natural growth of the market.
Your thoughts on styles? I know this is a bit rambling, but beer styles are such a fundamental part of the hobby that it’s hard not to have some kind of strong opinions on them. Ultimately, though, all we’re talking about when we talk about styles is how we organize things, how we do the “paperwork” of the hobby. What’s in the glass, the beautiful boozy elixir, is really where the fun is.